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Built to WinInside Stories and Leadership Strategies from Baseball's Winnigest GM
By John Schuerholz Larry Guest
Warner BooksCopyright © 2006 John Schuerholz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBarry Bonds a Brave-Briefly
BASEBALL'S SPRING TRAINING, IT HAS BEEN SAID, IS THAT time of year when everyone wins the pennant. Hope and optimism reign supreme. The pundits wax poetic about the mystical potential of this young phenom just up from the minors, or that solid veteran acquired to fill a pressing need. Rosters that were altered or tinkered with over the winter are gushingly introduced as cohesive, winning machines.
In Florida and Arizona, the warm sunrises bring each new day's glowing expectations as the teams renew themselves weeks ahead of, for many, the grim reality that eventually will set in sooner or later during the long baseball season to follow. Indeed, those expectations were never higher in the Braves' camp than in 1992 in our spring training in West Palm Beach. Those of us in the loop at the highest level of Atlanta's management were charged with the excitement that was about to be unveiled to the sports public shortly before noon on that fateful spring day.
There was a palpable adrenaline rush throughout our little mobile-home administrative office as we scurried about making last-second preparations to officially herald what wouldcertainly be a pivotal, history-making trade.
Stellar, All-Star outfielder Barry Bonds had been acquired by the Atlanta Braves!
The deal had been closed late the previous afternoon. The Pittsburgh Pirates had agreed to take pitcher Alejandro Pena, young outfielder Keith Mitchell, and a prospect-to-be-named later for the Barry Bonds.
I had negotiated the trade over several days with Pirates GM Ted Simmons, the former standout catcher who had a solid playing career, primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals. As the talks progressed and Pena became a fixture in the potential deal, we had to seek Pena's permission to include him in the trade. Because of his stature as a newly signed free agent, we had to have him sign a trade release. I had to talk to Alejandro and explain the situation. After a brief time to consider, he was willing to accept a trade and signed the waiver.
So Ted Simmons and I agreed to the deal over the phone. Ted, forerunner of the modern thinkers, is a big, strong, ruddy guy. When his playing career was over, he worked his way into scouting and special assistant jobs in administration and, ultimately, into the general manager seat for the Pirates.
I was euphoric. Barry Bonds was a Brave! We had already won our division the previous season, my first as Braves GM. Now we were adding a high-caliber star to our already successful roster. There seemed no limits to what we could achieve over the approaching several seasons.
Stan Kasten, then-president of the Braves, recalls a pang of concern the next morning when he read a story critical of the Pirates for dumping salaries. Little did the media realize the salary-dumping mode had continued the previous evening, the Pirates dealing away Bonds, who had one season left on his contract. I rushed into my office early that day at the West Palm ballpark to prepare for a number of things that go with announcing a trade of this magnitude. About an hour before the announcement, I decided to call Ted Simmons just to coordinate the timing of the release.
"We have a problem," Ted said.
"What do mean, a problem? Don't want to release it just yet? What?"
"I can't do the deal," he said.
"You can't do the deal? You did the deal! Ted, we agreed over the phone, general manager to general manager. We made the deal!"
In baseball, that's about as sacrosanct as anything gets. That had never happened to me, nor has it since, where there was a total reneging of a trade. I did have a situation much later where a club went back on one of the financial terms of a trade, but we still made the trade. (I'll get more into that situation in a minute.)
Bailing out after two GMs have verbally cemented a deal very rarely happens. Especially in a deal of this caliber and this magnitude.
I said, "Ted, we have all the mechanisms in place here. We've told the involved players and our manager. I've told our owner. We're getting ready to announce this deal this morning that you and I agreed to make yesterday. We've been through all these steps."
He said, "Well, when I let Leyland know about the trade, he blew up."
Jim Leyland was the manager of the Pirates at that time. When informed of the trade, Jim went barging into Pirates president Carl Barger's office and, according to Ted, went absolutely haywire. He said Barger came back to him and said it was a situation so troublesome to the manager and this and that, they couldn't do the deal. And ultimately, it was called off.
I guess we can say Barry Bonds was a Brave for fifteen hours. At that time in his career, he didn't have the right to approve a deal, so I'm not even sure he is aware this happened. If he had had the right of trade approval and they had to discuss it with him, I'm sure Barry would have said something to somebody and this story would have come out long ago. So I doubt Barry knows he was a Brave for one night.
But he will when he reads this book.
