Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.
October 25, 2008 4:56 PM
Posted by Geoff Baker
Some of you have asked me what I really think about the hiring of new GM Jack Zduriencik. That's a tough question to answer after one press conference. You never really expect anything to come out of these introductory things. Anyone who does hasn't been around sports much. The only truly newsworthy event that could have come out of it was if Zduriencik had tripped on the podium and knocked over the Mariner Moose or something.
But no, it was pretty low key.
That in itself impressed me. Zduriencik sounded confident but didn't try to come across as someone with all the answers. At least, not right away. He was honest, saying he'd have to get to know the people within the organization a bit first before rearranging their jobs. I like that. Not all first-time GMs say that. Especially in private, they don't. Some come in and start to make bold proclamations behind the scenes of wanting to clean house. Not too bright. I have trouble appreciating folks like that.
Now, all that said, it's what Zduriencik does that will provide the biggest guidepost to any opinions about him.
On his hiring, as I said before, he appeared to have the most hands-on experience of any of the final four candidates. And experience does matter. Especially when you're going to be rebuilding from the bottom of the heap, without the benefit of a slew of top-five overall draft picks to do it with. A key to what the Howard Lincoln-Chuck Armstrong duo was looking for came during the final week of the regular season when they met with local beat writers.
At the time, the pair recounted an anecdote about former GM Pat Gillick and how he often insisted on viewing young prospects in person. How he'd have a bunch of plane tickets in his hand and head off to the airport to get an up-close look at anyone being touted as a key to the future. Some GMs have the knack, and scouting expertise, of being able to tell more from looking at a player and actually speaking to them than they can from staring at a computer spreadsheet. We've discussed before on this blog the importance of mental makeup when it comes to starting pitchers -- the specific reference was to Ryan Rowland-Smith (whose latest blog post on prolebrity.com is right here, by the way). Sometimes, you have to actually meet the person in order to gauge what his makeup might be.
Zduriencik strikes me as the kind of person who would have accumulated such knowledge. That doesn't prevent him from hiring people who are proficient at statistics-based analysis and utilizing them. His comments about the job being one for a generalist also hit the right note with me. Because he's bang-on. The best GMs in this game are the ones who know how to use the people who work under them. Look at Billy Beane in Oakland and the parade of fine assistants he relies on. Or at Gillick in Philadelphia, who holds weekly conference calls with the Phillies pro scouting staff -- something that truly allows them to feel they are making a difference.
Two different styles of GM. Both of them successes. There is no right or wrong way to do things in this game. In the end, you can achieve success with a variety of approaches. But the same fundamental principles apply to baseball as in other walks of business. The folks at the top have to be decisive. But they also cannot be afraid of surrounding themselves with intelligent people and working with them (and listening to them).
Yes, it was only a passing comment Zduriencik made. But it comforted me that he seemed to realize he wouldn't be able to focus all his energies on his areas of expertise. That he has to be a generalist. Having covered baseball for 11 seasons, I've learned to look for the little subtleties in what people say rather than the bold pronunciations.
Some fans tend to get fired up and enamored of people when they make the obvious comments in defense of the team during controversial moments. For me, those are scripted and rather meaningless. Any time a member of the Mariners says something that makes me go "Well, of course he's going to say that! What else is he going to say? The exact opposite?'' is when I tend to tune out. Think of Jim Riggleman after the whole Carlos Silva debacle. Of course he's going to come out strongly in defense of his team. It's right there in the Manager's 101 Handbook. Yeah, it sounded great. But I'm not going to pronounce Riggleman a great manager for stating the obvious and not saying "Yeah, Silva's right. Our team is a mess.''
Riggleman has plenty of other things going for him as a manager. But judging him on such comments would be meaningless.
Instead, you look for the hidden stuff. The matter-of-fact statements that people make under ordinary circumstances to try to get a true feel of what they're about. So far, Zduriencik comes across as if he knows what he's doing. As if he's been doing it for years. I like that.
