Sandy Alderson, the new general manager of the New York Mets, is the kind of man who reminds other men of what they once thought they could be and sets them fawning. A Marine, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a successful general manager and CEO of major league ball clubs and breaker of umpires, he has, so far as one can tell, never failed at anything.
He also, as it happens, last ran a winning ball club in 1992. One can be quite impressed by the fact that Alderson was the man chosen to clean up baseball's notoriously corrupt operations in the Dominican Republic and still note that his last winner played in Barry Bonds' final year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Derek Jeter was drafted that year. Andrew Friedman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, wasn't yet old enough to drive.
Curiously, no one has seemed very concerned by the implications of this since Alderson was hired two weeks ago. Take it as proof of the strength of the man's reputation or of the limitless optimism of Mets fans, but the common assumption seems to be that with one hiring, a backwards team has become a rational and progressive one.
This assumption has even survived Alderson's first major move, the installation of J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta as his top lieutenants. I can think of a lot of words to describe these hires, but "progressive" isn't one of them.
Ricciardi, 51, was the longtime general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, and a hard-luck case. (In 2008 his team was probably one of the five best in baseball, which was only good enough for a fourth-place finish in the American League East.) Ricciardi got relatively little credit for doing well because he signed players like Vernon Wells and B.J. Ryan to famously lousy contracts, and in all proved a highly conventional operator.
DePodesta, 37, has worked in baseball for 14 years, including a brief run as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his first year with the Dodgers, they made the playoffs; the next year they lost 90 games for just the second time since they moved from Brooklyn, and he lost his job. Aside from this, he has always been successful, having had a hand in the building of good teams in Cleveland, San Diego and Oakland.
This last stint is important, because like Alderson and Ricciardi, DePodesta is of course probably most famous for his role in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, and more broadly for his role in building the strong Oakland A's team that was its subject. Alderson was the man who brought Billy Beane to power; Ricciardi and DePodesta were his capos.
The merits and flaws of both the book and the philosophy that it celebrated aside, the Moneyball A's peaked a decade ago, and haven't had a winning season since 2006. Hiring Beane himself would at this point be a good move, but it would hardly be a coup to end coups. Why the hiring of three men best known for their affiliation with him should be treated as such is a bit of a mystery.
If this seems unfair, forget pedigree and think of these men objectively: Alderson is a 62-year-old bagman for commissioner Bud Selig, a decade and a half removed from baseball operations, and the other two are washed-out general managers who happen to have worked with Alderson in the past. This is caricature, but it captures the truth that this is a group not of revolutionaries, but of veteran baseball men who should not necessarily be looked to for novel ways of thinking. Their ideas may prove as stale in their way as former general manager Omar Minaya's did.
There is a lot more to baseball than having new ideas, though, which is why one can decline the Kool-Aid and still be excited about the changes in Flushing.
The problems with the Mets over the years, after all, have not been philosophical but mechanical. The team has consistently failed to develop clear lines of authority, to scout its own players properly, and to train players well. This has led to such spectacles as failures to put injured players on the disabled list, the promotion of prospects barely ready for Double-A to the major leagues, generations of pitchers who don't know how to throw a good curveball, and so on.
The new crew, whatever its flaws, is not going to allow straight-out dysfunction. Alderson may be many years removed from the general manager's desk, but I would bet my record collection against a dollar that under his leadership the Mets will know who has the authority to authorize surgery for a star player. One can be similarly sure that Ricciardi and DePodesta will not encourage the signing and promotion of random teenagers, or produce memos explaining the pressing need to spend a lot of money on Oliver Perez.
With the Mets' money and talent, simple mechanical competence is all they need out of their front office, and the new regime offers it. It further offers Alderson's prestige. A man who has been mentioned as a possible commissioner is not going to find himself without resources if the buffoonish Wilpon family tries to make a botch of his work. Mets fans should be happy -- and so should everyone else.
First, it's bad for baseball when a team as rich as the Mets is bad. Trickle-down mediocrity is one reason why the National League has been so much weaker than the American League over the past decade. In the Junior Circuit, the teams with the largest financial advantages -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and White Sox -- are always good, which raises the league's metabolism and forces competitors to build strong teams. Of their National League equivalents, only the Phillies are consistently good. A Mets team that doesn't squander its edge over the rest of the league out of simple incompetence will force rivals to be better, which will be good for fans.
Second, that Beane's henchmen can enter the New York market as staid, fairly conventional figures is a great victory for rationalism, a sign that baseball accepts change. Ricciardi and DePodesta probably aren't going to deliver the next great idea in sports management. Given the searing experiences they had earlier in their careers, though -- when the press and baseball insiders alike deemed them numbers-drunk robots who simply didn't understand the game -- it's easy to imagine them hiring people who will.
With the rise of new technologies like Pitch f/x, and the opening of entire new continents as sources of talent, baseball is on the verge of an era of change as wrenching as the one to which Alderson and his men contributed so many years ago. The Mets may not lead it, but they probably won't be left behind.