New HOFer John Schuerholz’s greatest feat with Braves was creating air of continuity
John Schuerholz is the latest Hall of Famer among the central figures from the Braves' 1990s dominance — which included a run of 14 consecutive division titles and the 1995 World Series championship — with the former general manager named Sunday as a selection from the Today’s Game Era Committee.
The following is excerpted with permission from 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told' by Cory McCartney (Sports Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, 2016)
The Royals were in a state of turmoil. John Schuerholz loved his job at a place he affectionately refers to as “the IBM of the American League: rock-solid, blue-chip, reliable.” But the franchise was going through a transition in ownership and the general manager was stuck in the middle.
Aging owner Ewing M. Kauffman had taken on a partner in 1983 in Avron Fogelman, a Memphis-based, 45-year-old real estate mogul. He had purchased 49 percent of the team for $10 million and had an option to buyout Kauffman entirely for an additional $10 million, no later than 1992.
Fogelman had designs on altering the way Kansas City operated, and he tabbed Schuerholz to put his vision into effect. It made him the poster boy for the changes in a front office that was still loyal to Kauffman and team president Joe Burke.
“It was a little instability going on,” Schuerholz said.
Years later, with that negativity still brewing in Kansas City, Schuerholz was in New York for a meeting of MLB's Player Personal Development Program. A collection of owners, executives, and players' association members, they were working on a program to make opportunities available for MLBers after their careers were over.
“Many of them made monies, in those days not as much as they're making now, but they made a lot of money and they hadn't tended to that well,” Schuerholz said. “They didn't have any plans for after-life professions or jobs or planning at all.”
He was joined on that committee by Rangers owner and future forty-third president of the United States, George W. Bush, and Braves president Stan Kasten.
Their meetings concluded, and with time to kill before their flights, Schuerholz offered Kasten a ride to the airport in his rental car. Kasten had another idea: They could go to Yankee Stadium to catch a few innings beforehand.
During their drive to the Bronx, Kasten confided in Schuerholz. “I'm going to keep Bobby Cox in the dugout . . . and I'm looking for a general manager.”
That previous June, Russ Nixon had been fired as manager and Cox, who was serving as GM, had taken on both roles. Kasten figured that Schuerholz, who had ten years in as the Royals' general manager, could be a resource.
“You're at the top of your game and you know a lot of guys,” Kasten told him. “Think of any names, send them to me.”
Schuerholz had helped turn the Royals into a force. He joined the expansion team in 1969, leaving behind the Orioles, whom he joined in 1966 after teaching at North Point Junior High in Balti-more. Working on a master's degree at Loyola University, he wrote a letter to Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger that got his attention.
Less than three years later he was in Kansas City, serving as farm director, then scouting director and assistant GM before his promotion in the 1981 offseason made him the youngest general manager at 41.
Under his watch, the Royals finished lower than third in the American League West just once, and claimed three division titles and the 1985 World Series. He was part of the scouting department that drafted future Hall of Famer George Brett in the second round in 1971.
Schuerholz told Kasten he'd think about it and would get him a list of potential candidates, though there was one he kept coming back to: himself.
“Thought about it and thought about it and thought about it and things for me, personally, were altering the landscape in Kansas City, which was remarkable for most of my existence there,” Schuerholz said.
When he returned to Atlanta he would call Kasten repeatedly, going over what he was looking for in a GM. Finally, after enough of those conversations, Kasten—who would later tell Schuerholz he wasn't baiting him with their initial talk—finally asked him.
“Are you interested in this job?”
“Maybe I am,” Schuerholz replied.
On October 10, 1990, the 50-year-old was announced as the Braves GM, with Kasten saying, “I drew up a list of criteria and he was at the top of each individual measure. He was our number-one candidate. We got the very best guy we could and the only one I offered the job to.”
Schuerholz was leaving what he calls “one of the most valued and appreciated and honored franchises in the American League” for a franchise that was an MLB-worst 65–97 the previous season, and which finished last in the National League West in four of the five previous seasons.
What, exactly, was he thinking?
“The world was shocked that I was leaving Kansas City to come here. The baseball world I guess,” he said.
For those who were a part of that stunned segment of the population, Schuerholz would address it on the day of his hiring, and do so in his typically blunt fashion.
“Whatever horror stories you may have thought I've read or heard about the Braves, I have the confidence in my ability to get the job done,” Schuerholz told reporters. “I'm not making any promises and there's no timetable. I don't believe in a quick fix.”
Maybe he should have, bringing in key veterans that offseason to aid 1991's stunning run to the World Series. With Cox, Schuerholz would form one of the greatest manager/GM tandems the game has seen.
That run of fourteen straight division crowns couldn't have happened without The Architect's ability to, year-in and year-out, maintain the Braves' core and add to it with youth and veterans.
“That, to me, has always been my view as a general manager for twenty-six years, that the best opportunity you have to put a winning team together and have it sustained over a long period of time, is to have the right mix of complementary players,” Schuerholz said.
“Not an accumulation of individual star talent, people playing in different positions, but how they all mesh together. That was what I tried to do in all of my conversations with scouts, with every-thing I tried to do in putting together a team was about that.”
During Schuerholz's run—which would last until October 12, 2007, when he stepped into the role of team president and was replaced by his assistant GM, Frank Wren—that may have been his biggest feat, maintaining that mix of continuity and new blood.
“It was a strategy, it was a plan. It was a process,” he said from his office overlooking Turner Field. “We averaged ten new players a year throughout that run. It was easy to determine who your then-current core players were for a one- or two- or three-year period.
“You knew who were the most important elements of your team, who were productive, reliable, consistent, strong-willed, will to win, warriors, leadership, all those things. And it changed over time.”
Pieces of that core were already in place from 1990 in the likes of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Ron Gant, David Justice, and Mark Lemke. He would bolster that group with veterans Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, Charlie Leibrandt, Otis Nixon, and Deion Sanders that offseason, and add reliever Greg McMichael and deal for Alejandro Pena in-season.
“John Schuerholz had all those pieces there in the minor leagues and he knew how to put some veterans with that thing and he did it every year,” Pendleton said. “He went out and made a deal to find that next guy to help us get to that next level or get us to the level we needed to be. It made it special. He knew what he was doing.”
Over the years Greg Maddux would step in, while Bream and Pendleton stepped out. Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko emerged and Otis Nixon moved on.
Mix in a free agent or big trade chip—see Fred McGriff—bring up a prospect or two, or three, but don't trade away valuable young players for veterans. That was one of the hallmarks of Schuerholz's time as GM, as the Braves bucked popular thinking and didn't shy away from allowing their prized prospects to take on key roles.
“Some guys' contracts ran out that we couldn't afford,” Schuerholz said. “Some guys started to lose ability that we offloaded. Young guys moved into that,” he said. “Somebody like Chipper Jones shows up and all of a sudden he's part of that core. It changed, but we knew, we identified well, mostly accurately, who that core was.”
During that string of first-place finishes, only Smoltz would be a part of all fourteen teams. But the outside perception, because they would have a flow of pieces in that foundation that changed after a few years, was one of consistency.
“It seemed like it was a great deal of stability here, because we won every year,” Schuerholz said, “and it seemed like the Braves played the same kind of baseball under the great leadership of Bobby Cox.”
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.' are now available.