The Rookie

For 34 years, the Texas Rangers have struck out in their quest for a World Series title. Can they be saved by a 28-year-old general manager from New York whose only experience comes from the fantasy leagues? At this point, I’m willing to try just about anything.

May 2006By Comments

MY FIRST THOUGHT WHEN I read last fall that the Texas Rangers had promoted a 28-year-old named Jon Daniels to the job of general manager was, Who? Having suffered through the ineptitudes of this sorry franchise for nearly three and a half decades, having sat as solemn witness to its stumbling pretenses to be a major league ball club, I assumed that this was just another mistake—typical and, in the long run, of no real consequence. The GM post had been held the previous four years by veteran baseball executive John Hart, who’d admittedly made a mess of things, but at least Hart had had an extensive baseball background. Daniels, on the other hand, was essentially an outsider, a naïf from cyberspace. Think of it this way: In 1999, the last time the Rangers were good enough to appear in an American League playoff game, Daniels had just graduated from Cornell University with a degree in applied economics and management and was in Boston working his way up the ladder at a corporation that bought up companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. He served a brief internship with the Colorado Rockies, in 2001, followed by four years of crunching numbers and negotiating contracts as one of Hart’s subordinates, but the most experience he’d had actually running a ball club was with the teams he’d fielded in an Internet fantasy league.

It’s a long way from the geek land of fantasy baseball to the major leagues, and farther still to one of the thirty general manager jobs available. Daniels has traveled the distance in record time and made it look easy. That’s what worries me. I learned about baseball from my father, who had followed the minor league team in Dallas since the thirties and believed in the game as a grand tradition. In his time, general managers were likely to be crusty old bastards in baggy pants. Most of them had spent years in the trenches of player development; they spit tobacco, drank gin, and handed out advice like “Take two and hit to right.” It was gospel that the Boston Red Sox would never win another World Series because they were cursed by one GM’s long-ago trade that sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

But things change, even in baseball. Daniels is part of a new breed, the so-called Jamesian movement, named for the legendary baseball writer and statistician extraordinaire Bill James. James teaches that the offensive side of baseball can be reduced to a science—that computers, fed reliable statistics, can tell a ball club more about a player’s ability than a dozen scouts in the field—and he stresses the discipline of “sabermetrics,” a word that he coined to describe the analysis of baseball through objective evidence and methods. Before Daniels, the youngest GM in major league history was Theo Epstein, of the Red Sox, who was ten months older than Daniels when he got the job, in 2002. Like Daniels, Epstein is an Ivy Leaguer with fireball energy, a mind that preternaturally translates cold statistics into hot intelligence, and a geek’s trust that in this world of preparation and opportunity, all things are possible. As an assistant GM, Epstein played a key role in hiring Bill James as a consultant. Two years after Epstein got promoted, the Red Sox won a World Series championship for the first time in 86 years. So much for the Curse of the Bambino.

Rangers owner Tom Hicks, who bought the team in 1998, believes that Daniels can do for the Rangers what Epstein did for the Red Sox—maybe not this year but sometime soon. Already there are signs that things are improving. A clubhouse where the anger was palpable at the close of last season is now abuzz with peace, if not euphoria. In his first off-season, Daniels signed free-agent pitcher Kevin Millwood, who had the best earned run average in the American League last season (2.86), and traded for two other starting pitchers, Adam Eaton (11-5 last year for the San Diego Padres) and Vicente Padilla (a former All-Star who has gone 51-51 in seven seasons, most recently with the Philadelphia Phillies), thus giving the Rangers more stability at the top of the rotation. In the same trade that brought Eaton from the Padres, Daniels also landed a respectable setup man for the bull pen, Akinori Otsuka. Even better, this team continues to have the hitting to compete with division heavyweights such as Oakland and Los Angeles, especially with young stars like shortstop Michael Young, third baseman Hank Blalock, and first baseman Mark Teixeira just reaching their prime.

But the Ranger faithful can only wait. Before it started its first season in Texas, in 1972, this moribund franchise was the woebegone Senators of Washington (“First in war, first in peace, last in the American League”). Rangers fans fall into two categories: the Believers, who, like the lilies of the field, see in each new season reason for hope; and the Cynics, who know in their gut that a team that has gone 34 seasons without coming within shouting distance of a World Series is, by definition, hopeless. My father was a Believer. But his generation lived and finally died without watching their beloved Rangers succeed. I won’t claim that the Rangers killed my daddy, but I have lain awake at nights, fearing that my own generation might suffer the same fate.

