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A new issue for baseball: stressed management

Special to The Times

It wasn’t really a titillating revelation, merely Bill Stoneman’s way to describe the 24/7, energy-depleting nature of the general manager’s job.

Nodding at his wife sitting in the front row at the news conference where he confirmed that he was resigning as the Angels’ general manager, an emotional Stoneman forced a smile and said Diane was unaware “when she married me that I would have a mistress.”

The mistress that is the demanding responsibilities of a general manager in baseball’s high-tech era of high finances, high expectations and increasingly higher and widening media pressures has produced a front-office turnover of the type generally associated with the field manager’s position.

Fifteen of the 30 clubs have changed GMs (or the person handling those duties) since the end of the 2005 season, including eight in the last six weeks, the Angels being the latest.

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“I think most general managers are realistic,” Seattle GM Bill Bavasi said by phone. “There is just very little margin for error now and very little patience in some markets to build a club the way it should be built.”

Has the mistress lost some of her charm?

“As the joy quotient diminished, the irritation quotient increased,” John Schuerholz said from Atlanta, where he recently accepted an invitation to become president of the Braves, ending 26 years as a big league GM at 67.

The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles under Schuerholz, but in moving upstairs, he said, he was influenced by the “increasing and intense scrutiny” that GMs face, the “exponential expansion” of people in baseball and out, media and otherwise, “who now measure and analyze what a general manager is doing” on a daily basis.

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“I’ve always considered the general manager a lightning rod as well as the point man in explaining what the organization is doing,” Schuerholz said, “but now the general manager is spending much more time explaining and, in some cases, defending his job, although I never felt I had to defend mine.

“I did it for 26 years and I honestly feel my ability became better in that time, but the challenges and responsibilities became more daunting and irritating, and I think that’s why we’re seeing [the turnover] we’re seeing.

“The high cost of buying and operating franchises, the financial and success-related responsibilities, all fall into the general manager’s lap and are all part of the pressure and expectation inherent in the job now. As enlivened and intellectually invigorated as I was at the start of every spring training is as worn down as I began to find myself as each season ended.”

Schuerholz was replaced by his top assistant, Frank Wren. A similarly weary Stoneman, 63 and now consultant to owner Arte Moreno, was succeeded by minor league director Tony Reagins.

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This recent toll on “guys of high caliber and capacity,” in Schuerholz’s words, is “proof positive” of the GM’s escalating responsibilities and irritation quotient, a toll that has included Terry Ryan, almost a yearly miracle worker in Minnesota, and the highly regarded Larry Beinfest in Florida.

Beinfest seized an opportunity to become president of the Marlins, and assistant Michael Hill took over the GM hot seat. Ryan, who was replaced by assistant Bill Smith, simply bowed out as the Twins’ GM, saying he was unhappy with the type of person he was becoming under the pressure. Elsewhere, the recent turnover has claimed:

* Tim Purpura, fired as Houston general manager and replaced by former Philadelphia GM Ed Wade.

* Dave Littlefield, fired as Pittsburgh general manager by new club President Frank Coonelly and replaced by the comparatively untested Neal Huntington, 37, a longtime Cleveland scouting and personnel assistant.

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* Jim Duquette, who left an authoritative position in the Baltimore front office rather than accept a reduced role under Andy MacPhail, who was brought in to clean up a decade’s worth of debris.

* Walt Jocketty, fired as St. Louis general manager in the most surprising dismissal of all, since the Cardinals reached the playoffs seven times and won the World Series once during his 13 years. At 56, Jocketty could resurface as MacPhail’s GM in Baltimore.

In St. Louis, Jocketty was victimized by a philosophical disagreement with the club’s managing partner, Bill DeWitt Jr., over the expanding scope and authority of Jeff Luhnow, who emerged from a non-baseball business background and is now vice president for player development and amateur scouting, and who is putting together an advisory board, among other innovative concepts, that will include noted sabermetrician Ron Shandler.

The Cardinals are interviewing candidates to replace Jocketty, but he will be younger, more new-school than old-school, a concession to baseball’s new world of metric models and computer analysis, underscoring the ongoing “Moneyball” debate over statistics versus scouting.

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Much of that is overblown, however.

Almost all clubs employ metrics and computers to differing degrees and most pursue a balance between these newer tools and their experienced scouts.

The Angels, for example, have remained scouting-based while putting increased significance under older-school Stoneman on the contributions of 29-year-old computer analyst Tory Hernandez, whom they promoted last week from player performance analyst to manager of baseball operations.

“If our scouts are irreplaceable, Tory has been invaluable,” Stoneman said. “Nothing will ever replace the human mind, but I don’t know how we would operate without the computer.”

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If, as some traditionalists believe, clubs have been too quick to hire or elevate younger, computer-oriented people to key decision-making positions in which they lack experience and tend to underestimate the value of their scouts, there is no question the GM landscape has been altered by a widening industry belief that the position now demands a younger person with a higher energy level and a college graduate with a broader background.

“I’m not sure you have to be either a college graduate or young,” said Seattle’s Bavasi, 50 in December and a University of San Diego graduate who was schooled in a baseball family. “I think you have to be energetic, bright, capable of identifying urgent decisions from less urgent and capable as well of delegating responsibility under pressure.”

Buzzie Bavasi, the family patriarch, recalls having a $495,000 payroll while general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955. Now GMs must routinely operate payrolls of more than $100 million. Some clubs have a greater margin for error than others, but almost all, in a wild-card era of parity (this could be the eighth straight year in which a different team wins the World Series), believe they can reach the playoffs, reducing ownership’s tolerance for front-office excuses.

It is also an era of text messages and off-seasons almost as active as the season.

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“You are on call at all times -- at least in your mind,” Stoneman said from his ballpark office, two days after stepping down. “You are always thinking about what needs to be done. Five hours of golf to relax? A quick weekend in Hawaii? You just can’t do it. It can’t be done.”

Free of that demanding mistress, he exhaled and said, “It’s only been two days and I feel 10 years younger.”


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