GMs: How to win friends and influence trades
A strong circle of friends, or few enemies in some cases, can be a GM's best weapon in trade talks.
The chances of any trade between the Reds and Mariners probably increased dramatically Monday, in the moment that Cincinnati president John Allen fired general manager Jim Bowden. Seattle GM Pat Gillick was barely on speaking terms with Bowden the last three years, since Bowden gloated in the aftermath of the Ken Griffey Jr. trade.
"I wouldn't say we call each other every day to see how the other is doing," Gillick said drolly in an interview earlier this summer.
Gillick said he would never allow personal feelings to prevent him from making a trade, but the communication between the general managers is a major factor in the deal-making process. If GMs aren't on speaking terms, it stands to reason there is not a lot of trade dialogue, and conversely, the GMs who talk to each other often have a better chance of making a trade. "The relationships are important," said Kevin Towers, the San Diego general manager.
A deal that makes sense on the surface might not even be possible. Three summers ago, the Yankees' Brian Cashman was interested in dealing for the Orioles' B.J. Surhoff, and probably would have parted with a couple of pitching prospects. But Cashman had extreme difficulties getting anywhere in his talks with former Baltimore GM Syd Thrift -- whose verbose style sometimes bothered Cashman and other GMs -- and eventually, Cashman stopped calling.
There is another general manager with whom Towers does not speak, "and I don't see us ever making a deal with him." Towers, on the other hand, made deals repeatedly with Randy Smith, a close friend, while Smith was the GM of the Detroit Tigers.
Texas GM John Hart and Atlanta GM John Schuerholz are close friends and have made blockbuster deals. Thrift and Bowden, once mentor and student earlier in their careers, traded easily.
Other GMs like to deal with Schuerholz, who is direct and to the point in his conversation. "You know within five minutes what he wants, and he'll make his case quickly," said one GM. When Gillick talks trade in person, other GMs say, he is surrounded by his scouts and advisors and asks for their input. St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty is well-liked and respected. Other GMs find it difficult to deal with Tampa Bay's Chuck LaMar, on the other hand, feeling as if his asking prices are always outrageous. "You might be interested in one of his fringe guys as a role player, and he'll want your best prospect," said a GM. "When he does that, it kind of kills the conversation. Where do you go from there in a situation like that?"
The book "Moneyball" deeply offended the colleagues of Oakland GM Billy Beane, who allowed writer Michael Lewis to listen in on phone conversations with other GMs without informing them. The book also seems to portray Beane as a genius toying with lesser minds -- a perception that other GMs blame on Beane. Because of the resentment, other GMs say, Beane will have more difficulty in trade negotiations. They will return his calls, they will talk to him pleasantly, but they will take a hard line.
"I don't trust Billy," said one GM. "It's as simple as that."
"He's going to have a hard time making deals," said an American League GM. "He's going to have to rely on his friends" -- such as Cashman and Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi -- "to help him in three-way trades. He needs a go-between these days."
Dan Duquette, the former Boston GM, infuriated his peers by not returning phone calls, and sometimes, when he did return calls, Duquette remained silent -- a passive-aggressive approach, Towers thought. The other GM would feel compelled to fill the uncomfortable silence and surrender more information that Duquette might use. Towers decided to wait out Duquette's silence one day. Each man was on a speakerphone, and when Duquette stopped talking, so did Towers, for more than 10 minutes.
"Kevin, you there?" Duquette finally asked.
"Yeah, Dan, I'm here," said Towers, feeling a small sense of accomplishment.
Gillick tried reaching Duquette after the 1996 season, leaving messages, and Duquette did not call back; he was always in a meeting, according to his secretary. Duquette was in the midst of negotiations with Roger Clemens and his agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, and Gillick called Duquette and affected a Southern accent. "Yes, hi, this is Randall K. Hendricks, calling for Mr. Dan Duquette," Gillick said, and Duquette immediately picked up the phone.
Gillick and Duquette would laugh about that. But when it comes to the trade deadline, dialogue between GMs -- or lack thereof -- is a serious matter.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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