WHEN I FIRST CAUGHT SIGHT of Jon Daniels, or J.D., as he’s known to his Rangers colleagues, it was a cloudy morning in early March and he was jockeying a golf cart at top speed, racing between practice fields at the team’s sprawling spring training complex, on the south side of Surprise, Arizona, talking on a cell phone and, for all I know, trading his outfield for a box of Cracker Jacks. Had I not known he was the new GM, I would have guessed he was some kid who had sneaked past security and was looking for autographs. His hair was cut so short it might have been a brown skullcap, and his eyes were bright and inquisitive. He appeared to know where he was going, or at least had the presence of mind to steer around clumps of ballplayers skipping rope or loitering outside the clubhouse.

The crack of the bats rang in the desert air as Daniels parked the buggy in an alley between the clubhouse and a row of batting cages wrapped in green mesh. The tall, nearly naked palm trees that line the streets of Surprise and other faux-Spanish-architecture retirement communities that surround Phoenix rustled in the breeze, contributing to the laid-back ambience that is the motif of spring training. Inside the team’s executive suite, adjacent to the stadium, Daniels took the steps to his second-floor office three at a time. During Hicks’s time as owner, being in a hurry has come with the territory.

I followed Daniels upstairs and sat across the room, above right field, where a ground crew was readying things for the exhibition opener with the Kansas City Royals later that day. Daniels took a seat behind his large desk, next to a laptop that he consulted frequently. There was also a stack of hardback books on the shelf behind him: While he might be part of a new breed, he keeps contact with the old one too.

Breaking the ice, I observed that he was probably sick of fielding questions about his age and answering questions about this ball club’s abysmal history. “I don’t want to dwell on the past,” Daniels told me right off. Then he slipped into what I imagine was his chamber of commerce stump speech: “I’d rather talk about the pride our fans have in this ball club. There is tremendous pride in this state, more so than any place I’ve ever been. That pride is what ties us to places like Boston, where they didn’t win for eighty-something years, and to the Chicago White Sox, who went [almost as many] years without a World Series championship.”

Nevertheless, he took a book from the shelf and handed it to me. It was a copy of Mike Shropshire’s history of the early Texas Rangers, Seasons in Hell. Hicks had given it to him, explaining that for the first two decades in Texas, the Rangers “were major league in name only.” The team began to mature in the late eighties. Nolan Ryan helped put the Rangers on the map after he signed with the club, in 1988; the next year a group of investors headed by George W. Bush and Rusty Rose took control of the team and persuaded the city of Arlington to finance a truly big-league stadium. The Rangers won their division in 1996, 1998, and 1999. They were about the best team in the majors, save only the Yankees, who humiliated them in all three playoff appearances. Then the Rangers began their current decline. In 2000 they signed Alex Rodriguez to the richest contract in baseball history, $252 million over ten years. The move was supposed to announce to the world that the Rangers were serious about winning. Instead, it strapped the team’s payroll and bred jealousy in the locker room. In the past six seasons the Rangers never had a legitimate ace to put on the mound, and they failed to make the playoffs. They were rarely even in the hunt past the All-Star break. Oh, and A-Rod was traded to the Yankees in 2004.

Daniels already knew about the decline: He’d been part of it. So how does he propose to reverse this misfortune? “By hiring good people and treating them well,” he told me. “By putting them in a position to do their jobs and then using the information they give me to make good decisions. I think I’m a good judge of people. And I understand the dynamics of decision making at this level.” His master plan, he said, starts with his three priorities: Improve the pitching rotation; fill holes in the bull pen, which was depleted by injuries last season; and make the offense less one-dimensional. “I give J.D. highest marks for that,” Hicks had told me earlier. “Other GMs I’ve had had one or two directions, but J.D. has a dozen balls in the air. He’s very bright, very creative, a virtual encyclopedia of baseball.”