I liked the way he talked about the manager being in charge of the army. Not all GMs want to say this out loud. Some of them think of a manager as an interchangeable part. I do not agree with this type of thinking. In fact, I think one of the biggest problems the Mariners have had is the number of managers (3) to have come in since early last season. If Riggleman leaves, that will make four different managers in just a season and a half. How are players supposed to get any type of feel of what this team's program is about? A good GM will work closely with his manager and give him the tools to carry out his vision effectively. And give him the time to do it as well. The GM is the master-planner. But the manager is the guy in the field. The guy in the trenches. There is always the theory and the reality of carrying something out. A GM comes up with the theory. And a good manager takes that theory and -- providing he has the proper tools and experience -- knows how to make in work down on the field.
And so, obviously, the manager Zduriencik chooses could be the most important decision he makes in the first three years of his term. This is not an afterthought. This team simply cannot keep changing managers the way players change t-shirts. You have to have some stability in that dugout. Some continuity. The Mariners have made the right move in leaving that call in Zduriencik's hands. This is a crucial hire for him. He has to have his man in place in order for his vision to be carried out correctly.
My only real concern regarding Zduriencik, and why I thought the Mariners might go for Jerry DiPoto or Tony LaCava, was that the new GM would have to sell fans on their vision. It doesn't mean they have to be media-friendly to the point where they're beloved. But they do have to be smart enough to communicate their vision to the fans. Think that doesn't matter? How well did Bill Bavasi communicate his Rafael Soriano-Horacio Ramirez deal to the public at-large? What about Asdrubal Cabrera-Eduardo Perez? Or last winter's decision not to offer arbitration to Jose Guillen and gain compensatory draft picks when it was fairly obvious he was going to leave?
None of you really know what Bavasi was thinking. I know this because you all wrote in here saying "What the heck is he thinking?'' I can bet that Bavasi probably thought most of those deals were pretty good ones. Few of you did. I'm sure he had real good reasons for making them. But Bavasi rarely communicated to the public through the media. At least, not to an extent where anyone really had a good idea of what he was trying to accomplish. With Erik Bedard, it was fairly obvious, even though the plan backfired. But not with some of those other moves.
Truth is, I didn't really care with Bavasi. As a media member, I knew that he didn't say anything to anybody. So, I never had to go to sleep worried I'd wake up and see something about the team that I didn't have in the rival paper the next day. I'd much rather have that than a talkative, blabbermouth GM who plays favorites and slips tidbits to media that offer him "favorable" coverage. I've heard that Bavasi was very gracious to fans at some gatherings of internet bloggers and in personal conversations unrelated to the job, I did actually find him quite pleasant and engaging.
But he was fairly useless to a reporter as far as providing information. I'd routinely go a month or two without even speaking to him. Didn't matter. He'd never say anything. Towards the end of his tenure, he started to open up. Started to provide the slightest clues about his line of thinking. But in the end, it was too late. He had to be doing that long before I got to Seattle in 2006. By the time I got there, the fan base was already fed up with Bavasi and never seemed to understand why he did the things he did.
Now, what Zduriencik does with the media is entirely up to him. But this organization is going through some rough times and will likely continue to do so until things get turned around. It would probably help his cause to be a little forthcoming about what he's thinking or attempting to do with the franchise. He doesn't have to spill every company secret. But the Bavasi way clearly didn't work out too well. And it wasn't only the bad moves that he made. It was the fact that so many people had so much confusion about why he made the moves he did.
My advance scouting report on LaCava and DiPoto told me they would be media darlings. I was told that Zduriencik played things close-to-the-vest in Milwaukee and was very tight-lipped up until recently. And that's when, my contacts tell me, he started to open up to the media more because he wanted to be a GM and realized it would be a neccessity of the job.
I agree with that. It will be an important part of this job. Selling the fan base on your plans. And the media, for those intelligent enough to make it work, can help. You don't have to be everyone's pal. But this entire team, from the GM on up, does have to be more communicative. Having seen the actions of Lincoln and Armstrong in recent months, I get the feeling they realize the disconnect that exists between them and a fair-sized segment of the fanbase. I get the feeling they do want to change and open up a bit. Honestly, what choice do they really have?
And any move towards a more open, more accountable ballclub, would be a welcome development for everyone. In that light, I have no problem with the selection of Zduriencik. He seems to know what he is doing. We'll know soon enough -- give it a few years -- whether he actually does.