Alderson well prepared for challenges with Mets
Trained as Marine, lawyer, newly installed GM follows his values
NEW YORK -- Not long after Sandy Alderson's 8th birthday, his father, an Air Force pilot stationed in Japan at the time, took him to watch the Yankees play a local all-star team near their compound on the country's southeast coast. Over the previous years, John Alderson had whisked his family from Seattle to Denver to a port in Yokohama; still to come were stops in Illinois, South Carolina and Virginia. But in this snapshot, father and son had arrived in postwar Japan. The boy didn't understand the implications. He was only just beginning to understand the baseball.
Forty-nine years later, the boy had made his career in the game and was, by most accounts, one of its giants. The Yankees and Rays were scheduled to open the season at the Tokyo Dome. The boy, now a man, scored tickets. And once again, father and son toured the Far East, soaking in a game not so different from the one they had watched five decades earlier.
"I said to him, 'I bet we're the only two people in this stadium who saw a game in 1955 that are seeing it now,'" Sandy Alderson said.
Perhaps poignant for many, for John and Sandy this was typical. Father and son had always been close -- so close that when the Mets approached Sandy with a job offer in October, he accepted in part knowing it would allow his father, who lived in St. Petersburg to spend springs with him in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
He thinks about that often. Fifteen days after Sandy Alderson officially became general manager of the Mets, a car struck John Alderson roughly three miles from his Florida home. The greatest influence on the life of Sandy Alderson passed away an hour later -- and in doing so, proved that the influence ran both ways.
"He was wearing a Mets hat," Alderson said, "when he was hit."
Born Richard, always called Sandy, Alderson was a self-described military brat who knew no other life. Though some remain even today, Alderson kept few close friends because his family never stayed in one place for long. He was born in Seattle. He played Little League on the coast of Osaka Bay. He listened to news broadcasts of John F. Kennedy's assassination over a radio in England.
A career in baseball had not yet swept across the young man's radar when he met his wife, Linda, at a high school in Falls Church, Va., nor when he joined the ROTC at Dartmouth College. Nor even upon graduation, when Alderson took a cue from his father and joined the military. Forced to decide between the Navy and Marine Corps, Alderson opted for the Marines because he "thought it would be a better fit." So Alderson became semi-fluent in Vietnamese. He spent time at war.
From there came the first "Why not?" moment of his fledgling career -- and it was, Alderson came to realize years later, hardly the last. Done with the military, Alderson applied to Harvard Law School, and, upon receiving his acceptance, enrolled. Because, well, why not?
There was nothing yet in the 20-something Alderson's life to suggest he might soon become one of the game's most influential executives. Nothing when he and Linda began the rest of their lives in Boston. Nothing when he graduated, aimed his eraser at the script and moved west to join the law firm of Farella Braun & Martel.
Nothing even when Alderson met Roy Eisenhardt, an established lawyer who joined the Oakland Athletics in 1980 after his father-in-law bought the team. But after Alderson undertook much of the sale's legal work, Eisenhardt offered his new friend a job. And Alderson, with no background in the game -- with no motivation, really, save for a modest dislike of the legal world -- experienced the second "Why not?" moment of his career.
"It was very serendipitous, I guess," Alderson said. "I figured it would be fun and I'd try it. I could always be a lawyer."
He wasn't sure, though, if he could be a baseball man. Few attorneys existed in the game's front offices when Alderson stepped into Oakland's Coliseum for the first time as general manager; teams did not regularly employ one or two as they do today. So Alderson remained an anomaly throughout his early days in the Bay Area -- not necessarily shunned or disrespected, but certainly not embraced. For his part, Alderson believed he could be among the first of a new breed. That economists, and not lawyers, eventually began invading baseball's front offices en masse is a story for another day.
|"It's not as if he's a joke a minute, but at the same time, he laughs very easily. That's disarming for the people that he's leading. And he has no problem laughing at himself. I think he knows that he's far from perfect."|
|-- Paul DePodesta on Sandy Alderson|
Though Alderson didn't particularly care how others in baseball perceived him, he did understand his place. He was quiet then, seeking to remain so as he soaked up the intricacies of the game. There was much to learn, much to understand, much to troubleshoot. Alderson was a lawyer -- and a young one, at that -- in the world of Buzzie Bavasi, in the world of Spec Richardson, in the world of hey-kid-let-me-show-you-how-it's-done. Navigating such a world could be challenging, if not harrowing. Harvard hadn't offered a class on Jose Canseco.
