In the quiet before Game 1 of the ALDS, Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom sat together for a moment in the upper deck of Tropicana Field. This was, in a sense, entirely ordinary: The two had watched hundreds of games alongside each other in this building. But they’d never done it quite like this.
For more than a decade, Neander and Bloom were partners in Tampa Bay’s front office, coming up through the game together. Now, they were preparing to watch a playoff series from opposite sides for the first time: Neander as the leader of baseball operations for the Rays, and Bloom in the equivalent role for the Red Sox.
Bloom’s Red Sox won the best-of-five series in four games. It was a sign of just how deeply the Rays’ style has now taken root across MLB. (Consider that the other ALDS featured an Astros team helmed by their former Tampa Bay coworker James Click, while their old boss, Andrew Friedman, was once again leading his reigning champion Dodgers in the NLDS.) It was also, from a personal standpoint, a bit weird.
“Erik’s like my brother,” Bloom said. “We grew up together in this game. We’re extremely close.”
Until recently, their careers took paths that made them look like not just brothers, but twins. They’re the same age, 38, born less than three months apart. Both men started with the Rays as interns—Bloom in 2005 and Neander in 2007. They worked their way up the ranks together, and by 2012, both had the title of director of baseball operations. In 2014, after Friedman decamped for L.A., the two were promoted on the same day to become joint vice presidents of baseball ops. But after the 2016 season, their roads began to diverge ever so slightly: Bloom became senior vice president of baseball operations while Neander became senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager. (The story of their careers is, as much as anything, a snapshot of the myriad expanded titles that have evolved in the game over the last decade.) Neander has since switched out the “general manager” part of his title for “president of baseball operations” and signed a multiyear extension. Bloom, meanwhile, left to become the chief baseball officer of the Red Sox in 2019.
Which landed them in that quiet moment together a few hours before Game 1 in St. Petersburg. They caught up. They snapped a picture together. And then they went their separate ways for what became a roller coaster of a series.
“We both want to win,” Neander said. “But we both have plenty of appreciation, as friends, for the roles we’re in. It’s pretty cool.”
If the Rays’ front office has a brand that’s all its own—savvy, successful and always, always done on the cheap, in a way that people tend to either admire or absolutely loathe—there are strands of that DNA already apparent in both Bloom’s Red Sox and Click’s Astros. Part of that is an emphasis on player development and versatile roles. Another part, for Bloom, is a collaborative team environment.
“There’s so much talk about all of the groundbreaking things the Rays do, how they use information, and what I hope this highlights is how important culture is,” Bloom said of the way Tampa Bay’s top hires have spread across MLB. “I just feel fortunate that it was how I was raised in the game. It’s not that way for everybody in this industry—I know that. I know how lucky I am and how lucky I was not just to grow up over there, but also to have the lifelong friends that I have.”
Bloom and the Red Sox now move to the ALCS, where they—like Neander and the Rays did in 2020—will face Click and the Astros. The first game of that series is Friday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Click spent 14 years with Tampa Bay before he was hired to replace Jeff Luhnow last year in Houston; he became vice president of baseball operations with the Rays when Bloom and Neander became senior VPs.) If it still feels somewhat odd to face such a long-tenured former coworker in the playoffs, well, Bloom got practice in the ALDS. And, Neander jokes, Bloom has one advantage in this ALCS that he did not in 2020: It’s much easier to be in this situation when ballparks are back to full capacity, rather than under the pandemic conditions of last year, when front offices watched alone in the awkwardness of empty stadiums.
“If you spend some time in this game, you compete against a lot of your close friends,” says Bloom. “And this is a particularly cute example of that.”