Resolve and resourcefulness are traits that Daniels exhibited early in life. In the fifth grade, his parents urged him to take an exam for a program for academically gifted students run by Hunter College, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. About 2,500 students from New York City’s five boroughs were chosen to take the exam, and Daniels was one of the 230 who passed it. “I had no desire to go there,” he told me, “but my father sat me down and said, ‘This is one decision we’re going to make for you.’” So from the seventh through the twelfth grade, Daniels’ school day started and ended with an hour-and-a-half bus and train trip. First, he took the Q28 bus to the Main Street subway station, then the 7 train past Shea Stadium to Queensboro Plaza, the N train under the river to Fifty-ninth Street, and the 6 train uptown to Ninety-sixth and Lexington. From there he walked four blocks to school. “I was basically a momma’s boy, but riding the subway alone when you’re thirteen, you grow up quick,” he told me. “The city has a reality of its own, and I had to learn to deal with it.”

Baseball has always been his passion. There were not many public parks in his neighborhood, so he played stickball in the street and in the school yard. For a time he played on a Little League team, but that stopped once he inherited the long subway rides to school. Like his mom and his grandfather, he was a New York Mets fan. Shea Stadium was a short bike ride from his home, and he learned how to sneak into the bleachers without paying. He was deep into fantasy league baseball by age twelve and never stopped playing. At Cornell, he sat in on a class on sports arbitration.

After graduation he moved to Boston and took a job with Allied Domecq, which had just acquired Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. But his mind was never really on doughnuts and ice cream back then. He talked regularly to his college buddy A. J. Preller, who had landed an entry-level job in the office of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. “I spent more time thinking about his job than mine,” Daniels confessed. For fun, he juggled the rosters of three or four fantasy league teams and, according to his wife, Robyn (who was his girlfriend at the time), regularly creamed his competition. “He is very competitive,” Robyn told me. When Daniels quit a corporate job that paid him $4,200 a month and signed on as an intern with the Rockies for $1,200, Robyn supported him. Rolling the dice, Daniels called it. A year later, John Hart offered him a real baseball job. 

Robyn seems the perfect complement for a young man on his way up. She fielded my questions as though she’d been doing interviews her entire life. “We had talked about the possibility of him getting [the GM] job, but he’s so humble, he’d never let himself get ahead of himself,” she said. A day after the season ended, Daniels was packing for a scouting trip to the Dominican Republic when he got a call that Tom Hicks wanted to see him the next morning. “I don’t think he slept much that night,” she recalled. “He woke at four a.m. We both went to work, and all day he kept sending me text messages: ‘Waiting in the lobby,’ ‘All going well.’ Around noon, he called, very casual, asking about how my day had been. Then finally he said, ‘I got the job.’ It was crazy.”

Crazier still is the idea that Daniels is now recruiting talent fifteen years his senior. Hicks holds out hope that Daniels might lure the great Roger Clemens, age 43, to spend his final years as a Ranger; on opening day at Arlington’s Ameriquest Field, the two sat together. Clemens has said he will retire, but he’s changed his mind before, and Daniels has prepared a good sales pitch. Last year Clemens had the best earned run average in the major leagues. Because of the Astros’ pitiful offense, he lost three 1-0 games and finished with a record of 13-8. The Rangers, by contrast, produced 260 home runs, the second most in major league history. This winter, Daniels charted how many runs the Rangers scored on the days Clemens pitched for the Astros—against different teams, of course—and showed him that with the Rangers, his record could have been 24-3. “That’s the sort of thinking that can produce results,” Hicks told me.

IF THERE WAS ANYTHING painful about Daniels’s promotion, it was that it came at the expense of his friend and mentor, John Hart. Still, everyone close to the Rangers had known for nearly two years that Hart had to go: The question was when. Hart had successfully revitalized the Cleveland Indians in the nineties, but in Texas, the players became convinced that he had betrayed them by not upgrading the pitching. By Hart’s fourth year, the team was close to revolt. “Hart was a huge lightning rod, a PR disaster,” Randy Galloway, the veteran sports columnist of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, told me. “He was the worst GM in franchise history.”

Hart had inherited a mess in Arlington. For starters, there was the A-Rod deal, over which he had no control. In addition, Hicks, who was so eager to make that move work, pushed Hart to spend money like a drunken sailor. He blew megamillions on Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park (who went 22-23 in more than three seasons and never had an ERA below 5.00), three bull pen pitchers who proved to be busts, and the aging slugger Juan Gonzalez. The ball club that Hart took over in 2001 was one of the least cost-efficient in baseball. From 2000 to 2003, the dirt-poor but highly successful Oakland A’s—who, along with their superstar GM, Billy Beane, are the subject of Michael Lewis’s influential 2003 best-seller, Moneyball—paid about $500,000 per win. Profligate franchises like the Rangers, however, paid nearly $3 million per win. Written off in 2002 after they allowed Jason Giambi and two other stars to slip away in free agency, the A’s won 103 games and the division, while the Rangers won 72 games and finished 31 games out of first place.