I had kept our manager, Bobby Cox, and Stan Kasten abreast of the deal as it developed. We were thrilled that we were going to get, arguably, the best player in baseball for, essentially, two prospects. Making it even sweeter was our confidence that we would be able to sign Barry to a long-term extension. We were flying high back then and our payroll was beginning to grow. We had room to sign Bonds to an extension, though it would mean we wouldn't have had the money to sign Greg Maddux the next year. (Ironically, at the winter meetings the next year at the Galt House hotel in Louisville, the Giants signed Bonds, we signed Maddux, and poor Carl Barger collapsed during an owners meeting and died.)
As for the fallout, I didn't come away from this with a distrust of Ted Simmons, or a notion that I'd never engage in trade talks with him again. He is a bright guy, very intellectual, and I had no reason to doubt his integrity, and still don't. He just got caught in a whipsaw. But I was a little gun-shy about doing any deals with Pittsburgh for a period of time after that. You have to let some scar tissue grow over feelings like that. There's a lot of work that goes into making a deal of this size and this was a very complex deal.
That fiasco made me further appreciate my situation in Atlanta and before that in Kansas City as general manager, with regard to autonomy and ownership support. I've never had to worry about being overruled. What I have to worry about is to be certain that I advise my boss, the president of the team, and that information goes up the chain of command before it becomes public-not before I made a decision. Not before I do something. Because their assumption is that what I do will be right and beneficial to the team. They just want to know about it before the public does. That's my responsibility.
Does that have something to do with how efficient and how successful we've been and how consistent we've operated? I think so. I think the fact that part of leadership, as it relates to the level of president and the level of ownership, is to find someone in whom they have trust and confidence. Find someone they respect to do the work that needs to be done. Give that person all the support and encouragement possible and let that person do his job. Now, if that person proves to be ineffective or inept, then obviously he shouldn't have that authority or freedom or power any longer. In my case, whether at Kansas City or Atlanta, I have been permitted the latitude to do what I thought best for the club, always. But I've always recognized that I have to be held accountable for my decisions.
THE OTHER TRADE THAT HAD A HICCUP WAS A DEAL INVOLVING A player that was traded from one club to another, which in turn passed him and his contract to us. The contract came to us with a clear understanding how much of a financial obligation we would have.
What wasn't made clear to us, however, was that subsequent to our trade, there was a clause in the contract that called for additional payments to the player's charitable foundation of $200,000 per year. Now the player was due that money, so we had to pay the $200,000 to keep from voiding the contract. Somebody had to pay it, so we paid it and protested to the Commissioner's Office. Ultimately, it was ruled in our favor; the money was paid, but the Braves were not obligated to pay it and we were reimbursed for the $400,000 we had paid on this clause during the player's first two years with us.
I am hesitant to identify the player or the club because I don't want to impugn the general manager involved. He's a young guy and he's done good work and I'm not sure how much of this matter was his doing.
But back to the Bonds trade. Had the Pirates not done a 180 on us, this was a deal that might have changed the course of baseball history in a number of ways. Though Barry couldn't have produced more division titles for us, might he have powered us to another World Series title or two? Would he have developed into the same prolific home run hitter he became in San Francisco after his move to the Giants? Would his public image be the same? How would we have fared with Bonds, but without Maddux?
Those questions would be open to far-reaching conjecture by the Hot-Stovers, the bloggers, and others who feverishly thrive on debating baseball's twists and turns.
But I can say with a considerable degree of confidence that if Barry would have been a Brave, he would have quickly accepted our long-standing team rules regarding issues such as not wearing jewelry while in uniform and not being allowed a recliner at his locker instead of the simple, canvas captain's chair our other players have. Nor would he have been accorded any other special star perk that might set him apart and above his teammates. The same rules as applied to John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine, Gary Sheffield, and all of the other star-caliber players we have had.
History is on my side on this one. With rare exception, the players who have pulled on a Braves uniform during my time in Atlanta or a Royals uniform when I was in Kansas City have accepted the rules and disciplines we keep in place to promote a team aura and suppress any individualism that might erode that concept.
I strongly believe one of the key ingredients in building a winning team or business is the creation and enhancement of the team concept. Whether it's in baseball or business. Whether you are in management or sales or administration, a parent or a partner.
You assure yourself and your business of succeeding more if you create the strongest team possible. You do that by selecting the right people, then investing in them, improving them, and leading them. While it is obvious that baseball and successful corporations demand great individual skills, they also require an effective and committed team focus-either on the playing field, in the boardroom, or throughout the organization.
