Sandy Alderson, the new CEO of the San Diego Padres, graduated from Dartmouth, then Harvard Law School. He was a Marine for four years and served in Vietnam for eight months. He helped build the Oakland A's into a powerhouse in the late '80s and early '90s.
And yet there he was, several years ago in spring training, helping the grounds crew with the tarp during a rainstorm. "He was the club president," A's GM Billy Beane says.
That's how involved Alderson was with the operation of a team.
Now, after 6½ years as executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, Alderson is back to run the Padres. "I really like being a part of a team, to help build a successful franchise,'' he says. "And San Diego has all or most of those ingredients now.'' Now, says Beane, the Padres have "the best the first thing I thought of when I heard Sandy was going back was how lucky the employees of the Padres are. When a new guy comes into an organization, there's a sense of fear. For them, it's an incredible opportunity.''
Alderson has amazing energy and a hectic schedule, yet he never seems to be in a hurry. He never panics, and he says things like, "If you don't miss a flight once in a while, you're spending too much time in the airport.''
Every word he uses is measured. He listens, he never makes snap decisions and he rarely gets upset. "He is the greatest leader I've seen, not just in baseball,'' Beane says. "In time of crisis, the first thing I ask is, 'What would Sandy do?' When things are at their worst, Sandy is at his best. That's a sign of great leadership. We were the best team in baseball, and we were the worst team in baseball, but I've never seen him intimidated or overwhelmed by a situation. If he was, he never showed it.''
Alderson taught Beane and Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi to be GMs. They are biased, but they say there wasn't a day around Alderson when they didn't learn and have fun. "I watched the way he dealt with the press,'' Beane says. "He has such a command of the language, he was a half step ahead of the media because they were all trying to figure out what he had just said. He is an intellectual but has great charisma and a physical presence that's a unique combination. As a non-player, he has a sense of aura that separates him from the quote-unquote suits. He is so unpretentious, he's such a grassroots guy. When we'd go to the Dominican to see players, he'd help fix things at the facility.''
A recruiting poster for the Marines once featured Alderson. He doesn't talk about his days in Vietnam, but Beane says, "He is very proud of it.''
Alderson is highly competitive. In a pickup basketball game several years ago, Alderson was being physical, prompting a well-built sportswriter, who didn't know of Alderson's military background, to say "at ease, soldier.'' The next time down the court, Alderson jolted the writer with a forearm smash.
No one pushes Sandy Alderson around. In spring training 1991, Oakland outfielder Rickey Henderson, the reigning AL MVP, wanted his contract renegotiated. Alderson refused to budge. Henderson whined, but he played the season with the same contract. "Sandy never invites a confrontation,'' Beane says. "But he never backs down from one, either.''
Alderson went to San Diego for one main reason he wanted to be part of a team again. And he comes as a more knowledgeable man having worked in the commissioner's office. It was Alderson who was mostly responsible for organizing the umpires under one roof instead of keeping them in separate leagues. "What I learned was invaluable,'' Alderson says. "How decisions are made here, all the individuals I met, the relationships I made. I had a good time.''
He should have an even better time in San Diego. The Padres are a pretty good club, and they play in a great city, in beautiful Petco Park (in just its second year). Padres owner John Moores and GM Kevin Towers are respected across the industry. Alderson says that while "my responsibilities are broader [than they were as a GM], they are less direct. I won't be as hands-on. But I like to delegate responsibility. I like to find good people who like to work hard.''
When the hiring of Alderson was announced recently, Moores said all he wanted Alderson to do was to make the Padres "the best organization in baseball.''
"I got a chuckle out of that," Alderson says, "but really, why shouldn't that be the goal? Why can't it be achieved?''
With Alderson in control, maybe it can be.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.