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December 18, 2003

Breaking Balls

Shine the Light

by Derek Zumsteg

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We can be pretty hard on front offices sometimes, whether they're deserving of it or not. For instance, during a Roundtable recently, I stated the following: "I don't think the Mariners have enough brain power to light a bulb, much less think through the intricacies of market dynamics."

I doubt this comes as much of a surprise to anyone. It was a comment born out of frustration at an off-season that started with bringing back Edgar Martinez, but has gone downhill from there. Sometimes it seems like the people running major-league clubs are as clueless as that one owner in your fantasy league who just traded Rafael Soriano for Terrence Long.

Take Pat Gillick, a man who was frequently mentioned as one of the best general managers in the game. Gillick's a smart guy; he and the Blue Jays set up a tremendous player development system in the Dominican Republic back when people thought they were a little loopy for doing it, and it paid tremendous dividends. His teams have won championships. So, to call him dumb... well, that was stupid of me, and it sparked some arguments.

David Cameron, for one, took me to task, and this was his view:

Putting yourself in Pat Gillick's shoes, I think it's a lot easier to understand his decisions.... You grew up in an era where certain attributes were considered worthwhile. You were taught that these were the things worth pursuing. You were given an opportunity, pursued those attributes, and experienced 30 years of success with those philosophies. In the process, you've made millions of dollars, become famous, been given hundreds of prestigious awards, and been called the best ever at your profession.

Now, some new guys come in and say that they have a better way to do what you've been doing for the last 30 years. However, in order to find this new way, you have to abandon all your old principles, start completely over, and learn a new system. You have grandkids to spend time with, a retirement home in several countries, and no need to continue working. Do you choose to adjust, adapt, or change, or do you just continue doing what you've been doing until someone doesn't let you anymore?

Dave's right.

Pat Gillick isn't stupid. I'm sure we could sit down to play his game of choice--Hold 'em? Chess? Go? Competitive Scrabble?--and I'd find him a worthy opponent.

If I'd been more careful in my words, I might have said this: The game has passed Gillick up. His disdain for advances in performance evaluation, and his particular preference for players of the veteran, good-character mode, result in some bad decisions. His neglect of the bottom spots on the roster have cost his teams games. And he's done little to improve his team during the season. In recent years his teams went to great pains to give up early draft picks, which I find amazingly wrong-headed.

Gillick's a scouting man, and feels that the subjective has significantly more to offer than the objective. He thinks having a good clubhouse is worth paying out premium salaries. And so on.

Should we figure that all baseball men are smart, but with ill-applied intelligence?

No. I think that one of the great measures of real intelligence isn't the ability to interview well, or to bully others with knowledge, but simply to think outside the box--to consider seriously the possibility that you might be wrong. Many of us came around from RBI Land one way or another (James and the Abstracts, Palmer, or some dude named Rob Neyer who was starting a baseball column for ESPNet SportsZone) and were willing to consider that there were things other people knew about baseball that we didn't.

Which brings us back to my initial comment. The Mariners front office could power many lightbulbs, thinking intently about trades that make sense only to them, like Carlos Guillen for Omar Vizquel. It's just a question of where they're shining the light.

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