USA Today: Padres' Alderson comfortable in many caps

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Staff member
Jun 20, 2005
Chula Vista, CA
SAN DIEGO — During his three-year hitch in the military in the early 1970s, Sandy Alderson was literally a poster boy for the Marine Corps. "The Marines are looking for a few good men," read the recruiting tool for the Vietnam War.

Some 30 years later, Alderson could qualify as the poster executive for Major League Baseball. "Sandy has the best résumé in the game," San Diego Padres owner John Moores says.

Undergraduate degree: Dartmouth. Military degree: Marine Corps company commander, Vietnam. Law degree: Harvard.

That's why Moores lured Alderson out of the commissioner's office in April with an offer to return to his baseball roots — the club level — as chief executive officer and minority owner.

At Alderson's introduction, Moores raised the bar for a man who left his mark with the Oakland A's (four division titles, three American League pennants, one World Series championship) during a 17-year run that redefined the résumé of general managing.

Alderson also made a name for himself with Major League Baseball during a seven-year stint in which he played a key role in the reorganization and internationalization of the sport and developed a reputation as a tough guy who ruffled some with his straightforward, politically incorrect posture.

"My expectations of Sandy are modest," Moores said in welcoming Alderson aboard. "I want him to turn this into the best baseball franchise in America."

Challenge accepted — and modestly achieved in Alderson's four-month tenure: The Padres are leading the National League West, although flirting with .500.

"He wants to have the best franchise in baseball and so do I," says Alderson.

"Why shouldn't that be the goal?"

Alderson, 57, has spent a lifetime embracing challenges — all the way to Vietnam.

That's where he developed his leadership skills that translated quickly into baseball success.

"Whatever style I have is innate to the time I had in the Marine Corps," he says. "One of the things I like about being with a team is the interaction with other employees. There's a whole range of people and experiences and socio-economic backgrounds.

"That's what I learned in the Marine Corps. People come from a lot of different places and it's important to respect that and take advantage of what each individual has to offer."

Alderson, the son of an Air Force pilot who served in World War II, the Korean War and two tours of duty in Vietnam, joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps upon enrolling at Dartmouth in 1965. After his sophomore year, he chose the Marines instead of the Navy.

"I wanted to be on the ground slogging it out," he says.

He served eight months in Vietnam (September 1970 to May 1971), finishing up his tour as a company commander. He says his company saw little action, but it had casualties — mostly from booby traps.

He looks back at the unpopular war with mixed feelings.

"Just because you have all the resources doesn't mean you're ultimately going to be successful. Just as in different walks of life, you can make up for a lot with hard work, determination and commitment. And that was something that probably as a country we didn't have during the war, perhaps justifiably."

However, he still treasures his Marine Corps experience. It's who he is.

"I enjoyed being in the Marines, the physical aspect, the mental challenges, the interaction with people who had a common goal in a sense of responsibility to one another," he says.

That's the framework of what drives him three decades later as a baseball executive. He's still physically and mentally fit — a jogger who devours crossword puzzles — with a singular focus.

"I don't want to disappoint people," he says. "People are relying on me. Maybe that goes back to the Marine Corps experience and family. It's not the money. You want to win, but it has to do with a sense of responsibility."

From GI to J.D.

Alderson says he considered a career in the Marines, but another challenge presented itself when he was accepted into Harvard Law School in 1973. "I figured it's the best, why not give it a shot?"

He received his law degree in 1976 and went to work as a business lawyer in San Francisco with Roy Eisenhart, also a Dartmouth graduate and former Marine officer.

In 1980, Eisenhart and his brother-in-law, Walter Haas, bought the Athletics from Charlie Finley. Alderson provided the legal work to close the sale and followed up with several salary arbitrations for the club.

In 1981, Eisenhart, the team president, persuaded Alderson to join the team full time as its general counsel.

He wasn't a baseball neophyte. Alderson played second base at Dartmouth his first two years.

"I wasn't very good," he says. "The best thing I did was quit because it gave me a chance to try other things."

Like running the A's. When Billy Martin was fired in 1982, Alderson took over his duties as general manager with the leanest of baseball résumés. He was 35.

"He didn't have the baseball background of most GMs," says Wally Haas Jr., the son of the owner and a vice president for the club at the time. "He got on the ground floor, kicked the dirt and relied on others around him who had more baseball knowledge."

