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.

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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...