How Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi became one of the most coveted minds in baseball

(Robert Carter / For The Times)


How Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi became one of the most coveted minds in baseball

(Robert Carter / For The Times)

A general manager mourns the loss of a baseball season in private, away from the pervasive gaze of the public and the impressionable minds of his subordinates, and so in October of last year, insomnia haunted Farhan Zaidi.

The on-field personnel can rage or weep or shrug. The leaders of the front office must be stoic, proud of the accomplishments just completed, hopeful for the days to come, unable to reveal the depth of their anguish.

“That moment in the middle of the night when you wake up is the only time when you are allowed to feel the pain yourself,” Zaidi said.

He would shake loose from slumber around 3 a.m., unsettled by memories of the Dodgers’ playoff defeat to the Chicago Cubs: A misplaced slider by Joe Blanton, an umpire’s debatable call on Adrian Gonzalez. He fixated on the tiniest moments of a squandered chance to end his team’s championship drought.

To Zaidi, the season mirrored the plight of Sisyphus. In those sleepless hours, he imagined himself staring at the boulder as it rolled down a hill.

Outsiders often view Zaidi as a clinical, camera-shy cog in the Dodgers’ executive cadre. His colleagues see him as a wisecracking, idea-spewing agent of innovation. Alone in the dark, he considers himself a 40-year-old man exhausted by the cruelty of his profession. His office resides in the shadow of Hollywood, but each year his sport provides misery for every team but one.

“You get one ‘Friday Night Lights’ ending, and you get 29 ‘Sopranos’ endings,” Zaidi said. “The lights just go out, and you don’t know what happened.”

The pain reminds him why he is here, how his pursuit of happiness became intertwined with the pursuit of a championship. He forsook a lucrative career in business and risked disappointing his family to gamble on an entry-level job in sports. During a decade in Oakland’s front office, he matured from a book-taught quant into a well-rounded executive. He developed a loyalty so fierce he nearly turned down the offer from Los Angeles.

With the Dodgers, as the chief lieutenant of Andrew Friedman’s baseball operations department, he serves as a font of creativity. He piloted the negotiations for the acquisition of Rich Hill last summer. He helped foster the team’s ethos of flexibility, which is part of the reason the club is favored to win a fifth consecutive National League West title in 2017.

“There are a lot of instances of him bringing something up that in the moment I think is crazy,” Friedman said. “And as it resonates more, I oftentimes will come around to the crazy thought.”

Zaidi’s background defies convention. He never played beyond high school. He graduated from MIT and earned a doctorate in behavioral economics from the University of California, Berkeley. Born in Canada, raised in the Philippines, he descends from Pakistani stock.

In the monochromatic field of baseball executives, Zaidi is the lone Muslim general manager. During a conversation over dinner this spring, he lacked interest in publicly debating the merits of the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions. His greater concern was the demonizing of a religion practiced by 1.7 billion people. He worries that fear and anger toward those who observe his faith, a viewpoint that once hovered on the fringes of society, has become more mainstream.

“When people generalize or paint the whole religion in a certain way — and you know you’re not like that, your family is not like that, whatever overwhelming percentage majority you want to use of the Muslim Americans in this country are not like that — it’s demoralizing,” Zaidi said. “And that sentiment, for me, is the most troubling thing.”

The situation upsets him, but it does not overwhelm him. Zaidi subscribes to what he considers a “perverted form of optimism,” a belief in the power of joyful pragmatism leavened with perspective on the unlikelihood of his journey. He bursts with laughter. He disarms agents and rival executives with humor. He ribs Dodgers staffers, trades barbs with the players about fantasy football and shares ideas with Manager Dave Roberts. He can forge a relationship “with anyone, whether it’s the CEO of a company or it’s the janitor,” said Alex Anthopoulos, the Dodgers’ assistant general manager.

Zaidi laughs off the notion that his inexperience on the field would merit insecurity. If you talk to seasoned baseball men, Zaidi said, “and they were like, ‘Yeah, he’s a total nerd, he doesn’t get baseball, he’s a total weirdo,’ I’d be like, ‘OK, that’s fair. Because you know what? We work together, and that’s an informed opinion . . . Maybe I am just a huge nerd.’

“But the notion that people see where I went to school and see that I didn’t play and draw conclusions like that — what are you going to do about it?”

Zaidi subscribes to what he considers a ‘perverted form of optimism,’ a belief in the power of joyful pragmatism leavened with perspective on the unlikelihood of his journey.

The request stunned Billy Beane. His drive to the airport interrupted by a phone call, he struggled to formulate a response. On the other end of the line, Andrew Friedman waited for an answer.

It was October 2014, and Friedman had just become the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. The search for a general manager had brought him to Beane, architect of the “Moneyball” Athletics and the boss of Friedman’s top target. Friedman needed Beane’s permission to proceed.

