Saturday, March 18, 2006 | One of baseball’s brightest minds is being pushed to the limits.
The international baseball spectacle that he helped organize – the inaugural World Baseball Classic – is drawing the world’s eyes to San Diego this weekend. And the baseball club he oversees – the San Diego Padres – is gearing up to defend its division title at spring training.
But pulling off feats like that are what made Padres CEO Sandy Alderson famous.
Alderson spent his early years grooming the Oakland Athletics for a World Series title and is credited as being an early believer in sabermetrics – a stat-based system that would revolutionize how ball clubs evaluate talent.
Before that, he served a tour of duty in Vietnam, earned a degree from Harvard Law School and worked for six and a half years as the right-hand man to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.
But, in the midst of organizing the world’s largest baseball tournament and grooming a squad with championship hopes, Alderson still managed to sit down with us to talk about the Padres’ prospects, the globalization of baseball and steroid use.
How has the World Baseball Classic met your expectations?
The classic has exceeded my expectations and I’ve been a big supporter of the concept. I’ve been involved in preparations for the classic for a long time, so I had relatively high expectations to begin with but I think in terms of fan interest, media interest, the intensity of the games displayed by the players, the enthusiasm by which I think everyone has embraced the classic in various venues – it’s gone way beyond my expectations.
Do you think that it’s going to become a regular occurrence?
Oh yeah. The next classic is scheduled for 2009. Thereafter it will become an every-four-year event. I’m sure there’ll be some lessons learned as a result of this first effort. But I think that the tournament itself is going to be permanent.
Now, you’ve been a big proponent of the globalization of baseball along with Padres owner John Moores. The United States just lost games to Canada and Korea. Do you think the World Baseball Classic is exposing some weaknesses in U.S. baseball?
What I think it’s done foremost is, No.1, demonstrate the popularity of the game at various places in the world that many people perhaps underestimated. I think it’s also pointed out the vagaries of the game. Anything can happen on a particular day and it’s probably true in baseball more than in any other major sport. And thirdly, I think it’s demonstrated how seriously players from some countries take these international competitions and how important it is for every team to take them seriously. It’s not to suggest that the United States has not. You know, for the United States, less than a wake- up call, I think it’s just been a demonstration of the high caliber of baseball that’s played in other parts of the world. Korea’s a perfect example. Even in Asia, Korea was not given credit for the kind of game they’ve played in the classic. In that sense, I think it’s opened some eyes.
With respect to Major League Baseball, why do you think it took so long to take action on the steroids issue?
I think if you look at the time that the commissioner began to seriously review steroid use in the game, which I would say is somewhere around ’99 or 2000, to the point we are today … it hasn’t taken as long as some people believe, because of the relationship between management and the union and the need to go through a bargaining process. And, ultimately what has kicked us up into a much more stringent policy was the involvement of government, which wasn’t necessary to focus attention on the problem. That was necessary to create some leverage on the union in order to agree to some fairly significant improvements in the policy that didn’t previously exist.
If you go back before 1998, I just don’t think – I’m not saying that baseball shouldn’t have – but I just don’t think the problem was recognized as being as serious as it in fact was. There’s a lot of reason for that historically, and that is that even with the increase in home runs and so forth, there was a lot of changes that were going on in baseball at the time that also contributed to some of these changes of performance – such as weightlifting, smaller ballparks, suspected to be a livelier ball, different bat construction that actually took advantage of physical dynamics. So it just took a long time to be recognized.
So, that’s an explanation, it’s not really an excuse. It’s just an explanation for what I think happened.
You made a number of changes during the off-season to a division championship team. What was the motivating force behind that?
The motivating force was 82 wins, which in a normal year would not have qualified us for any postseason, certainly would not have won a division championship. Several of us within the ball club, and I think most of our fans, realize that changes were necessary. We can’t expect to win a division title with 82 wins in 2006 – we need to get better.
It was important to retain a couple of free agents that we had, Trevor Hoffman and Brian Giles. But ultimately we had to make some other changes in order to accommodate those players as well as make additional changes that we thought were important to make.
It was more roster movement than we would normally have, but warranted I think in this year.
You traded some popular players like Mark Loretta and Xavier Nady. What was the basis behind those decisions?
Mark Loretta was a popular player. Second base historically is a position that a club can fill somewhat more easily than other positions. We have a great prospect with Josh Barfield who is just about ready to take over that position. He’s having a great spring as it turns out.
So, until we had adequate backup there, we were looking for a catcher to replace Ramon Hernandez. Doug Mirabelli was available. People asked us: “Well how can you trade a full time second baseman for a part time catcher?” But frankly, that’s in part reflective of how difficult it is to find players in certain positions. At second base it’s not that difficult; behind the plate it is difficult. So that was a trade that was made because we had some help coming in the player development system and because we needed some additional catching help after losing Ramon Hernandez
Xavier Nady was a young player who never really got the playing time in San Diego that he needed to develop as an everyday player. We had acquired Mike Cameron; we needed to improve our outfield defense. We had an obligation to Ryan Klesko, so moving Klesko to first base was probably our best solution. And we needed to improve our outfield defense probably beyond what Xavier Nady could provide us. So I think there were good reasons for trading Nady, but ultimately, we wouldn’t have acquired Mike Cameron without losing Xavier.
How much is the sabermetrics theory being used in the Padres organization today?
It’s being used. We’re trying to balance that approach with a more traditional evaluation of players. But very definitely, we’re using a more quantitative approach to player evaluation than I think we had in previous years. But again, it’s a balance between the old and the new approaches.
Did you bring that to the organization?
I think it was here to some extent already. What’s important is not just having that information available but also incorporating that information into the decision-making process, so that it gets weighted appropriately and is actually taken into account.
You seemed to have a good thing going at Major League Baseball. What made you decide to come to the Padres – with a caveat – you can’t say the weather.
Well it was actually the owner, John Moores. I think that’s what attracted me to San Diego initially. I did enjoy myself in New York, enjoyed living in New York. But I enjoyed the job working for the commissioner and thought that we had made a lot of progress in certain areas, like international baseball, the umpires and so forth.
But I missed the emotional attachment to the game that only comes through rooting for your team. I’d been in Oakland for a long time and after six years, I started to miss that direct connection, that emotional connection with the game and so, going back to a club was something that I had considered for the last year or so. This opportunity arose, and it was really the owner first and foremost who was an attractive element.
And then, you know, the team has a lot of potential. The new ballpark, the team has the potential to be a contender every year. And certainly there’s an affinity between the team and the fans that can be built upon.
You and John Moores have both talked about your high hopes for the Padres, but could you give me a prediction for the 2006 season?
Well I can hardly predict anything other than a division championship. But again, the game is funny. And our division is going to be very competitive. I don’t think were clear favorites, I don’t think were clear underdogs. I think there’s been a lot of changes in our division. You know, Dodgers have made some changes; Bonds will be back presumably with the Giants. So it’s going to be competitive. Arizona’s got some good young players, Colorado played better last year in the second half of the season.
So it’s going to be a very competitive division, and I wouldn’t say that were sitting there as a clear favorite. But on the other hand, ever the optimist, I think we’ve got a real shot at repeating.
– Interview by SAM HODGSON