We are very exacting in our selection of people to come into this organization, whether administrative staff, uniformed field personnel-managers, coaches, instructors-or players. And we take great pride in that selection process. Do we make mistakes? Sure. We have made a few. But as soon as we find out that we've made a mistake, we address the issue. Quite often, that person is soon excused.
Each of us, I tell our employees, no matter what our individual responsibilities to the company or in our personal lives might be, must create, promote, and strengthen our team concept by our actions, our words, and our attitudes. As responsible and committed leaders, we assume considerable responsibility for creating and nurturing an environment in which the winning team concept will not only survive, but flourish. We must all see to it that we and others in our organization understand how to work effectively and cooperatively, displaying a working harmony, a common purpose, and a support system for one another.
At the staff level, we foster that camaraderie in many ways. Two of the many small, but important, examples:
Early in each spring training, we have a golf outing with Bobby Cox, his coaches, our minor league personnel, scouts, and other baseball-side staffers. It's an informal, jocular scramble event that has come to be known as the SWT (Schuerholz Wins Tournament) Classic. Bill Acree, our director of team travel, organizes the tournament and has been darkly accused of stacking my team each year. For the 2005 event, we returned to Orlando's Orange Tree Golf Club, where I typically reside in a golf villa each spring and where the Tony Wisne ownership family has been generously hospitable to us for many years. Aside from the usual good-natured ribbing and hoots, the '05 event produced a couple of surprises.
First, Pat Kelly, manager of our Triple-A Richmond club, stepped back on a bulkhead alongside the first green to line up a putt, lost his footing, and fell into the lake. Second, four of the five teams finished tied for first. An Orange Tree club staffer rushed home to fetch a child's snorkel and flippers, which we presented to Pat Kelly as the tournament's very first "Jacques Cousteau Award" winner. As for the fact that sixteen of the twenty players tied for first? We could only take that as an omen that we have a lot of winners in that group.
Jose Martinez, who works as a special assistant on baseball matters to me, produces a meaningful bonding event each spring for our office personnel. An excellent chef specializing in his native Cuban cuisine, Jose brings all of his cookers and warmers and pots to the park two or three times each spring and prepares sumptuous and much anticipated lunches of black beans and pork or paella or some other Spanish delicacy.
In the clubhouse, we concentrate on promoting pride and warding off the kind of individualism that can become rampant among high-profile athletes. In addition to banning earrings and limiting other jewelry during games, we ask our guys to wear their uniforms in a manner that we think is proper and which projects pride in our organization.
Some clubs allow their batting helmets to become covered in pine tar. We don't allow that. We don't ban facial hair, but our policy is neat and trimmed. Neat and trimmed occasionally gets challenged and pushed beyond the limits. Bobby is usually the first to notice and a little word from him quickly solves the problem.
Before I came to Atlanta, Bobby had many of the same rules in effect, so we are in lockstep on the team concept. Says Bobby: "I've never had a problem with that. It's funny on rules. You try to make the players part of your selection of the rules. 'Hey, if this is too tough, step in.' Any player who has had a history of doing all that stuff, hasn't had a problem with it here."
If our acquisition of Barry Bonds had stuck, I suppose we would have had to ban another famous earring. But it would have been easy. That's just the way we operate. Those are our guidelines and it makes it easier when you have a manager who feels the same.
It's like when we made the deal for Gary Sheffield after he had his controversies with the Dodgers' owner and general manager. I spoke with Gary on the phone with his agent, Scott Boras, who was in the room with him. Stan Kasten and Frank Wren, the assistant general manager, were in my office, listening in as well. I explained to Sheffield, "Gary, we have a deal made with the Dodgers and we're going to acquire you in a big trade. But I need to say some things to you and get your response to them."
I went into how we operate as a team and how we operate as an organization and what we would put up with and what we would not put up with and how we expect our team members to act, and our earring policy, and so on. And he said, "I have no problem with that."
Despite all the baggage that has been associated with Gary Sheffield, there was not one issue in the two years he was here. And talking about that in terms of leadership is clearly communicating guidelines, clearly communicating expectations, clearly communicating the rules and regulations and the philosophy of your operation. And clearly communicating the expectation of that player abiding by those items.
Gary gave his word and lived up to his word.
Excerpted from Built to Win by John Schuerholz Larry Guest Copyright © 2006 by John Schuerholz. Excerpted by permission.
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