Zaidi had just finished his 10th year with Oakland. He had risen to assistant general manager, third in the power structure behind Beane and general manager David Forst. The team had defied its low payroll to reach the playoffs in three consecutive seasons with a roster bearing Zaidi’s fingerprints. His colleagues gushed about his singular blend of statistical proficiency, social intelligence and ingenuity.

In the process, Zaidi became one of the game’s most coveted minds — and one of the most untouchable. He had no interest in leaving Oakland. And his boss had no interest in losing him.

After a lengthy pause, Beane sputtered an answer.

“Come on, Andrew,” he said. “You can’t do this.”

In that moment, Beane regretted all the times he had raved about Zaidi to Friedman. He lamented the cruelty of running a small-market team: The rich can always poach your best people.

“It’s one thing to lose [Jason] Giambi and [Miguel] Tejada,” Beane told Friedman. “And now you’re going to take Farhan?”

Zaidi became one of the game’s most coveted minds — and one of the most untouchable.

On Feb. 23, 1986, as the citizens of the Philippines revolted against president Fernando Marcos, tanks rumbled through Manila. Inside a gated community near the unrest, Sadiq Zaidi pondered what to do with his family.

The Asian Development Bank, where Sadiq worked as an engineer, had suggested its employees book hotels outside the city. His wife Anjum agreed, but Sadiq was unconvinced. Persuasion became easier after the conflict inched close enough to rattle their 9-year-old son, Farhan.

“At one point, there was gunfire, and it really sounded like it was coming from right outside my bedroom,” Zaidi said. “I was so terrified.”

The family found a room in a seedy spot away from the tanks, but stayed only one night. The People Power Revolution ended on Feb. 25 without bloodshed. Marcos fled to Hawaii, and Farhan went back to his boyhood.

He was the second of four children, three boys and a girl. The family had left the woodsy outpost of Sudbury, in the Canadian province of Ontario, for the Philippines when he was 3. Before they left, a friend warned about Manila’s three seasons: Hot, Very Hot and Extremely Hot. Farhan developed asthma in the tropics. His father held him on his shoulder in a rocking chair to soothe him.

As a teenager, Zaidi became obsessed with collecting baseball cards, drubbing his younger brother Jaffer in basketball and being a free-swinging Little League first baseman. When he played cricket on trips to Pakistan, he found his mechanics corrupted because of his baseball grip. When they traveled to Canada, he rooted for the Toronto Blue Jays. He devoured the writing of statistics guru Bill James.

The children attended an international school, one with high standards and strict graders. They absorbed the culture of their American, Canadian, Chinese and Japanese classmates. “We were sometimes the only Muslims in our group of friends,” said Noor Zaidi, Farhan’s sister. “Everybody we spent time with was somebody different, with a different story.”

Farhan treated class with a nonchalance that puzzled his parents. Older brother Zeeshan hunkered down for marathon study sessions. Farhan goofed off and whipped through homework in the morning.

In the spring of 1994, during Farhan’s senior year, his parents made the pilgrimage to Mecca. When they returned from Saudi Arabia, Farhan met them at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. He came bearing news. Like Zeeshan, he had been named valedictorian. “I honestly was shocked,” Anjum said.

“That’s a pretty good encapsulation on how I kept them in the dark on my academic career,” Zaidi said.

He left home at 17. At MIT he found economics, met his future wife Lucy and graduated in 1998 with a job at a management-consulting firm. Zaidi considered the gig a holding pattern. His mother suggested he go to business school, as Zeeshan had at Harvard. “Mom, people only do MBAs to get rich,” Farhan told her, and went for a doctorate.

Zaidi kept flirting with the world of sports. Focusing on behavioral economics at Cal, he wrote a paper using baseball card collectors as a window into irrationality. Inspired by “Moneyball,” he sent his resume to the front offices in Oakland, Toronto and Los Angeles. He never heard back, so he returned to his studies. “I could see him becoming one of the leaders in the profession,” said Cal economics professor Stefano DellaVigna.

In December 2004, Zaidi found a listing for an assistant in Oakland’s baseball operations department. The team needed an analyst to replace Paul DePodesta, who had become the Dodgers’ general manager. Zaidi stood out among an avalanche of applicants. Forst, then the assistant GM, invited him to interview.

On a lark, Zaidi had included in his resume his love of 1990s Britpop. Beane opened the interview on that, and they bonded over the shambolic genius of Oasis. Zaidi made them laugh. He impressed them with his preparation. They even liked that his suit didn’t quite fit.

The job paid $32,000. Zaidi waited five days to tell his parents, afraid he would upset them. He asked his brothers for advice. His fear was unfounded. His parents were ecstatic that he had found a purpose he could pursue with vigor.“This was his passion,” Anjum said. “And I feel if you can make a good, honest and honorable living out of your passion, then you are set for life.”

