(Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets…brings back memories of Ebbetts Field)
When Sandy Alderson agreed to become general manager of the New York Mets in 2010 he was somewhat aware of their financial situation. He was cognizant of their ownership involvement with the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal, but not the depth of their financial losses. Believing that accepting the job was a career challenge, plus it would bring joy to his father who lived in Florida, Alderson accepted the position. What Alderson did not know was that the Wilpon family, who owned the Mets invested over $500 million dollars with Madoff and counted on a constant 10% return to run the team. Once the scandal broke that money was gone, and they no longer had the funds to pay off the debt from their 2002 purchase of the team from Nelson Doubleday, Jr. The team was in such bad shape that baseball commissioner, Bud Selig agreed to an immediate short term loan of $25 million so the team could meet payroll expenses, and convinced Alderson to take over as general manager. On top of that one of the trustees involved with the Madoff investigation sued the Wilpons for being “willfully blind” in dealing with the “Ponzi master” for $300 million. The suit was finally settled on March 20, 2012, for $162 million, in addition the Mets had lost $70 million in the 2011 season. When Alderson came aboard the Mets had reduced their payroll from $140 to $85 million in one year, the highest percentage salary reduction in baseball history. This is what Alderson had to deal with during his first few years at the helm. The debacle that had encompassed the Mets and Alderson’s plan to restore confidence in the team as well as rebuilding their baseball operation is told in Steve Kettmann’s new book, BASEBALL MAVERICK: HOW SANDY ALDERSON REVOLUTIONIZED BASEBALL AND REVIVED THE METS. The book is not your typical sports narrative. It is more of an intellectual biography of Alderson where the author weaves the Mets’ general manager’s life story that saw him as a Dartmouth and Harvard Law graduate, a Marine officer in Vietnam, in addition to his baseball successes as he applied his analytical, “moneyball” approach to rescue the franchise.
The reader gains insights into Alderson’s personality and approach to organization during his tour in Vietnam, when he goes over the head of his commanding officer who passed him over for a position because he had once disagreed with a decision that involved the constant rotation of company commanders in his unit. As a Marine, normally this was not acceptable behavior. However, in this case, Alderson used a seldom employed Marine tradition for officers and “requested mast,” the right to go over the head of a commanding officer to the regimental commander, who in this case was Colonel P.X. Kelley, Commander of the First Marines, a formidable figure who would later become the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Kelly agreed with Alderson and gave him a plum position in intelligence. Following a description of Alderson’s eight month tour in Vietnam, Kettman traces his journey from a law office in San Francisco, his education as a baseball administrative novice, to his present position.
(Sandy Alderson, General Manager of the NY Mets after a loss)
Alderson’s first step toward a career in baseball occurred when Roy Eisenhardt, an attorney in the firm that Alderson worked for asked him to oversee a major deal. Eisenhardt’s father-in-law was Walter A. Haas, Jr. Chairman of Levi Strauss who wanted to purchase the Oakland A’s from Charley Finley and save the team for the Oakland area. Along with Haas’s son, Wally, Alderson oversaw the purchase from the inimitable “Charlie O.” and the result was that he could not avoid being “bitten by the baseball bug.” Kettman provides an ideological history of sabermetrics going back to Branch Rickey, who hired Allan Roth who developed the “on base percentage.” Kettman next introduces, Eric Walker a young sabermatrician who prepared “The Oakland Athletics: A Quantitative Analysis by Mathematical Methods.” Alderson hired Walker and their friendship would continue for years. Oakland became Alderson’s baptism under fire as he employed his analytical or sabermetric approach to evaluating personnel and aspects of being a successful general manager. Alderson’s baseball philosophy can be summed up as, “once you established a correlation between on-base percentage and slugging percentage with run production, then you also established a correlation between gross run production and win-loss percentage, and it became apparent that the best approach was on-high base percentage and hit the ball out of the ballpark, as opposed to batting average, as opposed to the hit-and-run and bunting.” (78) Many baseball lifers had difficulty accepting “computerball,” but since Alderson was trained as a Marine military officer and a lawyer he had no difficulty adjusting. If things made sense from an analytical and organizational perspective Alderson was on board. Alderson applied this approach in Oakland and took Charlie Finley’s run down operation and turned the A’s into a World Series team between 1988 and 1990 under Tony La Russo, and winning it all by sweeping the San Francisco Giants in the “earthquake series” in 1989.
(Sandy Alderson, NY Mets general manager after a win)
Kettman explores a number of important issues in baseball apart from Alderson’s organizational successes. The author provides insights into the life of a sportswriter. The task of attending mostly boring baseball meetings, having your newspaper columns evaluated by how many “tweets” it generates, the lack of time to think and reflect on subjects they are investigating, and the rhythms of spring training are all described. Kettman goes on to explain the controversy concerning steroids in baseball. The issue created a great deal of controversy, particularly for the A’s since two of their best players, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco, the “bash brothers” were users. The question that Kettman asks was should someone as smart as Alderson have known about it, but with no testing, no punishment, and no official baseball PED policy, how could he be accountable. Another interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between Alderson and Billy Beane, a former New York Mets prospect who finished an uneventful career in Oakland. Beane became Alderson’s protégé and eventually he became assistant general manager in 1993. Beane is described as a younger version of his mentor and when Alderson left the A’s, Beane took over complete control and if you have seen the film or read the book Moneyball, the relationship proved very successful.
Before taking over the Mets in 2010, Alderson did a stint with the San Diego Padres and worked with Major League baseball in the Dominican Republic to internationalize the game. The book is essentially a case study in leadership and Alderson’s approach to restoring the Mets to prominence bears that out. First, Kettman describes how Alderson constructed his organizational team. Hiring two former general managers, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, and keeping John Ricco, the Mets assistant general manager reflects Alderson’s own personal security and his vision in employing individuals who have their own expertise in creating a superb front office. Each had their own special talents that blended together nicely. Their approach toward grooming younger players, signing free agents, dealing with player representatives, i.e.; Scott Boras and Jay Z, and creating a winning culture in the locker room should provide encouragement for despondent Mets’ fans for the future.
(Alderson during his tour of Vietnam)
Alderson’s approach in dealing with young players with great potential is fascinating. Kettman uses Zach Wheeler, a young phenom that Alderson acquired in a trade for Carlos Beltran, Jacob deGrom, a former short stop who was National League rookie of the year in 2014, and Lucas Duda, who the Mets could not decide whether to trade or not, as case studies in how to develop players. He explores when to promote a player to the major leagues, the burden placed on a young player who seemingly is seen as a major part of the future success of the franchise, how a young player deals with their own development, balancing fan expectations, handling a prospects first big league appearance, and how a young player adjusts to playing on the major league level, particularly with the distractions that playing in New York can bring. In Wheeler’s case it worked well, until a few weeks ago when he succumbed to “Tommy John” surgery, for deGrom and Duda the 2015 season has begun very nicely.
Kettman analyzes how Alderson puts together a roster in conjunction with his staff as well as how they went about trades with other teams. Currently, the Mets on the precipice of actually having a winning season. If in the end the Mets finally become financially sound on the field and off, Alderson will be declared a “genius,” if not despite his past resume he will be roasted as a failure in the New York tabloids. Overall, Kettman has delivered a strong “baseball book,” that has applications for leadership in other venues. If you enjoy baseball and how a thoughtful and intelligent person goes about creating a winning culture for success, this book is a wonderful read.