|Wednesday, June 26
Schuerholz deserves serious consideration for Hall
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
When John Schuerholz first became a general manager in 1981, he was the Kansas City kid, the 41-year-old rookie among GM veterans like Paul Owens, Hank Peters and Dick Wagner, names that defined how to run a club in the '70s. But a new day was dawning. Those who couldn't juggle bottom lines with batting lines fell away, leaving baseball's new world to a newer breed. And now, 21 years later, Schuerholz not only has mastered that juggling act, he has accomplished even more than those old luminaries -- and staked out a rare claim to the Hall of Fame.
It's easy to forget that club executives are indeed eligible for Cooperstown; none active in the past 18 years has been elected. But as the modern era demands different skills from a general manager, the Hall of Fame should welcome those with different qualifications. None has more than Schuerholz. His clubs have won more, facing constant change and challenge, than any GM ever.
His work in Atlanta is well-known: One World Series ring, five pennants, 10 straight division championships (a professional sports record). But his Kansas City stewardship was similarly exemplary, winning a World Series in 1985 after having helped build the Royals into baseball's model expansion club throughout the '70s while serving in player development. Before that he was part of the renowned Orioles operation. While Mariners GM Pat Gillick has won divisions with three different clubs (Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle), no modern executive has presided over such continued success.
Keeping his Braves at the top has been his neatest trick, swinging big trades (Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield) and small (Otis Nixon); scouring both independent leagues (Kerry Ligtenberg) and the free-agent market (Terry Pendleton, Andres Galarraga); developing and folding in top prospects (Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal) while maintaining his pitching core (you know who). Of course, it's vital to have one of baseball's highest payrolls every year. But the Rangers fell apart. The Indians are crumbling now. The Dodgers go up and down, the Orioles just down. And yet the Braves just keep winning.
"I look at a GM," says John Smoltz, "and see a certain philosophy in how to run a team: win a championship, win a division, get competitive or get a team out of the cellar. We have been put together to win the division with the chance to win the championship. ... This team is not built to win a championship (only) and then fall back. We've had a chance to win every year, year in and year out, for 12 years in a row. There's nothing more you want as a player."
Smoltz goes on to lay the blame for Atlanta's winning just one World Series solely at the players' feet: "After you win the division, it's up to us. When you have this many chances, it's up to us.
"We're in an age when you expect a GM to make a move in July to put you over the top. We've been built for a longer period," Smoltz continues. "All the teams we've faced in the playoffs -- Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, the Dodgers, the Marlins, San Diego, Houston -- all these teams that knocked us off, after that, what have they done? They've fallen back. But we've stayed up there. Some might say there was too much tinkering -- but with the economics of the game, that tinkering has gotten us to the playoffs every year."
Fittingly, Schuerholz won a World Series his first year in the game -- 1966, when as a junior-high teacher he wrote a serendipitous, cold-turkey letter to his hometown Baltimore Orioles all but begging for a job in baseball. "I taught world geography, composition, spelling, current events -- I was a utility teacher," says Schuerholz, 61. "I had a free period and typed a letter to the owner, Jerry Hoffberger. He passed it along to Frank Cashen, who passed it along to Harry Dalton, who passed it along to Lou Gorman in the farm department. I became his assistant."
Schuerholz followed Gorman to the expansion Kansas City Royals in 1968, where he evolved from assistant farm director to farm director to director of player personnel, presiding over a minor-league system that produced the likes of George Brett, Frank White (through the innovative Royals Academy), Dennis Leonard, Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson and Bo Jackson, constantly feeding teams that finished first or second every year from 1975-85. He stumbled somewhat in the free-agent market after that -- his signing of Mark Davis to a $13 million deal in December 1989 lives in Royals infamy -- and left for Atlanta after a sixth-place finish in 1990, but the club has never seen anywhere near the kind of success it did when he was around. Since he moved the Royals have won as many as 77 games just twice in 12 years.
In all, Schuerholz has been associated with 16 division titles, eight pennants and three World Series winners. He's the only GM to build champions in both leagues. So does he have a case for Cooperstown?
There's less precedent for it than at first glance. The Hall of Fame has 15 members elected mainly for their tenure as 20th-century executives. But it isn't so simple: Some were commissioners when that position was actually respected (Happy Chandler, etc.); some were primarily owners (Charles Comiskey, Bill Veeck); some ran clubs before serving as now-defunct league presidents (Warren Giles, Lee MacPhail); and some were inducted for their innovations (Larry MacPhail's night baseball, Branch Rickey's farm system and signing Jackie Robinson). The only pure general manager in anything close to the modern sense is George Weiss, who ran the Yankees and won seven World Series from 1947-60; he was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1971, when that dubious outfit welcomed a whopping seven new inductees.
Adding to the challenge of a modern executive getting in today is how the rules regarding the Veterans Committee were changed drastically last August; rather than a 15-member committee of five former players, five writers and five retired executives mulling over candidates in person and able to select an executive any year, now a sprawling group of all 61 living Hall of Famers, 14 broadcasters, 12 writers and more vote by mail ballot once every four years. The chances of any executive receiving the required 75 percent of votes are basically zero -- ex-players won't want to dilute their own ranks with suits they barely know.
"I think that area has been pretty much shut off," says longtime writer and Veterans Committee member Leonard Koppett. "Players looked fondly upon Buzzie Bavasi after they had to deal with him. But someone like Schuerholz, who's gonna vote for him?"
Someone who understands the demands of winning today, presumably. The job of running a team is barely recognizable from the job the likes of Weiss had -- before arbitration and free agency, before the media and ownership demands, before the draft and international market, before 29 other clubs and three rounds of playoffs. Operations have mushroomed as a result. When current Astros president Tal Smith got his first job with the Reds in 1958, he remembers the club having just 14 full-time employees: a general manager, a farm director (overseeing 11-12 affiliates), his assistant, a scouting director, two secretaries, three ticket-office people, a publicity director, traveling secretary, accounting manager, bookkeeper and switchboard operator. "Now," Smith says, "the accounting department alone has more people than that." The GM is ultimately responsible for more than anyone else but the owner -- who, naturally, is not responsible for anything.
General managers are the new fall guys when a club flounders: More than half (17) of the 30 clubs have changed their GMs in the past three years alone. They change as much as their rosters; the modern game has the stability of uranium. But if you're looking for the most stable instability in baseball, it's found under Schuerholz, the longest-tenured GM in baseball, who calmly adds and subtracts major parts every year with always the same result: first place.
The Braves rarely tear out of the gate -- they're often hovering around .500 in May or June before making their trademark run. Sometimes it's from the moves Schuerholz makes, sometimes it's from the moves he doesn't panic himself into making. ("What's happened," he mused to The New York Times recently in explaining the Braves' recent surge back into first place, "is the passage of time and the appreciation of the elongation of the season.") It's often thanks to the great pitching tandem of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine -- a twosome which might not be around a year from now, and whose imminent free agency might present Schuerholz with his biggest challenge since resurrecting Atlanta from last place to first place in 1991.
But the Braves' boss will be around to tackle it. After toying with the idea he plans no retirement after this season. "I'm still energized," he says. "I'll be around for a while." He'll appreciate the elongation of this season, probably with his 11th straight division championship. Meanwhile, baseball should appreciate the elongation of one of the great executive careers -- whether it ends in Atlanta or Cooperstown -- of all time.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.