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Need Pujols? Not if you have good GM
What I learned walking the halls of the Hilton Anatole Hotel for Day 3 of Major League Baseball's winter meetings can be summed up rather easily:
1. There are a lot of 21-year-old dudes in desperate need of a girlfriend to tell them a nice lilac or check shirt makes a black interview suit seem not quite so uniform.
2. My heels were just underneath baseball's recently instituted dress-code height requirements, and a mistake.
3. Activity is too often confused with winning at the winter meetings. There was all kinds of breathless talk about teams "doing things" even when those things were dubious, if not downright stupid. Giving 10 years to anybody, even The Machine, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, is stupid.
As former Cleveland and Texas general manager John Hart loved to say, you do not want a star setting on you. It is why, in this sports landscape nowadays, players need to become shows we enjoy in their brief time in our laundry. And before it is time and despite all our love, we have to be willing to say goodbye.
The days of the athlete as the face of a baseball franchise are waning. The general manager is the new rock star.
The smart teams let somebody else agree to give Pujols 10 years and $254 million and a strict constructionist trade clause, as the Angels did Thursday morning. They do this even though sentimentality says Pujols — who will be in his 40s when this new deal ends — should retire as a Cardinal and fans should love him. They do so because, ostensibly — and I am just guessing in the case of the Cardinals and Pujols — they have been scouting another kid since forever and trust themselves enough to believe he is the younger version. They let somebody else buy the hamstring pulls, the declining numbers, the awkward conversation about not playing every day. They find somebody else for their fans to fall in love with in coming seasons.
If your team has the right guy in charge, he does it seamlessly.
And this is where the transformation of the general manager into a face-of-franchise rock star is born.
"Obviously with the amount of movement, with players not as static, what it does is emphasize the importance of your team, and I am not talking about players," Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "I am talking of your baseball ops team."
General managers are the new stars. These are the guys who might be with your teams for years and have more overall impact than the individual players who come and go . . . which is crazy, and not.
Growing up in St. Louis, the 1982 Cardinals were a formative piece of my childhood. I was like 6 when they won the World Series. I had a Bob Forsch T-shirt and baseball cards for almost every player. And yet I sat around for 30 minutes trying to think of the name of the general manager of that team.
It turns out it was Joe McDonald.
Who is Joe McDonald? I have no idea. And Google turned up scant helpful information. He assumed the role from Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who had been serving as both, in April 1982. McDonald was a baseball lifer. He did not do anything of real note that season except shepherd a draft that brought Todd Worrell, Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman. This is not to deride this action, which obviously netted players who contributed to World Series trips in 1985 and 1987. It is more to note the lack of transactions.
There certainly was no book written about McDonald. Nor is Brad Pitt likely to play him in a movie.
"Moneyball" — both movie and book version — is why Oakland's Billy Beane is the Bruce Springsteen of the rock star GMs. He is credited for revolutionizing the job, opening doors for guys like new Cubs GM Theo Epstein, Jon Daniels in Texas and Andy Friedman in Tampa Bay. Few of these people, mind you, look much like rock stars at all.
Their appeal is their brains. They are very much a part of nerdy chic, so popular nowadays.
They are the faces of their franchises, with fans siding with general managers more and more in player disputes. It is because they trust them, or more likely trust their track records. I look at Daniels as a Kanye, hyped and living up to every inch. He took a Rangers job that was unenviable and turned them into a perennial contender. His assistant, Thad Levine, will be a GM one day, too.
What Friedman did with limited help in Tampa is Adele impressive. And Neal Huntington and Alex Anthopoulos have become Free The People-like sensations in Pittsburgh and Toronto, respectively. It is not a young thing, a small-market thing or even a "Moneyball" thing, it is smart guys like Doug Melvin in Milwaukee and Brian Cashman in New York using what they have to their advantage.
Of course, then there is Theo.
He is Bono, a rock star among rock stars for many reasons, including being the guy to finally win a World Series in Boston. No matter what happens the rest of the offseason, one of the biggest stories was general manager Theo Epstein going from Boston to the Cubs. It might very well be the biggest move of this offseason. He could be there longer and have more of an impact than any big-hitting first baseman.
You can live without Pujols, probably thrive, if you have the right general manager.
He will get you the right director of scouting, the right guy to pick through the numbers, the right manager, the right eyes in Latin America — and will listen to all of them. This is the guy you cannot afford to lose. This is the guy you sell. It will be only a matter of time before we start wearing Theo jerseys and trading general manager cards — I'll give you an A.J. Preller for two rookie scouting directors. GM might be a better franchise face because anybody can become one. This is not to say anyone can be good just that not physical limitations like short, skinny and uncoordinated do not disqualify.
Just remember, when you go to apply, wear a colored shirt with that black suit. It is how rock stars dress.
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