I’ve pointed this out before, but John Schuerholz didn’t see “Built To Win” as a memoir, but as a guide to “leadership strategies.” Today’s two chapters are examples of just that and unfortunately, from a baseball perspective, they are the least interesting. Re-living the Tom Glavine Bolts for the Mets saga or the Tim Hudson contract extension is just far more compelling for me so we’ll keep today’s review a bit short.
Chapter 6 – Building a Winning Organization
It’s a little weird when John Schuerholz compares the 1990 World Series sweep by the Reds of the Oakland A’s to his own departure from Kansas City. Schuerholz says both were “equally as shocking.” Yeah, no. Schuerholz goes over in a bit more detail why he left Kansas City. Essentially, a new ownership and transition were not only difficult on Schuerholz, but for those who were unhappy with the changes, he was seen in a negative light. For some reason. Honestly, I don’t really get it.
At the same time, Schuerholz and Stan Kasten grow closer. So close that Kastan tries to pick Schuerholz’s brain for candidates to replace Bobby Cox as general manager after the latter moved back to the dugout. Schuerholz puts his own hat in the ring and after asking permission from the KC ownership, Schuerholz bolted for Atlanta.
Part of the reason came down to autonomy – something Schuerholz greatly valued. It’s similar to why Alex Anthopoulos left Toronto. Despite a lucrative offer to stay in Toronto, Anthopoulos didn’t like that they had brought in a new president to oversee his decisions – especially after he had success. In the end, he left the team and a few years later, found that autonomy in Atlanta. It’s interesting because it appears Anthopoulos will have the autonomy that his most recent predecessors – John Coppolella and Frank Wren – didn’t have.
Schuerholz speaks of changing the culture in Atlanta with the help of Liza Doolittle, Pablo Casals, and Don Quixote. Yep. Again, from a leadership standpoint, this rhetoric probably is very useful. But for someone who is hoping to read a Braves book, this type of stuff is harder to get into.
However, we do get a glimpse of what Schuerholz was thinking when he took the job. First up, he wanted to improve the playing surface and turn the drab, boring Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium into something a bit more exciting. Second, the infield defense had to be improved. The typical Braves infield in 1990 was David Justice at first, Jeff Treadway at second, Jeff Blauser at short, and Jim Presley at third base. The trade of Dale Murphy opened right field up for Justice and Mark Lemke taking over for Treadway would also help. As too would the signings of Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, and Terry Pendleton.
The third thing Schuerholz wanted was a center fielder. Ron Gant did his best at playing the position but was limited. The acquisition of Otis Nixon shortly before the 1991 season gave the Braves the last component they needed.
You also quickly compare this approach to the rebuild of the Braves that’s happened over the last few years. Certainly, trading the defensively elite Andrelton Simmons goes against this philosophy. Adding Ender Inciarte and retaining Ozzie Albies rather than deal him, though, will make the Braves much more of a defensive unit. The 2018 Braves could, theoretically, have plus players defensively at five positions. Anthopoulos was following the same blueprint as Schuerholz here. Help your young pitching staff by improving the defense.
Chapter 7 – Leadership: Good People, Good Listening, Enthusiasm
Here are another 30 pages of leadership strategies. Yay…But there’s some good stuff hidden in the paragraphs that advise readers on how to build winning organizations. One – Schuerholz hired Buck O’Neil while in Kansas City. Like many of you, I was introduced to O’Neil while watching Ken Burns’ Baseball, the PBS nine-part documentary that quite fortunately aired during the fall of 1994 to give baseball fans something to watch as the sport was knee-deep into a work stoppage. O’Neil was heavily featured, especially in segments on the Negro Leagues. It was some of the most memorable parts of the 18-hour series.
As I read “Built to Win” and saw his name show up – oddly immediately following the second tidbit during this book on Rush Limbaugh – I found myself engrossed once again. The preceding pages just kind of run together, I’m sad to say. Schuerholz is not a gifted writer and as he dives deep into how he’s a leader, the book reaches a lull. But type the name “Buck O’Neil” and I’m all ears. Or eyes, since I’m reading.
O’Neil was hired during the mid-80’s as a Royals’ scout. He was also welcomed to come by the clubhouse, where he could be a mentor to anyone – even George Brett. Schuerholz tells a story about O’Neil that, if you’ve watched Baseball, won’t surprise you. As the two are in the middle of a conversation, O’Neil halts his boss and implores him to listen to batting practice. “It’s Bo Jackson hitting. We have to go out and watch, boss.” Schuerholz asked how he knew that and O’Neil said he’s heard that sound – the sweet crack of the bat – just three times. “Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth, and Bo Jackson.”
O’Neil passed away in 2006. In two years, the Baseball Hall of Fame will have a chance to right one of its greatest wrongs. Hopefully, they select O’Neil to be enshrined.
Schuerholz shares things about Dick Howser, Bobby Cox, and Leo Mazzone. The focus is on communication and working well with one another for a common good. I’ve always felt that what made Schuerholz, Cox, and Mazzone great was a clear and defined structure from the ground-up. Separately, I really don’t see one of the trio individually as one of the greatest ever. But together, they just clicked perfectly.
After that, Schuerholz corrects a misconception about who the first free agent he signed after taking the Braves job was. Terry Pendleton was the first player, but the first free agent was Dean Taylor to be his new Assistant GM. Second, he hired Ed Mangan as the new head groundskeeper. Mangan would head that job for years. Circling back to Taylor, the future Brewers GM had been an Assistant GM under Schuerholz in KC. He was the guy tasked with researching the archaic baseball regulations in regards to pine tar.
Yep, Schuerholz was the GM during the George Brett pine tar game. In the game, Brett hit a two-out, two-run homer off Goose Gossage to put the Royals up 5-4. Billy Martin complained about the pine tar on the bat exceeding regulations, which was a loosely enforced rule. He was correct, of course, and Brett was called out. The anger Brett showed in that game is classic. Taylor believed the rule detailed punishing players before the play took place, not punishing the team after. The decision would be quickly overruled.
Have you been reading along? Are there some observations I missed? Next up, we’ll finish off Built to Win’s last two chapters. Then, we’ll put this book on the shelf right next to Tomahawked before beginning our next book. I have two books on their way for April. Chipper Jones‘ “Ballplayer” and Matthew McConkey’s “Never Say Die: The 1914 Braves.” Do you have a preference?