In Hart’s defense, the Rangers have recently trimmed their payroll while keeping their keystone position players. He lopped off a record $41 million between the 2003 and 2004 seasons and another $10 million last year. What Hart couldn’t produce was good pitching. And eventually, he began snubbing both the media and the fans, which made him a Jonah to the organization. Hart recognized his problem—as did Hicks—and offered to resign after the All-Star break in July 2004, when the team was already out of the playoff race. “That started the big hullabaloo,” Hicks told me. “We were set to promote Grady Fuson [head of player development], but [manager] Buck Showalter and some others came to me and said that would be a big mistake, that we’d lose all our top staff people if Fuson got the job.” Hart agreed to stay another year or two, provided he was allowed to groom Daniels as his replacement. Daniels was promoted to assistant GM. “That’s when I started taking a hard look at J.D.,” Hicks recalled. After last year’s late-season meltdown, when the bull pen collapsed and the club lost twelve of thirteen road games, Hart told the owner, “I’ve become a millstone to this franchise. I need a different role.”

Though Hicks has made it clear that Daniels is the man, the 59-year-old venture capitalist remains the commander in chief and the final word on all decisions. “I keep Tom abreast of what I’m doing,” Daniels told me. “And when it comes to a head, when it’s time to push the button or back off, I call him. He says, ‘Give me the baseball rationale. Give me the business rationale. How does this affect our big picture?’ That relationship, that system of checks and balances, makes us make better decisions.”

In Moneyball, Lewis writes that big-league baseball has structured itself more like a social club than a business, that “there is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated” in the front offices and that even when heads roll, “they don’t roll very far.” Just so, Hart has stayed on as a senior adviser to his former flunky. Daniels told me that Hart “is part of my inner circle.” Hicks said, “J.D. trusts Hart’s instincts, his sixth sense. Now, they don’t always agree.” For example, Hart strongly opposed Daniels’s proposal a few months ago to trade two of the Rangers’ best young players, Blalock and minor league pitcher John Danks, for Florida Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett. Hicks stayed out of the dispute, though everyone knew that any final deal was subject to his veto. But in the end, Beckett signed with Boston, so Daniels courted and signed Kevin Millwood. The club agreed to pay Millwood $60 million over five years, despite Hicks’s vow that he’d never again sign a pitcher to a five-year deal following the ill-fated Chan Ho Park experience.

Free-agent pitchers have avoided the Rangers like a plague since the club decided to enclose the area behind home plate at Ameriquest Field to build a private club, inadvertently creating a jet stream that carries routine fly balls over the wall in right center field. That’s why it’s so extraordinary that in his short tenure, Daniels has been able to land three battle-tested major league pitchers: Millwood; Eaton, who comes from the pitcher-friendly ballpark in San Diego; and Padilla, a former Phillie. Millwood is a legitimate front liner, but so was the man he replaces, Kenny Rogers, who went nuts last June and assaulted a television cameraman. Millwood knows that his ERA will suffer in Arlington, but he can also be certain that the Rangers will provide far more offense than his teammates did last year at Cleveland. Teixeira hit 43 home runs, and six other Rangers hit at least 20, including second baseman Alfonso Soriano (36), outfielders David Dellucci (29) and Kevin Mench (25), Blalock (25), Young (24), and catcher Rod Barajas (21). Except for Soriano and Dellucci, all the sluggers return this season.

You never really know how pitchers will fare in new ballparks, much less a new league. Millwood at least pitched in the American League, but the two National Leaguers are strangers to the designated-hitter rule, which makes the batting order deeper and hardier. Both have other “issues”: With Eaton it’s health (he had surgery on the middle finger of his pitching hand on the same day he was supposed to make his debut as a Ranger), and with Padilla, a former All-Star, it’s an old drinking problem. Nevertheless, Daniels’s wheeling and dealing has sparked considerable excitement in Arlington. Galloway, who admits that he never spoke a word to Daniels during the young man’s four-year apprenticeship, told me, “Adding three major league—tested guys in the rotation—that’s fantastic. I give him an A plus for that.”

