In a career that started with the Orioles 40 years ago, Braves GM John Schuerholz knows how to stay on top.

Schuerholz still is letter-perfect

Baseball Week

September 18, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

IT ALL STARTED with a letter to Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger 40 years ago.

The Baltimore County junior high school teacher loved baseball and had wanted to work in the industry ever since his collegiate playing days at Towson State had ended. So the 20-something dropped the Orioles a line.

Hoffberger was intrigued and forwarded the letter to one of his executives. Eventually, the industrious kid interviewed and was hired to be the farm director's assistant - at a salary of $4,700.

Four decades later, the Orioles are again furiously searching to recapture past success while that kid, John Schuerholz, may be enjoying his finest season in baseball.

"There have been a lot of changes this season, some planned and some were thrust upon us by fate and chance," said Schuerholz, who is in his 15th season as executive vice president and general manager of the Atlanta Braves. "We've managed the changes effectively and have put ourselves in place to battle for our 14th [straight] division title. We're very proud of that."

Under Schuerholz, the Braves have made it to five World Series and won one. When this season is officially in the books, it could prove to be his most impressive.

This team wasn't supposed to be in first place again, especially not after it lost three-fifths of its expensive rotation to injuries and when one of its most accomplished hitters, Chipper Jones, was injured for six weeks. The Braves were forced to use 17 rookies, yet are still postseason-bound.

"John has just done a tremendous job, tremendous," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, who was the GM/manager before Schuerholz's hiring in 1990. "He's got great knowledge of the game. He hires the right people to help him out in the front office and scouting department. He's hired good minor league people, that's a huge part of it."

Schuerholz learned the importance of player development in those two years in Baltimore under Frank Cashen, Harry Dalton and Lou Gorman. He had to take a $2,100 pay cut from his $6,800 teaching job to become Gorman's assistant - but it paid off.

By 1968 he had moved on to the expansion Kansas City Royals, a team he eventually led to the 1985 World Series championship in his fourth season as GM. He then left for Atlanta in the fall of 1990.

His recipe for success is simple.

"It's an organization that has a vision, that maps out a game plan," Schuerholz said. "That brings good people into that plan and trusts them and relies on them and respects their judgment and honors their work and motivates them to continue to do that and makes them proud to be part of a proud organization."

From the beginning, he has stressed that every staff member is valued, from "the rookie league manager to the major league manager."

He admits his management concept isn't easy to replicate. It takes a "greater work ethic and deeper commitment and more passion and loyalty."

These are the days of get-rich-quick paradigms and cookie-cutter management formulas that have seeped into all business, including baseball. Oakland's Billy Beane is considered the architect of "Moneyball," the widely espoused theory of coupling statistical analysis with exploiting undervalued market trends to build an economical and successful club. Schuerholz said "Moneyball" is a snazzy title, but he's not sure what it means or whether it will stand the test of time.

"If someone creates a system and for 15 years ... it is better than what we have, then I'll try to examine what they have done and what we should do. Until then, I won't," he said. "I don't want to sound pompous or cocky, because I am not, but our results speak for themselves."

Eventually, Schuerholz will step down from the Braves and consider what he has built. He'll turn 65 in October, but retirement isn't imminent.

In a 1994 interview with The Sun, he said he'd work five more years with the Braves and re-evaluate his career. That was 11 years ago.

"I did evaluate it and found it was still enjoyable and I was still excited to continue working and competing and out-competing other organizations," he said. "I still feel that way 11 years later. I am still engaged by this and as energized as I have ever been."

He said he occasionally thinks about that letter to Hoffberger in 1965. Had he not mailed it, he may still be living in Baltimore or somewhere on the East Coast.

"I probably would have grown a beard, bought a couple cardigan sweaters and been teaching some subject matter in a junior college somewhere."

Instead, he entered baseball, left Baltimore and became one of the most successful and respected executives the sport has ever known.

Not bad for the price of a stamp.

EXTRA BASES

Say what?

"If he was Superman, he'd play defense."

Always quotable Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Josh Towers about Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning against Towers on Wednesday night. Towers was told by reporters that Ortiz wore a Superman belt after hitting two home runs two days earlier.

Who's he?

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