And so Alderson made the requisite mistakes at first, learned from them and won two pennants. His World Series title came in 1989.
"To me it was, 'Let's try a lot of new things and see what works,'" Alderson said.
In that fashion he also changed the game, constructing a modern weight-training program, employing the game's first mental coach, and in the front office, pioneering an age of statistical analysis. He also became a leader; perhaps most reflective of Alderson's time in Oakland is the inordinate number of A's assistants who went on to become general managers: J.P. Ricciardi, who spent eight years in Toronto and recently accepted a position as a special assistant with the Mets; Paul DePodesta, who led the Dodgers for two seasons before following Alderson to San Diego and then New York; Walt Jocketty, who spent more than a decade with Alderson before moving on to jobs in St. Louis and Cincinnati; and, most famously, Billy Beane, who succeeded Alderson in Oakland and later became the subject of Michael Lewis' best-selling book "Moneyball," detailing many of the front-office philosophies that Alderson helped develop.
A startling chunk of the game's current front-office landscape, in fact, can be traced to Alderson's quiet firmness in Oakland.
"Sandy never, ever had to tell anybody he was in charge," Ricciardi said. "But you never felt intimidated, either. You knew he was the general manager, but it wasn't like he wore this big badge saying it. I think that's the greatest compliment I can give someone who's a great leader and your boss: the fact that you never look at him as your boss."
It was, in sum, a successful operation in Oakland, even if those golden years were not without their blemishes. Initially struggling to win, Alderson later thrived in large part due to the accomplishments of Canseco and Mark McGwire, both of whom later admitted to using steroids. There was suspicion at the time, then later regret, and eventually, a penance of sorts. After stops at Major League Baseball's offices in New York (where he rented a Midtown Manhattan apartment and walked the few short blocks to the league's Park Avenue headquarters) and the front office of the Padres, Alderson accepted a job cracking down on the use of performance-enhancing substances and age fraud in the Dominican Republic.
He was in the middle of that work in October when an old friend contacted him offering some advice: call Bud Selig.
When Alderson first approached Ricciardi in November about a potential job with the Mets, his former assistant balked. In the months since his dismissal in Toronto, Ricciardi had grown comfortable at home in suburban Massachusetts, keeping tabs on the industry but also on his two teenage sons. The same was true for DePodesta, who was content with his job -- and the weather -- in San Diego.
Both men, though, eventually accepted offers in New York, both citing Alderson as the primary reason. They wanted to work for him again. And that was precisely what Commissioner Bud Selig had envisioned when he requested in October that Alderson call him.
Selig saw a match where others were skeptical. When the Mets began scribbling out a list of general manager candidates several months ago, there was a notion in many circles -- and some still insist upon it -- that the 63-year-old Alderson might not be the best man for the job. That the 63-year-old Alderson may have done his best work decades ago. That the 63-year-old Alderson might be better off right where he was. But Selig never agreed. He saw a man with myriad connections in the game, a man whose name alone could give the Mets instant credibility, and recommended Alderson for the job.
Though he was hesitant to leave his unfinished work in the Dominican, Alderson, in turn, viewed the job as a rare opportunity to run a big-market club without significant budget restraints or limitations. "'Moneyball' with money" is what DePodesta calls it. Alderson refers to it as "very attractive."
And it is. The limitations of this winter are not reflective of what the Mets, with a top-tier payroll, can and will do in the future. After next season, the Mets will shed nearly half their current player payroll, lopping off some of the team's largest and least-efficient contracts. More than any of his current work, the Mets hired Alderson to manage their baseball-operations budget one year from now. If he succeeds, he may rapidly shape the Mets back into a National League power. If he falters, they will be set back yet again.
He likes that notion.
"I think the challenge of that job with the Mets," Beane said, "is what made it so attractive to him."
Alderson's office, a modest space by most executive standards, is a portrait of the man's public image. There are no decorations, save for a whiteboard depicting the team's current roster and a bag of cough drops lying idly on his desk. On one wall is a bank of lonely picture hooks -- Alderson swears he will hang something soon. For now, his one vast window is decoration enough, running the length of the far wall and spying down on Citi's spacious center field.
