Character counts

Sports | Lessons from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves for general managers and managing generally, with commentary from John Smoltz

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

VERO BEACH, Florida- A new major league baseball season begins next week, with success on the field once again heavily dependent on the wisdom of general managers. They are the ones who decide which players to sign and which to dismiss, but they don't make those decisions in an ad hoc manner: Consciously or unconsciously, they evaluate the facts according to their presuppositions.

Buildings and players at the granddaddy of spring training camps, Vero Beach's "Dodgertown," display three of the competing management theories. The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have trained there since 1948 and played since 1953 at Holman Stadium, which is delightfully non-frilly: For example, the dugouts are just that, plots of ground about 3 feet lower than field level. The players sit on a bench there, without railings, roof, or rah-rah provided by a mascot.

Dodger players once lived in Dodgertown dorms during spring training, and minor leaguers still do: The original concept of Dodgertown was to provide a no-frills classroom environment for players and coaches who would study baseball all day long. General manager Branch Rickey, who broke baseball's racial barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, believed that education bred teamwork: If players all learned how to do things "the Dodger way," they would work well together.

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Dodgertown was a revolutionary concept that other teams tried to emulate for a time, but free agency beginning in 1975, which let players control their own careers, led some general managers to deemphasize home-grown products and instead graft on hotshots from other teams. More recently, statistical analysis practiced most thoroughly by Oakland general manager Billy Beane has given teams sophisticated ways to examine player performance, and sometimes has led devotees to rip apart good teams in the search for computer-verifiable perfection.

A case in point: Two years ago Mr. Beane's key assistant, Paul DePodesta, became general manager of the Dodgers and found his team in first place within its division halfway through the season. His computer, though, showed opportunity for massive improvement by trading away his starting catcher and others; he went ahead despite warnings that he was tampering with "team chemistry," which some stats determinists see as a mystical notion that is unmeasurable and therefore irrelevant.

Result: The Dodgers staggered during the rest of 2004. After more stats-based signings of free agents not known for being team players, the Dodgers fell last season to 71 wins and 91 losses, the team's second-worst record since 1944. Dodgers owner (and real estate magnate) Frank McCourt Jr. fired Mr. DePodesta. His wife Jamie McCourt, who earned a B.S. degree in French from Georgetown University, is now president of the team.

A new general manager, Ned Colletti, hired a new manager, Grady Little, the former Red Sox poobah. Mr. Little is infamous among the stats-conscious for evaluating players by their appearance; last month at Dodgertown a former player, Ron Goodwin, walked by, and Mr. Little asked, "Is he on the Mets?" Told, "No, he's the radio announcer," Mr. Little observed, "Looks like he should still be playing."

Having lost the early emphasis on education and team-spiritedness, the Dodgers and many other teams now seem unsure about whether to rely on stats, appearances, gut instinct, or blind chance. For example, the Dodgers recently signed journeyman pitcher Brett Tomko and announced, "What is most intriguing about Tomko . . . is his performance at Dodger Stadium: 4-2 record with 2.92 ERA in 13 games over his nine-year career." That's what stats aficionados call the misuse of statistics, since the sample is so small: More indicative of the 32-year-old's ability is his mediocre 4.52 career earned run average.

But what's the alternative to mediocre evaluation? John Smoltz, the Atlanta pitcher with 17 years of major league experience who also has been instrumental in starting and funding a Christian school (see "Throwing heat and taking heat," Aug. 3, 2002), offered his view inside the Braves spring training clubhouse in Orlando: Appearances are deceiving and stats are useful, but they need to be augmented by a searching analysis of character.

As Mr. Smoltz put it, "Some GMs see a player with all the tools and go wild, but the tools will be misused if the character isn't there. . . . It amazes me that some executives are up there cruising at 30,000 feet instead of doing research at ground level to find out what's in the hearts of players. . . . They hand out huge multi-year contracts without knowing enough about the players and the families to determine whether a player given all that money and security is going to get lazy."


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