This was his passion. And I feel if you can make a good, honest and honorable living out of your passion, then you are set for life.

— Anjum Zaidi

The numbers came easily to Zaidi. Forst gave him an ideal first assignment: Assemble the team’s argument in arbitration against reliever Juan Cruz. Zaidi made a presentation with a format he learned at his management consulting firm. Oakland won, and “it soon became clear he wasn’t just going to be our analytics guy,” Forst said.

Zaidi accumulated responsibility quickly. Statistics were his specialty — he built an in-house projection system that came to be called “FarGraphs” — but the front office’s limited manpower forced him to venture outside the comfort of laptops and spreadsheets.

The transition tested the patience of those around him. Zaidi wasted hours hunting small-college gems in the draft, recommending players who would never dream of reaching the majors. He questioned the scouting director about the team’s interest in a well-rounded player with only “average” tools. “I was so clueless in so many ways,” Zaidi said.

He recognized his blind spots and rectified them. Zaidi once told his sister that “nobody likes anybody who thinks they’re too good for the job they have,” so he puddle-jumped between minor league affiliates and baked in the sun watching amateur games. He pored over video. He sat in advance scouting meetings, quizzed infield coach Ron Washington about positioning and debated in-game strategy with Manager Bob Geren. He proved as capable with a stat as he was with a quip, and “he would say things you wouldn’t expect an assistant GM to say,” former Athletics and Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson said.

His evolution coincided with the industry-wide realization that scouts and analysts needed to collaborate. Zaidi added a comedic twist to the merging of disciplines. In the draft room, Zaidi became the “Tools Police.” Whenever a scout could not identify a legitimate tool on a prospect, Zaidi smacked a siren that set off a blue light. His hand hovered over the button as a warning.

“It’s like I don’t even know you anymore,” Beane told him, and started calling Zaidi “The Emotional Stat Guy.” Zaidi co-opted that as his fantasy football name.

Dormant for years, Oakland sneaked up on the American League West to win a division title in 2012. It was Zaidi who stumped for the team to pluck Yoenis Cespedes out of Cuba before the season. A few months later, Zaidi penned a lengthy memo, later known as “The Moss Manifesto,” arguing the team should recall well-traveled minor league outfielder Brandon Moss and install him as their starting first baseman. “The only thing I’ll take credit for,” Beane said, “is saying ‘We’re doing what Farhan says.’”

Another division title followed in 2013, but both teams fell in the fifth game of the division series. Those losses paled next to 2014, when the Athletics squandered a six-game lead in the division race and then a four-run lead in the eighth inning of the wild-card playoff game in Kansas City.

Zaidi never got over the loss to the Royals. He keeps a ticket stub from Kauffman Stadium in his wallet. And he was still grieving when Friedman called Beane.

After Beane hung up the phone, he took 15 minutes to decompress. Zaidi was walking out of Oakland Coliseum when his phone rang. Beane passed along Friedman’s proposal. The job sounded similar to Zaidi’s responsibilities in Oakland, only with a loftier title and for a team in a different financial stratosphere.

The etiquette of baseball requires that a team request permission to interview a rival executive. Beane was accustomed to these overtures being futile. He once said he fretted about losing Zaidi to Apple or Google, not another team. The Angels tried to hire him. So did the Houston Astros. Anthopoulos tried twice in Toronto. Forst worried more about Zaidi’s friendship with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, “because I know basketball is his real, true love,” Forst said.

The offer from Friedman surprised Zaidi. They were not close. But Zaidi figured he should listen. No team had ever before offered to make him a general manager. “I don’t think that was the answer that Billy wanted to hear,” Zaidi said.

Zaidi flew to Los Angeles. Club president Stan Kasten led a tour of Dodger Stadium and promoted the team’s history. Zaidi sat with Friedman and Josh Byrnes, the senior vice president of baseball operations. Friedman had just left the small-market stability of Tampa Bay for the pressure and promise of Los Angeles. He was asking Zaidi to make a similar leap.

After a few hours, Zaidi left the stadium without an answer. He spent a fortnight mulling his decision. The intellectual challenge intrigued him. He worried about stagnation in Oakland, and felt he needed “to make myself uncomfortable, professionally, to get better.” Friedman raised a similar theme to keep Zaidi interested.

Yet Zaidi agonized over his attachment to the Athletics. The team had plucked him out of academia and welcomed him into a dream job. He had shredded his vocal cords next to Beane at Oasis shows. Zaidi ran the front office’s fantasy football league and “was arguably the most popular employee in baseball operations among every department,” Beane said. Beane and Forst salivated over Anjum’s chicken kabob patties and banana bread. They were a family.