That's not to say, however, that the man has no quirks, no eccentricities, no flair. Alderson's sports watch -- a fixture even when he must ditch his favored black fleece vest for a suit and tie -- hints at a man who enjoys spy movies and history novels. One of his guilty pleasures is a quick six-hole round of golf with his adopted golden retriever, Buddy, who lies on the greens while Alderson putts. Golf, for Alderson, is a solitary pursuit; Buddy is usually the only one to receive an invitation.
But Alderson can be social, as well. Walking around the main floor of the Mets' baseball operations department last month, he spied a security guard watching basketball highlights on a flat-screen television. "Carmelo Anthony?" Alderson asked. "What's the deal with Carmelo, anyway?" Then Alderson flashed his smile, drawing lines on his face from his eyes to his ears. Disarmed, the guard struck up a conversation.
This side of the man might not always surface, but it's rarely far away. Just last month, some hours after Jayson Werth shocked the baseball community by signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals, Alderson offered the media another surprise, quipping, "I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington." Everybody laughed.
"It's not as if he's a joke a minute, but at the same time, he laughs very easily," DePodesta said. "That's disarming for the people that he's leading. And he has no problem laughing at himself. I think he knows that he's far from perfect."
The first time Beane met Alderson, the GM was strolling around Oakland's Spring Training complex -- on a work day -- in casual shorts. On at least one occasion years later, Alderson walked into the front office wearing a pair of sweatpants mottled with house paint.
According to those who know him, however, Alderson's most enviable attribute is not his humor nor his fashion sense nor even his business sense. It is his morality. Consider, for example, Alderson's actions upon accepting the job with the Mets. Rather than leave his post at Cal-Berkeley, where he was lecturing part-time, Alderson commuted coast to coast once a week until the semester was finished. He did it because he had accepted the position in academics first. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
"He's always had a moral compass which guides all his decisions," Beane said. "There's a right way to go about your business and a right, ethical way to do things, and it guides all the decisions he makes, even when they're private."
It was during those weeks of commuting, late on a Saturday night in November, when John Alderson was struck by a car, inverting what for Sandy had been a steady upward incline. But even then, at the height of his grief, Alderson's moral compass guided him. Rather than cancel a scheduled managerial interview, the new GM commuted two hours from St. Petersburg to baseball's industry meetings in Orlando, Fla. Spending half-days with his staff, Alderson drove back and forth three times that week as he grieved. In some ways, the work offered an escape for him. In others, it provided a reminder that his father would not be in Port St. Lucie come spring, nor in New York for a game or two, nor in Japan if such an opportunity ever resurfaced.
"Of all our family members, he was probably the most excited about the job," Alderson's wife, Linda, said of John. "He was calling every day. He was Googling everything about the Mets."
"One of the reasons he took the job is because he knew his dad would absolutely love it," said Alderson's son, Bryn. "Of course he loves the challenge and loves getting back in the game and getting back that competitive feeling, but he really loves sharing the game with his family."
Later that week in St. Petersburg, Alderson spoke at his father's memorial service -- closure, perhaps, but hardly enough for a man who lost plenty.
Leading a club's baseball operations department is a dream job for Alderson, who has done bigger and more celebrated things -- in addition to the jobs he did accept, interview requests rolled in from the Pac-10 Conference (they needed a commissioner) and the United States Olympic committee (they wanted a CEO). But at some point in his career, Alderson realized that climbing ever higher on an industry's ladder is not always as enjoyable as resting upon a more comfortable rung.
Even so, ambition rings within the man -- if nothing else, Alderson is fiercely competitive. In Oakland, he used to play basketball with other members of his staff, snapping at teammates who passed up an open man for a shot at the basket. "He was never afraid to exchange an elbow or two," Beane recalled, laughing. Though Alderson has adopted a rooting interest in the San Diego Chargers, his son remains a loyal fan of his hometown 49ers. When the teams played each other earlier this season, Bryn joked, "I made sure we weren't in the same room."
Such are the attributes that led Alderson to take on this newest challenge in New York. But such also are the attributes that once prompted him to leave comfortable posts with the A's and Major League Baseball. Alderson jokes that one of his greatest flaws is keeping his nose so low to the ground that he never sees the next opportunity until it is upon him. So perhaps, in other words, greater challenges still lie ahead.
"I think it's fun to take chances, try things," he said. "I've lived in a lot of different places. I've done a lot of different things."
For now, though, Alderson is doing this thing, in this place, camped upon this comfortable rung. Transforming the culture in New York is not a one-year challenge, he knows, but a multiyear commitment. And Alderson intends to see it through.