Klein knows the game too well to go long without a major role

June 16, 1996|By John Steadman

He's that loyal baseball soldier. Genuine. Unpretentious. Perceptive. And Joe Klein also brings with him a comprehensive resume, a bat bag full of sterling credentials.

Minor-league player, manager, scouting supervisor, farm director and then general manager of three major-league teams. The job he didn't get, with the Orioles, was the one he wanted most because it would have meant coming home to bountiful new opportunities.

He just missed, beaten out by Pat Gillick, on a close play for the general managership. The Orioles wanted to know if he'd be interested in another organizational role, but Klein, typically, said that wouldn't be fair to the man who was going to get the job. Self-aggrandizement has Klein never been a feature of Klein, who has a profound understan- ding of what he's doing in a game in which so-called experts abound. Klein came up the hard way. There was no element of nepotism or link to the good-old-boy network; he made it on his own.

All Klein ever wanted was a chance to prove himself. That's why he signed for $400 a month as a first baseman in 1961 to play in the Washington Senators' minor-league system. Three times he batted over .300, but a shoulder injury, necessitating multiple operations, limited how far he could go, though he pushed on for another four years.

Next, he managed 10 seasons in the minors before the Texas Rangers elevated him to the front office as assistant farm director and head of its scouting staff. Ultimately, he'd go on to become a general manager, first with Texas, then the Cleveland Indians and later the Detroit Tigers, plus a term as vice president/director of player personnel for the Kansas City Royals.

It might sound as if Klein has trouble holding a job. Not so. He got caught in ownership changes or new club presidents were appointed. They, in turn, brought their own people with them. That's hitting in tough luck, to call on a dugout lament, but Klein doesn't feel sorry for himself.

"Look, I never thought I could go from the sandlots of Baltimore to play for Bob Lumsden at Poly, then for Walter Youse's great Leone's teams and on to professional baseball," he said. "I remember working out in Griffith Stadium for scout Joe Branzell and farm director Hal Keller. A lot of kids wanted a ton of money to sign. I told Hal just give me the chance."

As general manager in Detroit, he faced the task of cutting the payroll. Seven players were making $27 million and something had to give. In the game today, with change so much in vogue, teams are put together to fit X amount of dollars.

"That's not true in New York, Baltimore, Colorado or Los Angeles," Klein says. "But not everybody can play or be a GM in those places. The Orioles are lucky to have Peter Angelos as owner and I don't bring this up because he told people how close he came to hiring me. For the good of the game, some sort of revenue sharing plan is going to have to be devised. Money management is a big part of being a general manager today.

"It used to be you asked how much a player hit last year or what was a pitcher's earned run average? Now you ask, 'Who's his agent and how long does his contract run'?

"A lot of executives today come from non-baseball backgrounds. I believe that's going to change because it hasn't worked. This tells me there'll be a demand again for technical baseball people, those who came up in the game, to fill the top jobs."

The self-made owner of the Detroit Tigers, Michael Ilitch, who once played in the team's farm system, still wants Klein to work for his organization. So does John McHale Jr., the president, and new general manager Randy Smith. Klein is a special-assignment scout, a man who remembers when success was measured on how well a club scouted, developed players and its efficiency in making trades. Now there's another expensive element in the equation -- bidding for the best among the annual list of free agents.

"In some places, a scouting or farm director has little input at the major-league level. That's wrong. At various times, I worked for Ted Williams, Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog and Sparky Anderson. They all felt they knew more about players the first day in camp than anyone else. That's not a criticism, only an observation. It was a false assumption. The minor-league people have worked with them, know what to expect and how best to handle them.

"When I managed rookie leagues, I was careful not to put young players in situations they weren't ready to handle. I kind of managed ahead of myself so some green kid lacking confidence wouldn't be thrown into a pressure spot he wasn't yet capable of handling."

Klein, 53, married to the former Cathie Mehl with two sons and living in Sykesville, has the utmost respect for men laboring in the vineyards -- minor-league managers and coaches. He says the so-called "roving instructors," or position teachers, are with teams for only one-fifth of a season in the minors and believes their ultimate value needs to be assessed.

Klein and Gillick climbed parallel baseball ladders, first as players, then scouts and farm directors before becoming general managers. What Gillick didn't do that differs from Klein is manage minor-league clubs. That's an entirely different experience. "Pat has the know-how, intelligence and access to money to spend on free agents," added Klein. "The Orioles have a proven winner with him. Look at his record. I respect him greatly."

Joe Klein, though, has too much ability not to get another chance operating a major-league team. Eventually, the job will seek him. Why? Because identifying talent will be the foremost consideration when practical baseball men, who know how to make decisions, are again being hired throughout the game instead of graduates of Harvard Business School who never had a glove on their hands or tried to swing a bat.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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