By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007
PHOENIX, Oct. 10 -- Before employing 20-something baseball executives was the norm, back when the game still was dominated by the indecipherable language spoken only by the crustiest of scouts, Dan O'Dowd was the assistant general manager of the Cleveland Indians, a franchise trying to reinvent how baseball teams were run. His boss, John Hart, had given him the opportunity, year after year, to hire budding front-office men out of college.
In came Josh Byrnes, straight from St. Albans School in the District via Haverford College. "Sharp kid," Hart said Wednesday. "Dedicated. Great character, and a tremendous work ethic."
That was 13 years ago. Thursday night, O'Dowd, the man who conducted that interview for an internship in the baseball operations department with the Indians, will sit opposite Byrnes, the kid who accepted it, "just happy to get the job," Byrnes said. Then, they were on their way up. Now, they are running their own teams, O'Dowd as the general manager of the Colorado Rockies, Byrnes as the GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Those franchises will face each other in the National League Championship Series, an unlikely matchup of little-known squads. For two men who once worked so closely together, it seems odd that they're now working so hard to beat the other.
"I worked with Dan for eight or nine years," Byrnes said Wednesday at Chase Field. "But it's tough when you're competing against each other. It's not only this, but it's 18 times in the season. It's spring training. It's instructional league. I'm very happy for Dan and everything they accomplished, but we're both competitive guys. We both want to win."
This postseason has become a bit of an homage to the Indians teams from the mid- to late 1990s, the group that made it to the postseason five straight times with Hart as the GM. With O'Dowd at his side, Hart and the Indians began to collect young talent on the field, Manny Ramirez and Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome. Off the field, the talent pool might have been just as impressive.
O'Dowd left to become general manager of the Rockies in 1999. He brought Byrnes, by then the director of scouting for the Indians, with him as assistant GM. When Hart left the Indians for Texas following the 2001 season, he was succeeded by Mark Shapiro, who in 1992 began as an assistant in the Indians' baseball operations department fresh out of Princeton, eventually oversaw the minor league system and became assistant GM. Friday, Shapiro's revamped Indians will make their first appearance in the American League Championship Series since 1998. Throw in Harvard-educated Paul DePodesta -- an Indians baseball operations assistant in the late '90s and eventually the Los Angeles Dodgers' general manager -- and a new breed of baseball executive was being cultivated in Cleveland.
"It was such a great environment to learn," Byrnes said. "They challenged me, and we challenged each other. I certainly refer back to things I learned from [Hart, O'Dowd and Shapiro] quite often, how to deal with the responsibilities of the job and all that. It's funny, because I think it's something I appreciated then because it was such a great place. They put me in entry-level, but I always had access to John and Dan and Mark, and that helped me learn."
As the general manager, Hart's primary focus was the major league team. But he was well aware of the young men who traipsed through the office. When Byrnes interviewed with O'Dowd, when he got his first job in pro ball, the Indians still played in outdated, cavernous Municipal Stadium. They couldn't afford to venture into the same free agent waters as, say, the New York Yankees.
"We had to do it differently," Hart said by phone. "I had the great, good fortune to have a young talent pool that we could lean on. The one thing I always tried to do was empower them. They were ambitious, and they ran with it."
So O'Dowd and Byrnes and Shapiro and others played to their strengths. They developed databases and books on the 29 other teams -- not just their major league rosters, but their minor league systems, their economic situations, everything they might need to know. They analyzed statistics. The Indians became known as a team that developed players from within their system, and then signed them to reasonable long-term deals. O'Dowd decided he wanted many of the young assistants he hired to work in advance scouting, "because we thought that was the best way to learn, watching major league games."
"I don't know if we had a grand plan about it," O'Dowd said Wednesday. "But it worked."
When it came time for O'Dowd to become the first member of the Tribe to depart, he took Byrnes. That relationship lasted until December 2002, when Byrnes took the same job, assistant general manager, with the Boston Red Sox. By the end of the 2005 season, Byrnes, then 35, felt ready to run a team of his own. He interviewed with Diamondbacks chief executive Jeff Moorad, once a powerful agent. On Wednesday, Moorad called Byrnes "best of class."
"I remember asking him, 'Do you consider yourself a follower of the "Moneyball" approach, or are you more a traditional, old-school scout in your evaluations of players?' " Moorad said. "And he said: 'Jeff, I'm not sure that you have to be either. . . . I think people make a mistake in assuming that you have to be pigeonholed into one or the other.' "
With that, he was hired. Moorad pointed out that the four teams remaining in the playoffs are the four teams for which Byrnes has worked. Hart can point to three of them and say he helped develop their general manager. They are, without question, intertwined, and none more so than the two that will play Thursday at Chase Field.
"I can't root for either of them over the other," Hart said. "I love every one of these guys. I do."