By Chuck LaMar
Special to E$PN.com
It's never been easy being a General Manager in the major leagues. Fans and sports journalists eye every move you make with a jeweler's scrutiny, looking for the tiniest imperfection or flaw. And once they find that flaw, they start booing at the ballpark, or printing ad-hominem assaults in the local paper, and the town turns into a monster movie mob scene. Nowadays, with 24-hour sports coverage, internet fantasy leagues, and amateur fan sites and weblogs, everyone's a critic, and it's sometimes hard to hear yourself think or talk over all the racket. That said, it's sweet vindication when a player you acquire helps your team win a ball game, and it makes all the ruckus and hardship worthwhile.
I think it's fair to say that, out of any baseball general manager currently working , I've been villified the most. What folks don't understand is that I've probably had a tougher job that most. Let me just state a fact - Tampa Bay isn't a lucrative market like Boston or New York, or even Minnesota. It's tough to get fans to come out to the games, regardless of whether the team's winning or losing. Most folks in Tampa Bay are real old, and don't get out that often. The rest of the folks are young, sure, but they're transient, visiting on vacation or business, and they don't have time to stop by Tropicana Field to see the D-Rays play their gutsy brand of baseball. Those are two strikes that make it hard to swing away when it comes time to acquire players and wheel and deal, never mind acquiring the state of the art equipment or personnel that other teams can easily afford.
Not to cry poverty, but I'm actually typing this on an old IBM PS/2 my secretary / head scout / Director of Player Personnel found in the kitchen dumpster while taking out the trash. And this is the GOOD computer - I think Mr. Naimoli is still waiting for his C-64 to finish booting. After I type this up and save it to disk, I'm going to have to walk to the nearest Kinko's to get this printed out, and that's a long walk. Meanwhile, a team like the Oakland A's can afford to have Billy Beane take his fancy WiFi laptop into the stadium bathroom and pound out a couple thousand words about Joe Morgan, while 15 MIT interns drink cans of Coca Cola Zero and crunch numbers and look for the next overweight superstar. The only running water we have is in the player's locker room. Like I said, I don't want to sound like I'm whining or ungrateful, but running a major league franchise is hard work.
This is why Tampa Bay needs to be extra careful when making personnel moves. Whoever compared negotiating with me to tending to 'a root canal without the nerve gas' was very astute. General managing is a lot like dental surgery - if you're not careful and exact, you could do more harm than good. Tampa Bay can't just spend money haphazardly and bank on just one player. We can't just send players up and down like yo-yos. We have to think about the future as well as the present in every transaction we make. People are anonymously quoted as saying that I'm asking for the moon for Danys Baez. What I would say back to these people (if I knew who they were) is that asking for anything less than the moon for a player of Danys' quality would be an insult to him, to me, and to this organization.
Resources are limited here in Tampa Bay, and they have to be exploited to the fullest. When the Mets came calling about Victor Zambrano, this is what I had in mind during negotiations. They were looking to acquire a rotational workhorse for a (sadly unsuccessful) playoff run, a guy that can throw a lot of pitches and give you a chance to win more often than not. And I made sure they paid accordingly for such a high-quality player. The fact that other teams this year don't see eye-to-eye with me regarding Baez doesn't mean I'm going to back down and capitulate to some sub-par offer just because it's the only one out there. It's this tenacity and stubbornness in the face of seemingly impossible odds that's my greatest strength, my ability to stay the course and follow through on a plan of action. Of course, some folks feel differently.
Nitpicky critics often like to point out that I grabbed Bobby Abreu from the Astros during the 1998 expansion draft, and then thoughtlessly flipped him to the Phillies for infielder Kevin Stocker. Now, of course, anyone would love to have a player like Bobby Abreu on their team, and he would have looked great in sea foam green, stealing bases and hitting home runs. But do you realize how much it would have cost Tampa Bay to keep Bobby Abreu around? Like I said, the future matters as much as the present when the team's success going forward is at stake.
In 2000, Abreu's salary increased by almost 800% to nearly 3 million dollars. This year, he's making over 13 million dollars. That's almost 1/3rd the payroll for this year's team! If we kept him around for even his first year of arbitration, he would've cost the team a lot of money. Never mind the pressure from the fans and the newspapers begging us to keep him around. If we sign him and he busts, we have lots of egg on our face and hell to pay with any number of people; if we sign him and he does well, then there's pressure to pay him even more money next year, which just starts the whole process over again. By trading him away, I saved the Tampa Bay organization the time and effort (and capital) that would have been spent agonizing over this issue over the course of Abreu's long and productive career. It's the same situation I faced when dealing with players like Dmitri Young, Jeff Johnson, and even Jose Guillen - do I want these players to develop and thrive and cost this team millions of dollars, or do I want to trade them (while the organization's investment in them is minimal) and acquire more cost-effective players?
It's these moves that allowed the Devil Rays to take their one shot at glory at the turn of the 20th century. Yes, I took a gamble by acquiring high-priced players like Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn and Jose Canseco and Juan Guzman and Wilson Alvarez, but I thought it was a risk worth taking. I invested the future moneys saved through the Abreu and Young transactions in the present, at a time where other teams like the Yankees and Red Sox looked weak. (There's no way anyone could have predicted that the Yankees would follow a 114-win season with another divisional championship and World Series.) As nice as it would be to say that general management in baseball is an exact science, the fact is that there are many things that can't be controlled. How am I to know that those players listed previously would all turn out to be unmitigated disasters? How am I to know that highly-touted prospects like Josh Hamilton and Dewon Brazelton would turn out to be headcases? How am I to know that Ben Grieve was done as a slugger at such a young age? This off-season, we took a chance on Josh Phelps, and it didn't work out. Meanwhile, there are moves involving productive D-Ray players like Julio Lugo or Alex Gonzalez that barely get the ink they truly deserve.
There's only so much information out there, and once that information's been viewed and reviewed and rereviewed to the point that the ditto ink smears, and once the film reel begins to snap against the projector, it really comes down to a flip of the coin. Sometimes that coin lands on tails 15 times in a row, and sometimes it lands on heads 15 times in a row. That doesn't mean you stop flipping the coin. For every Bobby Abreu you let slip through your fingers, there are ten Travis Lees or Jason Tyners waiting to pick up that slack. It's a chance you have to take when you're a general manager.
I said this a couple of years ago, and I continue to stand behind this: "The only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major-league level." We have a young nucleus of great players beginning to mature and thrive. With young hitters like Carl Crawford, Johnny Gomes, and Jorge Cantu being brought along by veteran sluggers Aubrey Huff and Travis Lee, Tampa Bay has one of the most feared line-ups in all of baseball. And a pitching staff anchored by Scott Kazmir (acquired via trade, in case you forgot) could go a long way. But there are more decisions to be made, as arbitration years pile up, salaries escalate, and the need to win a championship grows stronger. Whenever critics wonder when Tampa Bay is going to wake up and actually field a winning team, I take a step back from the ticker tape machine and tell myself that this quest for success isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. Only the runners that know how and when to exert themselves will cross the finish line as champions. It took the Boston Red Sox 86 years to figure out how to become World Series champions. The Cubs haven't won anything in an even longer stretch. I'm only on year 8. I'd like to think I'm ahead of the curve.
Chuck LaMar is the senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.