At the time, he was an outsider in a sport ruled by insiders set in old school ways.

Alderson kept a low profile initially.

"The way I began was keeping my mouth shut," he says. "I tried to be respectful and learn as much as I could. At the same time, I wasn't burdened with a lot of traditional knowledge or experience."

He used that to his advantage, and became a new breed of baseball executive who relied heavily on statistical tendencies and developed a farm system relying on those statistics.

Using baseball analyst Bill James' statistical formulas, Alderson drafted Mark McGwire based on his power potential and Jason Giambi based on his on-base percentage.

"He had great vision," says Bill Beane, the A's general manager, who calls Alderson his mentor. "He could see where the game was headed."

Beane, who was hired in Oakland by Alderson and became his assistant general manager, says Alderson opened the door for him and other young executives, including Theo Epstein (Boston Red Sox) and Paul DePodesta (Los Angeles Dodgers).

"The perceptions on how to build a team, he was the guy who started it all," Beane says. "Before, if you weren't an ex-player, you weren't going to be in position."

Haas Jr. says, "I can't think of anyone better I'd have watching my back and running my company."

Alderson remembers a poignant moment at the All-Star Game in 1982 before the A's took off. They had the worst record in baseball at the time on the way to a 68-94 finish.

"Sandy said something then I'll never forget," says Haas Jr. "He said, 'I try to wake up and figure out what I can do every day to make this a better place.' "

Strong personality

Commissioner Bud Selig brought Alderson's resourcefulness and outside-the-batter's-box thinking into his office in 1998. The executive vice president for baseball operations was a central figure in the overhaul of the game.

"He's been in the right place at the right time and taken advantage of it," Selig says.

"We changed the game more than any decade in the history of the sport and Sandy was in the middle of all of that."

Alderson stepped on some toes in the process, however. In 1999, his hard-line negotiating tactics led to a resounding defeat of the umpires association.

"He doesn't fear tough decisions," Beane says. "That makes people less secure a little uncomfortable dealing with him. (But) he neither invited confrontation nor was afraid of it."

Alderson says: "It was one of those situations where you weren't going to convince people with words. You had to convince them with actions."

His no-nonsense approach in restoring the strike zone to its rulebook dimensions also rankled some in baseball.

"He's not politically correct, necessarily," Haas Jr. says. "He doesn't go out of his way not to be, but he's not going to throw BS at somebody to seek favor."

Alderson admits his tact at times has gotten him into trouble. "But that's life," he says unapologetically.

'Legend in the making'

In the end, he left MLB with more plaudits than criticism.

"Sandy was always the baseball guy who understood what GMs went through," says John Hart, general manager of the Texas Rangers. "He wasn't afraid to tell it like it was. He was always fair because he understood the game. He's special."

That's what Moores saw from afar in San Diego — a grassroots executive with a track record that Haas Jr. says make Alderson a "legend in the making."

Beane goes even further. "I think he's infallible."

This makes Alderson visibly uncomfortable.

He's the same executive with a Harvard law degree who once joined the grounds crew in rolling out the tarp in Oakland during a rain delay.

He's clearly taken off guard by the high praise, a rare moment of unpreparedness for a man who has been prepared for every challenge in life.

The Padres are merely the latest and, he says, the last — unless baseball turns west looking for its next commissioner in 2009, Selig's retirement year.

Alderson's name has surfaced in early speculation but not in his household.

"I don't think anybody would really want me in that position," he says.

He was hotly pursued to return to the club level almost from the day he arrived in Manhattan. Alderson entertained "several opportunities" but pursued none, mostly because of the five-year commitment he made to work in New York.

But last winter when Moores came calling, he was ready.

Alderson missed the rhythm of a season at the club level, the "emotional day-to-day winning and losing. This came up with a great owner, a great location, a new park and a team that has some positives. It was really a no-brainer."

News spread quickly inside baseball. Shortly before the official announcement that Alderson was leaving the commissioner's office to become the Padres CEO, Beane got a call from DePodesta.

The Dodgers general manager, who once worked for Beane, had a question for his old friend.

"He asks, 'Is it true? Is Sandy really going to San Diego,' " Beane recalls. "And then he had this huge sigh, 'Oh gosh.' "

Said Beane, "I'm just glad he's not in my division."