A few weeks ago, as I dialed in to the fourth of five hour-long conference calls scheduled that Tuesday at my place of regular employment, I began to wonder idly how major-league teams and executives conducted their own sorts of correspondence. These are important people, I reasoned. Surely, they live lives of glamour and fascination, removed from such mundane tasks. Surely, they don’t dial into five hour-long conference calls every Tuesday.
And it’s true: they don’t do that. Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked multiple senior MLB executives a series of questions about how, in the most basic and concrete sense, they talk with their colleagues around the game. It turns out that, generally speaking, they live lives very far removed from glamour and fascination, and the way they communicate is basically the same way you and I do. It turns out that they text. A lot.
“It’s funny,” said one senior AL executive. “I don’t know why we even go to the Winter Meetings anymore. It’s the most ridiculous thing in the world — we’re all sitting there in the same hotel, and everybody’s texting each other.”
In one sense, this isn’t a surprise. Texting is, of course, an efficient way to communicate, and it’s not shocking that big-league execs have found that it works for them. But just as I was surprised to find that Paul Manafort had opened himself up to federal indictment by failing to convert a Word document into a PDF, I was surprised to find that most big-league deals are consummated by text. I’d thought it would be something weightier.
Of course, it used to be a quite bit more complicated than texting, and there’s nuance to it now. But just as television forced radio to understand what it was best at — and just as the internet did the same for television — so has texting given baseball executives far more to think about when they first reach out for a deal.
“Twenty-five years ago,” said an NL GM, “you’d call the office of the GM you wanted, usually get a secretary, and leave a message. Those who had direct lines, you might get a voicemail. It was different. You call the office, call the club, see if they’re out to lunch, and if you weren’t in the office, you’d be constantly checking your voicemail or checking with the administrative assistant to find out if there’s any messages. You couldn’t move.”
No longer. If a GM wants to contact a new colleague now but doesn’t have that person’s number, there’s no need to call the team office or even to ask around the office if someone else has that person’s cell number. Now it’s possible just to consult MLB’s confidential directory, which lists the cell numbers of all big-league executives above a certain level. And a conversation now might not even start off with a call.
“Now, more and more, we start with text messages,” the NL GM said. “But there’s always both. Some you text, some you call, some you email. It depends on what time of day it is. Is it business hours? Maybe you make a call. If it’s a little early, maybe you send an email. If it’s a little after business hours, maybe you send a text. You just try to be considerate.”
Nobody with whom I talked thought that the macro social changes in how we communicate had increased the volume of trades that were consummated between teams — or, if it had, they thought it had done so only on the margins. But every person to whom I spoke agreed that texting had dramatically widened the scope of deals that even get considered — and started conversations that would probably never have been broached 20 years ago.
“You get a lot more ‘reach out’ texts,” said one exec. “Just to kind of gauge reactions — we’re thinking about this, would you be interested? I think the volume would shock people. It’s just become so easy for other teams to do their work. If Team X wants to let the other 29 teams know that Player Y is available, they can do that in six minutes. Or, ‘Hey, man, looks like we’re going to do a rebuild year, we’re willing to talk about these three players.’ They can send that text out to all 29 teams by lunch.”
Unfortunately, I was unable to confirm the existence of a group text thread (or, better yet, a group DM) with all 30 big-league GMs, though I will not rest until such a thread exists.
But the informality helps get things started. One exec reported that Billy Beane and Kenny Williams once executed a deal while “texting bullshit about a college football game.” (Side note: I have no idea if this is the deal to which the exec was referring or not, but Notre Dame played USC on Saturday, November 29th, 2014, and ND alum Jeff Samardzija went from the A’s to the White Sox on December 9th. Draw your own conclusions.)
As deals progress from conception to execution, teams vary in the degree to which they want to switch from phone to email, or text to phone. “Often,” said an AL exec, “that last mile is a voice conversation. At some point you almost kind of want to be able to go ‘Hey, we good?’ and hear the other voice going ‘Yeah, we’re good. We’re done here.’”
An NL counterpart disagreed.
“I think some GMs do a very good job of, ‘Hey, I just want to be clear, this is what we’re agreeing to, or this is what we’re discussing, or this is the context.’ I don’t generally feel conversations are ambiguous, but it is always helpful when you’re starting to get closer to something to start writing. Stuff in writing, even in text or email, you lose a little of the tone of the conversation, but in terms of factual content that’s helpful as you get towards the end.”
As the medium varies, so too do the voices involved in the conversations. Big-league baseball is a small world to start with — and smaller at the top — and so where trade discussions begin and end often depends quite a bit on who was a scout with who 10 years ago, not on who’s the designated point person for a given team. Some teams do indeed have designated team contacts. For most clubs, however, existing relationships drive much of what happens — especially early and especially on relatively minor deals.
“Let’s say,” said an AL exec, “that we’ve decided we need to go out and get a backup catcher. I might check in with [my GM] and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go after [a backup catcher].’ And then I’d go reach out to the folks I know on his team, and [the GM] wouldn’t get involved again until it was time to finalize a deal. There’s some things that are going to be GM to GM, some things that are going to be lower than that — with the GM approving but not directly dealing. That’s very much a team-to-team conversation.”
And, of course, there are some teams that are difficult to do business with, or refuse to work with particular other teams except in exceptional circumstances. Why? “A breach of trust is probably the biggest thing,” said one exec. “There’s also — some teams are happy to tell the media what they’re doing and are fine with leaks, and other teams are not. So quiet teams tend to get along better with other quiet teams. It’s a trust factor.”
“Sometimes you do discern the style of some GMs,” agreed another exec. “Some might not be as easy to get a hold of, or have a lot of irons in the fire, so you might have to be a little more specific about what you’re initially trying to offer. Every GM has his communication style and pattern, and you want to be sensitive to that and not waste anybody’s time, and not waste your own time.”
What is true on the Thessalonian plain is also true on Olympus. As baseball stands on the brink of another season, rest assured that the struggle you face today in trying to decipher a cryptic text from a colleague or friend is one you share with Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, and Theo Epstein. We’re all just trying to be understood and not waste our time or others’. Some of us are trying to pick up a backup catcher, as well.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.