More than anything else, though, Daniels has brought a sense of calm to the Rangers clubhouse. The anger and panic that at times seemed certain to blow up the locker room when Hart was calling the shots appear to have vanished, or at least retreated to the deep shadows, awaiting new developments. With this franchise, that is no small accomplishment.

AFTER A LONG conversation with J.D., I concluded that, like most people new to a business, he doesn’t know yet how much he doesn’t know. That’s good, I think. A central theme in Bill James’s philosophy is that most traditional baseball wisdom “is ridiculous hokum.” James concluded years ago that baseball insiders weren’t capable of being reasonable, that the principles of sabermetrics were understood almost exclusively by outsiders. People who have played the game or worked for years in the major leagues believe their own experiences are typical, but James tells us that they are wrong. As a result, traits like foot speed, fielding ability, batting averages, and even raw power have been dramatically overpriced: The statistic that matters most, according to James and his disciples, is on-base percentage. In the long run, hitters who know how to wear down a pitcher are more valuable than home run hitters. Above all, the new philosophy teaches that change is good. “If you challenge the conventional wisdom,” James says, “you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.” Having an outsider such as Daniels at the controls may be exactly what the Rangers need.

Daniels has read some of James’s famous Baseball Abstracts, and he read Lewis’s Moneyball. Though he agrees that teams must survive by finding cheap labor, he doesn’t appear impressed by what he read. “People who think Moneyball is about on-base percentage miss the point,” he told me. “It’s about finding market efficiency. On-base percentage became the thing after that book was published, but by now everyone in baseball knows about it, and it has been priced out of the market.”

Nevertheless, Daniels did show some Jamesian thinking in at least one of his moves—the controversial trade that sent Soriano to the Washington Nationals for outfielder Brad Wilkerson. The club acquired Soriano from the Yankees in 2004, partly as a means to dump some of A-Rod’s burdensome contract, and Soriano hit with power, as advertised. But he had a low on-base percentage, struck out a lot, and hardly ever walked, which under the Jamesian concept meant that he was overvalued. Soriano was indicative of what has been wrong with this ball club: The Rangers hit the second-most home runs in major league history yet were essentially out of the race by the end of August. Wilkerson is a master of the strike zone who tires out pitchers and knows how to get on base. What at first looked like a bad trade may turn out to be a smart move after all.

“I’m a centrist,” said Daniels. “Computers can get you only so far. You don’t buy a house without a walk-through or without a spec sheet, do you? I respect Bill James and what he has done for the game, the doors he has opened. But that’s only one side of it.” Hicks isn’t overly impressed with sabermetrics either. The position of sabermetrician does not exist with this franchise, and the Rangers have only a part-time consultant to analyze the stats. Daniels assured me that they weren’t “missing anything.” When I asked how he knew they weren’t missing anything, he gave me a blank look.

But Daniels does think that the next frontier in sabermetrics is defense, an area that teams like the A’s and the Red Sox are focusing on. This is a tricky area, because the traditional measure of defense—the number of errors on a player’s tab—is a judgment call and of no use to a sabermetrician. “You can’t do it with over-the-counter metrics,” Daniels said. “You can’t find it in statistics. But there are proprietary ways to evaluate defense. We chart everything that goes into a play: where the ball is hit, how hard it’s hit, how the defense is positioned. Some players are more gifted than others, but if you have a better coaching staff to put players in the right position, then defensive statistics will account for certain things that are out of a defender’s control.”

I’m not sure I understand that, but no matter. My gut tells me this man is on to something. The Rangers have steadily cultivated a solid core of position players: Young and Teixeira are All-Stars. Even if the three new pitchers don’t work out, the Rangers are loaded with good young arms in their farm system; Danks, Tom Diamond, and Eric Hurley were all first-round draft picks. “We have half a dozen really good young pitchers,” Hicks told me. “We’ve never had that before.” Given time, Daniels can get this club back to the playoffs, and maybe even the World Series. Or such is my fervent hope. If the Rangers are ten games under .500 by the All-Star break, well, let’s just say I’ve been wrong before. My grandchildren will have to deal with it.

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