Schuerholz puts stamp on game after chance letter

September 23, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

There are no expressions of regret from John Schuerholz when asked about the coveted opportunities he passed over to take on other baseball obligations, preferring instead to remain as general manager of the Atlanta Braves. The Baltimore Orioles contacted him this time a year ago about becoming their chief executive and, only weeks ago, the Chicago Cubs made an extraordinary offer.

Tempted? Perhaps. Yet his allegiance to Atlanta overrode any desire to change addresses and inherit new responsibilities, even if Baltimore would have meant coming home to be with family and friends.

The Braves have attained what for them has been unprecedented success and the hands of Schuerholz helped shape the renaissance. He was rewarded with a five-year contractual extension, which is interpreted to mean the best is yet to come for a once moribund franchise that is now one of the strongest in the major leagues.

Schuerholz, a former athlete at Baltimore City College and Towson State University, reflects often on an incident that dramatically changed his life. He was teaching at North Point Junior High School and had been in the Baltimore County educational system almost five years. Then, in 1966, he wrote a letter to Jerry Hoffberger, president of the Orioles, and explained he was interested in the administrative side of baseball.

The information was turned over to Frank Cashen, who headed the Orioles' operation. Cashen knew the Schuerholz name because of the illustrious athletic achievements of his father, who died this past week; uncles and grandfather. You couldn't ** be involved in Baltimore sports and not be acquainted with the Schuerholz reputation and the respect it engendered.

Cashen told John to visit for an interview and was impressed enough to direct him to Harry Dalton, the club's personnel director, and to Lou Gorman, who was in charge of the farm system. They decided, after meeting other candidates, that Schuerholz had the qualifications, including intellect and baseball knowledge, to become Gorman's assistant.

About salary? Well, as he likes to say, "I was probably the only person you ever heard of who left teaching to take a pay cut." That's right. He went from being paid $6,800 to a promise of $4,900. But, after showing up for his first day at the Orioles' office, Gorman told him Dalton had reduced the figure to $4,700.

"Harry Dalton was tough when it came to spending money," recalls John. "He had the club in mind at all times and saving on the budget was important to him. The Orioles weren't drawing too many fans in those days. Harry held the line on expenditures. But I must admit I probably wouldn't have gotten the job if Frank Cashen wasn't familiar with the family name."

Two years later, the Orioles were upset when he moved on to the Kansas City Royals, ultimately becoming the general manager and winning a World Series. In all, he was there for 23 years. "I'm not the type to move around a lot," he reminds a listener.

The opportunity to join Atlanta came after the 1990 season. Upon arrival, he found a team stocked with excellent talent, both at the major- and minor-league levels. Bobby Cox had been highly proficient as general manager but after returning to the field managership, the Braves were looking for the perfect overall leader and hired Schuerholz.

He quickly took inventory and proceeded to add important pieces, such as Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux, Terry Pendleton, Otis Nixon, Deion Sanders and Jeff Reardon. Asked to recall how the deal for McGriff came about, he explained, "I had read the San Diego Padres were downsizing the payroll. I called their general manager, Joe McIlvaine, and asked if it was true. He said yes and I told him of our interest in McGriff.

"But he wasn't ready to move just yet. He said he'd call when he was ready. The Padres let McIlvaine go so it was an unnatural break in the arrangement we had made. I talked to his successor, Randy Smith, and asked if he knew of the earlier discussion. He said he did and that he'd call after he got settled in the job.

"And he did as promised. We made the deal. The Braves had the most talent to trade, plus I knew McGriff had a contract for two more years and the Padres wanted to get out from the arrangement. I also felt we had the top young players in the minors. They got three good prospects from us in Melvin Nieves, Donnie Elliott and Vince Moore."

McGriff hit home runs in his first three starts and the Braves, from nine games back, accelerated to their finest won-lost record in history. Schuerholz, age 54, says he wants to complete his career in Atlanta and, five years hence, will contemplate retirement.

Contemplating his growing up in Baltimore, he says City College was "an exceptional place and my history teacher was George Young," which means it's the only school in the nation that can claim later general managers of teams that won a World Series and Super Bowl.

Still, Schuerholz realizes the chance letter he wrote to Hoffberger, which was passed on to Cashen, opened a door from the classroom to baseball that otherwise may never have happened. From such a modest start, his enormous intellect, knowledge of the game, skills in communicating and making important decisions have taken him the rest of the way -- recognition as being among the best at what he does.

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