The moderator, MLBNetwork’s Jon Morosi, suggested slyly at one point that if any of the panelists cared to consummate a trade, the event could be paused in order for them to do so. He then proposed that maybe “Miami could spin Christian Yelich to the Rockies.”
Amid appreciative laughter from the audience, the question “What would it take?” rang out. Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill, sitting immediately to Morosi’s left, responded with a smile: “Back up the truck.”
Held this past Monday at the Harvard Club of Boston, the “MLB Executive Panel Q&A” was organized by the Friends of Harvard Baseball and the Harvard Varsity Club. Along with Hill, the panelists included Colorado Rockies VP/general manager Jeff Bridich, Oakland A’s general manager David Forst, Boston Red Sox VP of player development Ben Crockett, and Peter Woodfork, a senior VP of baseball operations in the commissioner’s office. All are former members of the Harvard baseball team, while Morosi, a self-described “slap-hitting second baseman on a team of slap-hitting second basemen” — played on the junior varsity.
Not everything said on Monday night was on the record, but several of the stories that were shared can be repeated to the population at large. Along with the aforementioned exchange, here are some of them.
Asked about highlights from his time at Harvard, Bridich cited the comeback win — “it was a walk-off type of operation” — that captured an Ivy League championship for the Crimson in 1999. A photo of the ensuing dog pile hangs in his office, in Colorado.
Hill spoke of how the Baseball Beanpot — an annual tournament featuring Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern — was first held in his freshman year.
“I was an 18-year-old kid from Cincinnati, Ohio, coming to Harvard University, and I was playing left field at Fenway Park,” recalled the 1993 graduate. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.'”
While his classmates were heading off to consulting jobs, business school, law school, and the like, David Forst joined an independent-league team upon graduating in 1998. Morosi asked him how hard of a decision that was and how much time he was planning to give himself to “let this whole baseball thing unfold”?
Forst’s response: “Well, whatever amount of time it was, it was more than my mom wanted.”
Turning more serious (which isn’t to say he was entirely kidding about his mother), Forst informed the large crowd that “when you still feel like you can play, that’s something that’s hard to shake… It wasn’t out of my system.”
Forst was not only different from his Harvard peers, he was different from many his indie-ball teammates.
“I was there as a 22-year-old college graduate,” explained Forst. “There were 20-year-olds who had signed out of high school and been released, and had nowhere else to go. So you do recognize you’re different, but you also recognize that there is a shared passion — you’re there because you love baseball. I was lucky enough that independent ball was my internship.”
Paul DePodesta, a fellow Harvard alum who was then Oakland’s assistant GM, hired Forst in 2000.
Hill has a briefcase to thank for his first front-office job.
“My original plan at Harvard was to get drafted, play for 20 years, and retire from a Hall of Fame career,” deadpanned the 1993 graduate. “But as life when on, I was shown that you make adjustments.”
A few years into his minor-league career, Hill recognized that he was no longer on a prospect path and began networking. He began carrying around copies of his resume in a briefcase. After a spring-training game, he gave one to Chuck LaMar, who at the time was the farm director of the Atlanta Braves. As chance would have it, LaMar was subsequently hired by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to be their first GM.
“Miraculously, he still had my resume,” recalled Hill, who hung up his spikes and joined the expansion team’s front office.
Forst spoke of how communication and trust play big roles in trade discussions: “Ultimately, the relationships you have with everybody else in the game determine whether you can make that phone call… (and) there’s a give and take. If you’re dealing with one of your colleagues, the conversation isn’t just ‘Give me player X for player Y.’ There has to be something to base that on.”
How often do rival GMs have conversations? Qualifying that it varies depending on the time of year, one of the panelists estimated two or three times a week.
Addressing the challenge of getting more young athletes to choose baseball, one of the panelists suggested that football’s concussion issues could help create an opening. MLB would certainly embrace that, especially in regard to African-American participation. The subject of diversity came up more than once over the course of the evening.
Why did Hill opt to stay in the game in a front-office capacity, rather than pursue opportunities in another field? “Baseball is heaven,” explained the affable former 31st-round pick. “Until our closer blows the game.”
Forst talked about the importance of learning from other sports, including “how other leaders run their organizations.” He pointed to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as an example, adding that while baseball is a game where you can’t micromanage everything, you can set a tone.
“You have to get everybody on the same page,” said Forst. “The games are different — we have the game that is probably most suited to statistics and one-on-one match-ups — but from a management and leadership standpoint, other sports are definitely critical to what we do.”
One of the panelists is with an organization that has built a relationship with a highly successful NBA team.
Bridich discussed what he called “the gravity of the job.” He understands that baseball is a business, but at the same time, he recognizes that players are human beings. That fact comes to the fore when a young player is cut loose.
“When you release a minor-league kid, and you know that this is the last time he’s going to play ball, it hurts more than when you release a big leaguer that you know is probably going to go somewhere else,” said the 2000 Harvard graduate. “Those tears that happen from that 25-year-old kid you’re releasing out of High-A ball hurt more.”
The panelists took questions from the audience toward the end of the event, one of which was on the subject of rebuilding — or, to use a blunter term, tanking. As you’d expect, the responses were couched in caution — albeit with informed perspective.
“A reality we face in these jobs is that we run businesses,” proffered one of the panelists. “If it wasn’t baseball — if it was a different business — and that business was failing over and over and over, you would either come up with new people to strategize, or the people in charge would come up with new strategies to stop that cycle. We’re no different.
“If you don’t do the rebuild well — if you just kind of phone it in and say, ‘Oh, we’re rebuilding and we’re going to be good in five years’ — you’re in for it.”
Another of the panelists added that while the Cubs and Astros had success with that strategy, it’s easier said than done. No one formula gets you to the World Series.
According to Bridich, the value of a quality education — Harvard being a prime example — is extremely valuable if you want to work in baseball. Ditto the willingness to think creatively.
“One of the biggest lessons we learn is that iron sharpens iron,” said Colorado’s GM. “That is 100% how we try to do things with the Rockies — hiring people that are smarter than we are, and more skilled, and have different skills that can complement, and train people to be better at their jobs than I am at my job. That’s how you advance an organization.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.