Before he was a renowned baseball executive, before he served as Billy Beane’s top lieutenant with the Oakland A’s in the late 1990s, before he took the 2004 Los Angeles Dodgers to their first playoff appearance in eight years, before Jonah Hill portrayed him in the film version of “Moneyball,” before he made it to the World Series last fall as the vice president of the New York Mets – before all that, Paul DePodesta was a football man.
In the summer of 1995, fresh out of Harvard, where he had played both football and baseball, DePodesta took a job as an unpaid intern with the long-since-gone Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League – where his duties included tossing T-shirts into the stands during timeouts. By the following spring, he was gone, hired away by the Cleveland Indians for an entry-level front office job.
The stunning news Tuesday that DePodesta, 43, had jumped from the Mets to the Cleveland Browns, and from Major League Baseball to the National Football League, was widely cast as an out-of-nowhere, bizarro-world move on the part of one of the worst franchises in American professional sports.
And perhaps it was that from the Browns perspective. Although when you have gone 14 years since your last playoff appearance, and cycled through seven coaches and six general managers in the interim, you may be inclined to try just about anything – including hiring a guy whose pro football experience topped out as an unpaid intern 21 years ago, to be your chief strategy officer, reporting directly to owner Jimmy Haslam.
“We are fortunate to bring in Paul, an extremely talented, highly respected sports executive who will add a critical dimension to our front office,” Haslam said in a statement. “His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport.”
But for DePodesta, a native of Alexandria, Va., and a product of Episcopal High, the move is a return to his roots. He had played football since the fifth grade, and he kept playing at Harvard – where he was smart enough to know, as he once recalled, “the sideline was my friend” — even after a shoulder injury forced him to quit baseball.
“As far as I’m concerned, he always was a football guy,” said Harvard football coach Tim Muprhy, for whom DePodesta was a senior back-up wide receiver in 1994. “It just took him 20-plus years to figure it out.”
Actually, DePodesta had it all figured out from the start. As a young Harvard grad in 1995, with a degree in economics, his first career aspiration was to become the next Bill Walsh.
“What I really wanted to be at the time was a football coach,” DePodesta told author Steve Kettmann in the book “Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets” – about one of DePodesta’s baseball mentors. “I loved the strategy of it and I loved the physical competition that went along with it. I was trying to get that experience in the CFL. My hope was the get a graduate assistant job somewhere in football, get a graduate degree and start coaching somewhere.”
His gig with the CFL’s Stallions didn’t quite fit the bill. He was there long enough to leave an impression, but not long enough to make a career of it.
“I don’t quite want to say he was destined for greatness, but you just knew, whatever team or whatever sport he wound up in, he was going to be a senior executive somewhere,” said Aric Holsinger, who was CFO of the Stallions and remains friends with DePodesta. “He could go wherever he wanted to go and do whatever he wanted to do. It was just a matter of which door was going to open first.”
It was with the Stallions that DePodesta discovered, by accident, his inspiration for the next two decades of his professional career. In an office, he found a stash of MLB media guides, and flipping through the one for the A’s, he happened upon Alderson’s bio.
“He was a Dartmouth grad, a Harvard grad, a marine,” DePodesta said in the Kettmann book. “I remember being so struck by that and thinking, ‘This is my kind of guy!’ … At the time it definitely served as inspiration to me that a career path like that would actually be possible.”
From his start with the Indians in 1996, driving minor-league players around in a van during spring training, DePodesta embarked on a rapid rise through the sport – at a time when the statistical revolution that would eventually overtake baseball was still in its infancy. By 1998, at the age of 25, he was hired by the A’s to be Beane’s assistant GM – remaining in Oakland long enough to play a significant role in the Michael Lewis bestseller “Moneyball.” Six years later, the Dodgers named him their GM, making him, at age 31, the third-youngest in MLB history.
Twenty years after leaving football for baseball, DePodesta has gone back home, in a sense. The move is not without its risks. He was widely believed to be Alderson’s eventual successor with the Mets, and he walked away from that to direct a franchise known as one of the most dysfunctional in professional sports.
The list of executives who have directed front offices in multiple sports is frighteningly thin. Others have run the business sides of franchises across multiple sports, as Stan Kasten once did as president of the Hawks, Braves and Thrashers in Atlanta. But to go from being a top personnel man in one major sport to a top personnel man in another may be essentially unprecedented.
In Cleveland, he will have the Johnny Manziel mess to undo, and the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to look forward to. He will serve under an unpredictable and unpopular owner, and will face the wrath – if he fails – of an embittered fan base left jaded and angry by so many years of losing.
In a sense, then, switching from the emerald diamond of baseball to the shredded gridiron of football, with all their incompatible nuances, may be the least of DePodesta’s worries.