“He makes three to five trade recommendations a week,” Levine said last week, only half-joking. “They’re not all jewels, but some of them have legs. I just never let him know that he may have been the impetus for us kicking the tires on someone.”
Levine, who attended T.C. Williams, has played an integral role in the Rangers’ consecutive World Series appearances as the top lieutenant to General Manager Jon Daniels for the past six seasons. And he has become a leading candidate to become a future general manager.
After he played college baseball at Division III Haverford College and earned an MBA from UCLA, Levine could have worked in most any industry he chose. Levine chose baseball, the passion he inherited from his father.
“Ever since I got this job, it’s kind of been a shared experience with my dad,” Levine said. “That’s the most prominent thing he passed down to me, his love of baseball.”
Michael Levine grew up in Manhattan in the late ’40s, going to Dodgers, Giants and Yankees games, collecting autographs by learning which hotels the players stayed at. As he grew up, had a family and moved to Alexandria for his job at the National Gallery of Art, he carried his love for baseball with him.
Michael bought Orioles season tickets and shared every experience with his son. Thad Levine joined the Junior Oriole club in 1978 and met Al Bumbry and Mark Belanger in the dugout. He cried after the final out of Game 7 of the 1979 World Series. When Thad was 3, Michael caught a foul ball while simultaneously holding Thad and a beer.
“The beer spilled a little bit,” Michael said. “But I held on to Thad.”
Thad Levine made two important connections growing up. He played youth soccer with Paul DePodesta, another Alexandria native. DePodesta famously appeared in the book “Moneyball” as Billy Beane’s assistant with the Oakland Athletics and then became the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. DePodesta’s father, John, introduced Michael to a baseball strategy game played with dice.
At Haverford, Levine played baseball and became close friends with Josh Byrnes, who grew up in Washington and attended St. Albans. Byrnes wanted to work in a baseball front office, and as he blazed his own career, he kept Levine in mind.
After he graduated from Haverford in 1994, Levine had no idea how to apply for a job in baseball. So he guessed. He sent applications and resumes to all 30 teams. None of them offered a position, and only three bothered to send rejection letters.
“I was ecstatic,” Levine said. “I got a Montreal Expo letterhead saying there was no job. I couldn’t have been happier.”
Without a full-time baseball job, Levine found marketing work at Rockport and attended business school. He interned with the Dodgers on their business side.
Levine wanted badly to transition from business to baseball operations, but his only job offer after business school in 1999 came from Coca-Cola. And then, before he could accept it, Byrnes called.
Byrnes had just become the assistant general manager for the Colorado Rockies, and General Manager Dan O’Dowd told him he could hire one person. Byrnes chose Levine. He started as a low-level advance scout, but the Rockies quickly let Levine help across their baseball operation office. Levine stood out by purposely rejecting the false dichotomy of statistical analysis versus scouting. He has an MBA, but he embraced scouting first.
“One thing that fuels the stereotype for young people is that you’re either one side of the ledger or the other, and the pendulum has no middle,” Levine said. “I’ve always felt like if you want to stereotype me, that’s on me. I need to communicate to them that I’m more of a centrist than a leftist or a rightist. I feel very much committed to scouting.”
During Levine’s time in Colorado, Daniels’s first job in baseball was as intern for the Rockies. His cubicle sat just outside Levine’s office, and Levine mentored him. “He kind of helped me figure things out showed me the way,” Daniels said. “He showed me the ropes, the etiquette of being around a big league club.”
Daniels forged his own career and in 2005, at 28, the Rangers made him the youngest general manager in baseball history. He interviewed two people to be his top assistant and gave Levine the job.
“He obviously has the analytic background,” Daniels said. “But you could not find a better people person. He’s really good at understanding where the other party is coming from, so I think it helps with negotiations. It helps him deal with players. It helps him being able to deal with people from different backgrounds.”
With the Rangers, Levine is “heavily involved” in all facets of the Rangers’ baseball operations, Daniels said. He manages the construction of the major league roster. He helps sign free agents and research trades. He oversees the medical and clubhouse staffs. He discusses draft picks.
Levine knows the biggest advantage an organization can gain lies in hiring the best talent evaluators. He believes there are maybe 30 to 50 elite evaluators. Hire a handful of them, as Levine thinks the Rangers have, and you have a decided advantage no formula can provide. The Rangers complement the recommendations from their scouts with statistical analysis, not the other way around.
Saturday night, Levine stood in the entrance to the Rangers’ raucous clubhouse, close enough to smell the champagne fumes coming from inside. The team Levine helped assemble celebrated their second straight trip to the World Series, the kind of thing he could only have have dreamed of as a kid.
His father plans to attend the games in Texas, so he can watch them next to him. Michael Levine chuckled at the thought. “To have a son who does stuff like that . . .” he said before his voice trailed off.