Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies From Baseball’s Winningest GM
Atlanta Braves Executive Vice President and General Manager John Schuerholz Jr. was an eighth-grade teacher in Maryland before he was offered and accepted an entry level position with his hometown Baltimore Orioles in 1966. Schuerholz never looked back as he was given more responsibility and ultimately earned the position of general manager for the Kansas City Royals. Tremendous success and a World Series win in 1985 opened the door to Atlanta, GA where Schuerholz has assembled the 14-time National League East Division Champion Braves
Built To Win: Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies From Baseball’s Winningest GM is the story of that success. The inside stories of ‘Barry Bonds as a Brave for one night’, the Tom Glavine departure, which Schuerholz and Glavine have had to deal with under public scrutiny during the last few weeks, and the chapter named ‘The Diary of a Major League Deal,’ that covered the daily interaction between Schuerholz and Tim Hudson’s agent, are incredibly revealing and detailed. The reader is taken into the world of the Atlanta Braves GM who is running, arguably, baseball’s most successful franchise.
The publisher (Warner Books) obviously wanted the Barry Bonds story, which is Chapter One, and the Moneyball rebuttal in Chapter Two to be the first things readers scan after the foreword by Bob Costas. The ‘inside stories’ span the entire book (the GM’s career)…things like evergreen contract clauses, the Moneyball approach to building a roster, and players Schuerholz acquired with off-the-field issues like Darrel Porter and Vida Blue from the Royals and John Rocker from the Braves. Great stories like the Baby Braves, the re-discovery of Julio Franco, and Andruw Jones negotiating his own contract extension a few years ago fill the front of the book while the ‘leadership strategies’ and the stories and examples that accompany them mostly fill the rest of Schuerholz’s entertaining memoirs. Some of the really juicy details from most of the stories are left out only to protect the players. If you have followed the Braves and Royals over the years you may be able to figure them out!
There are some jabs at the power agents and the players association on several topics, including the Alex Rodriguez deal. Hey Braves fans… Schuerholz had the second highest offer on the table for A-Rod at $126 million. That’s exactly half of what he received from the Texas Rangers. Schuerholz wasn’t accusing anyone, but if the owners and GM’s can’t compare the contract demands of players, or what is called collusion, then why can the agents and the players compare contract offers?
“Another case where an agent got past knowledgeable baseball people and got to an owner,” said Schuerholz. “Agents talk among themselves and with the union, sharing negotiating information all the time. That’s allowed! What a system!”
The strength of the Braves minor league system has played the greatest role in the success of the Braves under John Schuerholz. Schuerholz respects the opinion of his minor league coaches and scouts and tells dozens of stories that relay that fact throughout Built To Win. The reports from those scouts led to the Raul Mondesi signing in 2005 and the J.D. Drew signing the year before. It also led to last season’s spring training trade for Jorge Sosa which stabilized an injured Braves rotation at the time. But it’s not all about the Braves. Great ‘inside stories’ from his days with the George Brett led Kansas City Royals are classic.
Schuerholz talks about Bo Jackson being a freak of nature in a baseball uniform, Deion Sanders playing two professional games in one day, and how the Braves signed Terry Pendleton in 1992. People questioned the signing at the time, but later that season Pendleton would be named NL MVP. It seems as though Schuerholz could go on forever with each story, but they are all edited down nicely, and they are all memorable.
Schuerholz graciously thanks all of his former bosses, especially the one who gave him the first big break in his career, Lou Gorman. He goes into detail about how he broke into the league as an administrative assistant for the Baltimore Orioles by writing a letter to the team. He goes on to give great examples of what he learned from his mentors on his way to becoming one of the most successful GMs in the league.
Schuerholz takes tremendous pride in his ability to sit and listen to his scouts, managers, and other assistants. He often credits current manager Bobby Cox, former pitching coach Leo Mazzone, and Jim Fregosi, a special assistant to Schuerholz, for giving expert advice.
Schuerholz uses several stories from his time with the Royals to show just how much the game has changed over the last three decades. He despises agents and directs them all to Vice President/Assistant GM Frank Wren. He only deals with them when he has to. Who could blame him after the A-Rod deal?
After reading much of the book, the reader may wonder how on earth anyone can deal with such change and diversity in their daily activities, much less in their job. “I doubt there is a general manager of anything who has to deal with change more than a baseball general manager,” Schuerholz says. Schuerholz has always learned on the fly with things like free agency, arbitration and, in his case, having to eliminate $20 million from the payroll before the 2004 season.
Maybe if he had known the challenges that were to come with the Braves, the decision to leave the Royals would have been even tougher than it was. Schuerholz left a good situation working for good management (he worked side-by-side with a young Rush Limbaugh too) to go to Atlanta which was then the laughing stock franchise that some say the Royals are now. Many of his friends at the time let him know about it too! “What a shame. Schuerholz was such a talented guy, but now he has lost his marbles.”
The Schuerholz children were born in KC where John’s wife was also raised. It was not an easy decision for him to leave that city. But he had a vision for the Atlanta Braves and talks about that vision in detail throughout the book. In his early days in Atlanta, Schuerholz tells stories of how he prepared for every staff meeting to inspire his employees. “Maybe it’s my belief in the Pygmalion Theory, the self-fulfilling prophecy, that if you believe so strongly in something and you have capabilities and a strong work ethic, you can achieve those things,” Schuerholz said.
When Schuerholz pens quick poems and recites motivational credos (some of which are on his office wall), he really comes across as the grade school teacher that learned a lot from his father, brothers and his grandfather back in Baltimore, MD. His family was well known in the area for their athletic prowess. He says his grandfather Will, who played in the minors and was an amateur basketball player, was known as the ‘Bob Cousy’ of Baltimore. But baseball is where the 150 lb. John Jr. says he succeeded the most. “My self-confidence and competitive nature always exceeded my physical stature.” In fact, he was presented with the Athlete of the Year award at Towson State in 1962.
There are so many stories that could have changed the course of his career in baseball. Schuerholz was offered the job as Farm Director for the New York Yankees in 1975. He was young and felt like five years warranted a promotion, so with the blessing of Gorman, Schuerholz interviewed and negotiated his own deal to the Yankees.
“You’ve made the biggest mistake of your life,” said Gorman. “Can you give me twenty-four hours?”
Schuerholz eventually decided to stay on board with the Royals, and he should probably thank Gorman for keeping him there, since it might have been the single most important decision of his baseball career.