After two weeks debating his choices, Zaidi made up his mind. He would stay in Oakland. He did not care about the title or the money. Loyalty mattered more. He fashioned an email to break the news to Beane, Forst and owner Lew Wolff.

Before he sent it, Zaidi went for a run.

About two miles in, he felt tension overtake his body. Zaidi had never before experienced a panic attack, but now he started to hyperventilate on the pavement of Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood. He was consumed by fear of ignoring the opportunity offered to him. He stopped running and went home.

“I have to do this,” he told his wife.

A couple hours later, Zaidi called Friedman. He was coming to Los Angeles.

In his first few weeks on the job, Zaidi felt like the host of a variety show. He and Friedman shared the general manager’s office, and a procession of visitors streamed through. The pace felt frenetic.

Friedman and Zaidi inherited from former general manager Ned Colleti a two-time National League West champion with an attractive farm system. But acrimony had riven the clubhouse and the team looked top-heavy, with a reliance on a small group of players. The new front office gathered inside a San Diego hotel suite during baseball’s winter meetings in December 2014 hoping to deepen the talent pool.

As Friedman paced through his room, in the hours before acquiring catcher Yasmani Grandal from the Padres in a trade that sent star outfielder Matt Kemp to San Diego, he saw Zaidi reach into the refrigerator for a drink. The tension was high, and Zaidi was agitated to the point of absentmindedness. When the fridge closed, he spun around and conked his head against a wall. A lump sprouted across his dome.

“I’m sure it hurt him,” Friedman said. “But in that moment, there could not have been a better thing to happen.”

The others tumbled to the ground in laughter. Zaidi posed for a picture. Friedman saved it in his phone as Zaidi’s contact photo. And, eventually, they consummated a series of trades to reshape the roster.

Zaidi’s contributions soon had more concrete value. He pushed for reliever Grant Dayton in a minor league swap with Miami in July 2015. Later that summer, he floated the idea of moving Cuban infielder Hector Olivera, who had signed a six-year, $62.5-million contract months before. Zaidi argued against feeling beholden to the investment. Olivera became part of a three-team trade that brought Alex Wood and Luis Avilan.

Like Friedman, Zaidi treasures flexibility. In conversations with Roberts, he has debated the wisdom of rigid roles for relievers and a static batting order for hitters. The deployment of players, Roberts came to believe, should involve a daily assessment of the situation, rather than an ironclad pattern.

“I challenge the players to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Roberts said. “And Farhan does the same thing to me. Which is a good thing.”

Zaidi can champion disruption. He favors the aggressive promotion of prospects. He wonders why teams design personnel plans that extend beyond three years. So much can change so quickly, and the powers of prediction tend to be overstated. An organization must be responsive, not rigid.

Last July, Zaidi received an assignment that was unique in its importance and awkwardness. The Dodgers divide tasks among their executives based on relationships with other clubs. When the team targeted Oakland starter Rich Hill and outfielder Josh Reddick, that meant Zaidi negotiated with Beane.

Zaidi wore his affinity for his old boss with pride. He kept in his office the index card upon which he wrote down Beane’s cellphone number when Oakland hired him. He once joked about affixing a portrait of Beane to his wall to befuddle visitors. Now he became an adversary at the bargaining table.

Their decade of shared experience eased the conversation, and helped lessen the discomfort. Each man understood what the other wanted. The Dodgers received the two veterans in exchange for a trio of pitching prospects. The relationship of the two executives proved essential. “The deal doesn’t happen — I know it doesn’t happen — if we’re not negotiating with each other,” Beane said.

The best part is winning. The worst part is losing. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

— Farhan Zaidi

Despite the gravitas of his position, Zaidi still injects levity into his work. When the Dodgers finished a trade recently, Zaidi wagered with assistant scouting director Alex Slater about the players the other team might make available. If Slater was right, Zaidi would give up his office and sit in Slater’s cubicle for a week. If Zaidi was right, Slater would wear a suit of Zaidi’s choosing for a week.

Zaidi won the bet. He sent a picture of his selection: The one-piece man-kini made famous by Borat. “Technically,” he explained, “this is a suit.”

Added Friedman, “That is a suit.”

The matter remained unresolved as spring training wound down. So was the fate of the 2017 Dodgers, who returned an overwhelming portion of the roster that finished two victories away from the World Series and then incited their general manager’s sleeplessness. The insomnia is something Zaidi carries with him, like the index card from 2004, like the ticket stub from 2014, like all the mementos accumulated in a career still in its infancy.

People ask Zaidi about the best and the worst of his job. Early in his career, he pontificated with nuance: He relished the camaraderie and the relationships. He despised the stress and the time away from family.

As the years passed, his answer has become more succinct.

“The best part is winning,” Zaidi said. “The worst part is losing. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.”

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes