This is the first of a three-part interview with San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson. Big thanks to Mr. Alderson for taking time out of his busy schedule to make himself available, and also to his assistant, Dayle Tedrow, for her indispensable assistance in making this happen.
Sandy Alderson has been CEO of the San Diego Padres since May 2005. Before then he served as general manager of the Oakland A’s from 1983 to 1997, where he led that franchise to a World Series title in 1989 and mentored one of today’s more noteworthy GMs, his successor, Billy Beane. After leaving Oakland, Alderson went to work at the MLB offices in New York, where his duties included, among many other things, finding ways to speed up the game and giving baseball greater visibility around the world.
On a recent off-day, following a four-game sweep of the visiting New York Mets, I had a chance to visit with Alderson in his office at Petco Park. As befits a man known to help roll out the tarp during rain delays in Oakland during his time as GM there, Alderson’s office is accessible, with a view of the right-field concourse and at a level much closer to the ground than that of many CEOs I’ve encountered over the years.
Four black-and-white baseball photographs adorn the wall above and behind Alderson’s desk, serving as a gentle reminder of his passion for the sport he has served for a quarter century. Alderson speaks with the deliberation and precision of a Harvard Law School graduate, catching fire when he turns to topics such as the international game and rebuilding the Padres farm system.
Accessibility is a hallmark with Alderson. He makes himself available on a local weekly radio show and he’s been remarkably accommodating to this blogger, having first contributed the foreword to the Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual before agreeing to chat with me for an hour about all things baseball. My approach to this interview was simple: Try to ask questions that don’t suck, and then get out of the way and let the man talk. I hope I’ve succeeded and you enjoy my time with Alderson as much as I did.
Ducksnorts: While you were the GM in Oakland, you once helped roll out the tarp during a rain delay?
Alderson: I certainly did that in spring training. I think I did it a couple times in Oakland.
Ducksnorts: That’s a little unusual for a GM.
Alderson: Those are the fun things about baseball. [laughs]
Ducksnorts: It’s wonderful, but it’s something that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t recognize as — I don’t know if you want to call it a duty, but a service that a GM can provide to the team.
Alderson: Partly it’s because in both spring training and Oakland — as is the case in San Diego — you don’t have a grounds crew that’s large enough to handle the tarp, as you would in Kansas City or Pittsburgh, so guys pitch in. I’ve always enjoyed those aspects of the game anyway — rolling out the tarp, just the little things that are part of the game which also involve different people.
Ducksnorts: When you first started as GM, you were reading some Bill James. I was just getting into Bill James in 1984, and it was kind of an eye opener to me. He was sort of on the fringes at that time, and of course… he’s actually now working for the Red Sox… What impact did his work have on your understanding of the way the game works, and how did it influence the types of decisions you made in a real-time setting?
Alderson: I think it had a significant impact. He was doing some writing, and there were others at the time also on the fringe — a guy in the Bay Area by the name of Eric Walker. Eric we actually hired as a consultant, although we didn’t advertise that fact, and he did quite a bit of work for us over the years in trying to evaluate not just major league players but minor league players for purposes of projection at the major league level.
When I got into the game, I didn’t have any real background in baseball, so I wasn’t burdened by any [laughs] traditional notions of how to evaluate players or construct teams. I was particularly open to people like Bill James and Eric Walker. Walker wrote a book called The Sinister First Baseman, a little paperback, which was actually quite instructive.
Ducksnorts: He’s the guy who does High Boskage?
Alderson: Right… I’d say there were two competitive theories at that time, personified on the one hand by Earl Weaver and on the other hand by Gene Mauch. Weaver believed in the three-run homer, and Mauch believed in little ball.
From my standpoint it was the Eric Walkers and the Bill James who I think were able to very adequately support the Earl Weaver approach to the game in terms of overall success and what created the highest probability for success. That tied in nicely because to me the home run is like the 80-yard pass, like the three-point shot. It’s the kind of thing in which you can enjoy the anticipation.
There are a lot of things in baseball and other sports that are more athletic, and more immediate, and more reactive, but you don’t have the same sense of anticipation. I like home runs [laughs] — people like home runs — and so it was nice to see the concepts support that notion.
Ducksnorts: Can you talk a little about your time working in the MLB offices and what that was like?
Alderson: By and large it was enjoyable. I went to New York originally with the view that I could bring some of my experiences at the club level to bear at the league level, and I think I was successful in doing that in some respects. I also went to New York in hopes of learning more about the game at the national level, and I think that I learned a good deal when I was there as well. My work was focused on baseball operations and international development.
I enjoyed both of those things. Probably the key aspect of my baseball operations responsibility was umpiring, but there were issues like time of game and trying to address the strike zone. There were a number of challenges that don’t seem terribly monumental today, but were fun to address, and again, I think we had some success. I did come to enjoy the international side of the game and potential for growth there.
Ducksnorts: You were involved with creating the Urban Youth Academy in Compton. What is that, and what was your involvement?
Alderson: Well, when I got to Major League Baseball — this was 1998 — I felt, as did the commissioner, that we needed to do something to promote greater minority and urban involvement in baseball, and not just professional baseball. My thought was that we could take the model that had been so successfully used by clubs in places like the Dominican Republic and use it at the national level with Major League Baseball in areas where we thought we needed to have a greater presence.
I think it was the Winter Meetings of ’98 where I did a long roundtable with Baseball America and we talked about this. It just took a long time to get off the ground because it’s essentially a real estate deal. We looked in Atlanta and Miami; Houston; Washington, DC; and several places in LA and finally settled on Compton. Jimmie Lee Solomon did a lot of the legwork.
It was basically taking a concept that had been successful at the club level and applying it at the national level. The key for me was finding the right location with the right demographics, and then most importantly, not simply building a field and turning it over to somebody, but actually retaining responsibility for management and programs — everything related to the utilization of that facility. Lots of clubs have programs — we build fields, we turn them over to somebody else, and sometimes those work out, sometimes they don’t. In some cases where they don’t work out it’s because people don’t have operating budgets to maintain what’s been turned over…
The nice thing about the academy is it is a physical presence; it provides a focal point for all the programs. Baseball has had some nice programs over the years — RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] and a bunch of other programs — but there hasn’t been any real visual component; you can’t see it, you can’t feel it. This academy was a way to bring together all of these various programs and provide some bricks and mortar, if you will, visibility to those programs.
The concept is very similar in the Dominican [Republic] with the Padres’ new complex. The idea is, “we’re here” and we now have a presence, we have a profile. The question is, how do you best do that? You can approach it a number of different ways, but this was one way that we thought had some permanence to it.
Ducksnorts: Really trying to embed it into the culture as opposed to just “here it is” and forget about it.
Alderson: Yeah. This [the Padres' Dominican complex, which opened in April 2008] is state of the art. This is something that took it to the next level, which I think the Dominicans appreciate. It is a reaffirmation of the importance of the Dominican Republic and Latin America to professional baseball.
It’s also an affirmation that the… Latin American influence is not waning, it’s being rejuvenated. In the meantime, we’re now associated with something that is of terrific quality and sets us apart. We didn’t just want to go down there and have one of 30, we wanted to have one of one, and that’s what we’ve got.
It may be a while until anybody really catches up with us, because these are not easy projects to put together, and you’ve got to stick to it: people here — Jeremy Horowitz, Fred Uhlman — spending as much time as they have down there to make this thing successful, and then having an owner that was willing to put the money into it… Because it’s difficult even to operate commercially in the Dominican, it’s going to be hard for anybody to duplicate this for a while.
Ducksnorts: I’m actually going to ask you more about that in a little bit. Going back further even still… you were in the Marines. What was your rank?
Alderson: I got out as a first lieutenant, but in the reserves I got up to lieutenant colonel, I think. I never really did anything in the reserves.
Ducksnorts: Between your experience as a first lieutenant in the Marines and also having been an attorney, what were you able to gain from those experiences that you were able to then bring to baseball?
Alderson: As a lawyer, through law school, you’re trained to be analytical, unbiased, more objective. I think that was helpful. And having a legal background, too, you have an understanding of what the contractual issues are and so forth. I think it boils down to just being probably a little more analytical.
The Marine Corps was helpful on several levels. First of all, what it does impress on you is the importance of organization and process, and philosophy, and tenacity. What people don’t understand about the Marine Corps is that… it does require absolute adherence to certain principles, but there are very few principles, and they’re conceptual in nature. It doesn’t require you to do the same thing, the same way, every time. It really encourages initiative and a certain amount of creativity within a framework.
The other way that the Marine Corps was helpful to me, early in my time in baseball, was for credibility — as odd as that sounds. Without having a background in baseball, people look at you — and you’re a lawyer — and they could have some skepticism about that, but as a former Marine, it’s like — it wasn’t as if I was a former player or someone that had direct association to the game, but it was still something that people respected. I didn’t wear it on my sleeve, but I think, in addition to the inherent qualities that one develops by being in the Marine Corps, from a credibility standpoint it also helped bridge the gap there early, when I was an outsider basically.
In Part 2 of our discussion, Mr. Alderson talks about his daily responsibilities as CEO, whether it’s possible for him to relax and enjoy a game, bad free-agent signings, and the organization’s commitment to making inroads in the international market.