03/03/2003 10:31 AM ET
Younger and wiser GMs?
It often has been said there is nothing new under the baseball sun. Not true. There is always something new and the latest is the trend of young general managers. In the past, the front-office bosses were the wise elders; weary with wisdom, they didn't usually depart until they were in their mid-60s, sometimes beyond.
Today, the climb is instant. Witness Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox. He is opening the new season as the youngest GM in baseball history. At age 28, Epstein was crowned GM on Nov. 25, breaking the record set by Randy Smith, who was hired by the San Diego Padres in 1993, six days short of his 30th birthday. Brian Cashman of the Yankees was 30 when, in 1998, he became George Steinbrenner's 16th general manager.
Cashman is still at his post today, six years later. Before Cashman, Cincinnati's Jim Bowden was the youngest at 31. He is entering his 10th season as the Reds' front-office chief. Elevated in October 1992, he was subjected to the same scrutiny as is Theo Epstein today. Among the questions: Is he too young? Does he have the necesssary experience?
Bowden had the necessities. The Reds won divisional titles in 1993 and '94, in his first two full seasons. He has been an aggressive trader and he consummated one of the biggest deals in baseball history: the acquisition of Ken Griffey Jr., a 10-time All-Star, from the Seattle Mariners. At that time, Bob Nightengale of Baseball Weekly described Bowden as "the best wheeler-dealer in the business."
I'm unsure who followed Bowden as youngest at the throttle but it may have been Dave Dombrowski, who was 32 in 1987 when he jumped into the hot seat in Montreal. Dan Duquette, recently with Boston, was also 32 when he opened in Milwaukee. He is now another name on the list of Epstein's Red Sox predecessors. Andy MacPhail was 33 when he became the Twins' GM.
The average age is constantly being lowered. Precise stats have not been kept but probably half of the current GMs, when they ascended, were or are under 40. It also seems likely that less than half played professional ball.
Like many of his colleagues, Epstein is weighted with academic degrees -- from Yale and the University of San Diego Law School. Initially, I had my doubts about him and the other boy wonders. I still remember the testimony of the late Bill DeWitt, a quarter of a century ago, during the Charles Finley-Bowie Kuhn trial, on life in the executive suite.
"It's dog-eat-dog," DeWitt said.
"Experience is a big thing. But the primary requirement is common sense."
-- Buzzie Bavasi
Epstein appears to be a fast learner. He said the best advice he received was from 88-year-old Buzzie Bavasi, who ran three clubs: the Dodgers, Padres and Angels.
"Mr. Bavasi told me to remember every time you're about to make a deal, the guy on the other end of the phone is as smart as you are, probably smarter," Epstein said.
Bavasi was typical of the old-timers, spending 34 years in the general manager's chair. "I was lucky," he said. "I learned from Branch Rickey. He outsmarted everybody. But there was a downside. You only dealt with him once. The best deals help both clubs."
Does Bavasi think Epstein will succeed?
"Experience is a big thing," Bavasi conceded. "But the primary requirement is common sense.
"I won three pennants before I got a raise, from $17,000 to $25,000. It took three more pennants before I went to $40,000. And that was it."
Bavasi concedes that money could be a factor. Despite the salary revolution, the new general managers don't command big bucks, not early. So far as I know, there have been no salary compilations but the beginning pay today is probably $500,000 and soars upward. There many be as many as a half-dozen in the $1-2 million bracket.
John Hart, now with the Texas Rangers, is believed to be at the top at $1.5 million. Also at about $1 million, possibly more, are proven veterans such as John Schuerholz of Atlanta and Pat Gillick of Seattle. Dombrowski may be the highest paid, $2 million, but he is more than the Tigers' general manager. He doubles as club president.
The Cubs' MacPhail has handled both assignments. His original team, the 1987 Minnesota Twins, won a World Series in his first season. He is the only third-generation general manager. His grandfather, Larry, ran the Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. Lee MacPhail, Andy's father, rode shotgun on seven Yankee pennants, from 1949 through '58. A fourth generation, Lee IV, is in the wings; he is the scouting director at Montreal.
The specifications have changed, which explains, certainly in part, why the owners are relying on younger administrators. The economic risks have soared beyond imagination. It used to be that the GMs, mostly financial babes, were limited to player signings. The free agent era, which began in the mid-'70s, was accompanied by an awesome invasion of player agents. The GMs threw up their hands in dismay. They were engulfed and eventually replaced by youthful computer experts with business, law and economic degrees, and have a platoon at their side to help with baseball matters.
Jerome Holtzman is the official historian of Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.