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SABR 40: awards and John Schuerholz speech

Here we are at the SABR Awards Banquet. The eating is mostly over with, and now president Andy McCue is reading off the results of various awards that were given earlier this year, including some to high school students for historical society prizes and the like, and working up to the Seymour Medal. We’ve just been reminded that next year’s convention will be in Southern California, and that miraculously, we got a weekend when both the Dodgers and the Angels will be at home, and that a lower room rate than this year has been secured. What they didn’t do was announce what the actual date was, or I’d put it here.

Seymour Medal winners of past and present were just applauded.

Now the Henry Chadwick Award, which is an award for best baseball historical writers of all time. Winners who are in attendance are Dorothy Seymour Mills and Bill James. Other recipients have included Lawrence Ritter, Lee Allen, Bob Davids, and others.

The Roland Hemond Award for best baseball executive, scout, or front office person will now be given. Roland is usually on hand to give the award out himself, but he had to be in Arizona for the retirement of Luis Gonzalez’s number. Instead, Paul Snyder, who won the award in 2004, will give the award to John Schuerholz, the former GM and now president of the Braves. Paul is reading a letter from Roland now. He remarks that John and Paul make the best GM an scouting director team he knows, and that he looks forward to seeing John in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown someday.

Schuerholz’s remarks: Paul was the first person I tampered with when I got the job here. He was working for the Kansas City Royals and I couldn’t wait to ask him if he wanted to get out of the midwest. I am honored to accept this award that is named for my idol in professional baseball, Roland Hemond. I’m almost 70 years old, and have been 47 years in baseball, and whenever I look in the mirror and think I’m looking a little old, I remember Roland, who has been 60 years in baseball and is my hero.

Then comes the McFarland Baseball Research award. Len Levin, chairman of the awards committee, comes to the podium to give the awards. “THe field of candidates this year was very very good. We could have picked enough winners from this field to last about the next five years. And they are, if you will, all tied for first place.” And the winners are: Mark Armour, for A Tale of Two Umpires, about the firing of Bill Valentine and Al Salerno by Joe Cronin. William “Bill” Lamm for A Fearsome Collaboration: The Alliance between Andrew Freedman and John T. Brush. Geri Strecker, for The Rise and Fall of Greenlee Field.

The next edition of the prize will be for articles written or published this year (2010).

The Sporting News Baseball Research Award. For those projects that don’t fit into the Seymour Medal or McFarland awards. Steve Gietscher to announce.

By the way, I’m no longer the only poor schlub sitting on the floor in the back now. Even SABR vice president Bill Nowlin is here with me, along with about a dozen others.

Sporting News Baseball Research Award winners:
Robert Gorman and David Weeks for their book Death At The Ballpark.
Dennis Pajot for the book The Rise of Milwaukee Baseball
(Ms.) L. M Sutter for her book Ball, Bat and Bitumen
(All three titles were published by McFarland.)

The winners of the Doug Pappas Award and the USA Today Sports Weekly poster presentation award for this year will be announced tomorrow morning.

And now the presentation of SABR’s highest honor, the Bob Davids award, for service to the organization. Many of the previous winners are here in the room, and as the names of the previous are read out, the names of the deceased stand out. The lifetime awards are, by necessity, populated by the older of our number.

Bill Nowlin just mentioned to me that it’s now dead silent while John Thorn makes his way to the podium to announce the winner. The background sound of gentle clinking of glasses and cups has completely ceased. “Our most revered award,” Bill whispers.

Mark Rucker is the winner. Rucker is one of our most revered photo archivists. He has collaborated with Ken Burns, Larry Ritter, David Nemec, and on and on. I can’t begin to list all his efforts, but if you have ever seen the graphic credit for Transcendental Graphics, or The Rucker archive, you have seen an image he curated.

Mark couldn’t be here this year, and John accepts on his behalf. “As John Zajc has suggeted, I will pose with the award in such a way as I can be Photoshopped out.”

And now, the keynote remarks by John Scherholz, whose name I have spelled at least three different ways already today, dang it.

Our speaker

Bob Fischer: I first met John in West Palm Beach at the Braves’ training facility in 1991. His philsophy is the same as mine. Good scouting and player development is the key to winning. He served 28 years as general manager, including 17 as vice president. he Braves compile the best record in baseball over that span, a .593 record from 1991-2007. Five pennants, one World Series, and several organization of the year award. And have passed 3 million in home attendance six times. In 2003 the Braves reached 100 wins for the sixth time since 1993. When they won the world Series, he became the first executive to lead both an AL and an NL team World Championship. He’s now president of the Braves.

Schuerholz:

Last night we retired Tom Glavine’s number, a very rare tribute to a player. I thought that was the most loving and understanding baseball environment there could be. But then I came here today. I’m delighted that you invited me. (gives a shoutout to Fredi Gonzalez in the audience, joking that no tampering necessary since he should still be with the Marlins, but is not)

Then mentions all the award winners. Mark, where’s the guy who won the award on the firing of umpires? Mark? You might want to write a followup after the “imperfect game” and the fair foul ball call the other night.

I taught school for four years in Baltimore, but my love of baseball led me to write a letter to the Baltimore Orioles. The letter got passed to Frank Cashen, and in 1966 I was hired. I later went to Kansas City where I was given the chance to be part of building a franchise. I worked fo great grea baseball people. I was the “young guy” in the office at the Orioles and then in Kansas City. And I was allowed to use my skills to analyze statistics and help make decisions and they worked out, and I was promoted up the ladder, and eventually at age 40 in 1981 I became a general manager. At the time I was the youngest general manager in the baseball. Now these guys who are 40 are on their way out! (laughter) They come out of college ready to do the job.

I always used statstics effectively. But I also listend to Paul Snyder, and Tom Ferrick, where I could turn as a young GM to these people. He would say to me, a great and respected scout, “Stats don’t lie,” don’t forget that. We would not have won 14 division championships if I had not believed that. He would turn over a guy’s baseball card and show them to me. I would also rely on the instinct of Paul Snyder, and Jum Fregosi, and others. I would then make a choice based on all that knowledge. Okay, I did trade Adam Wainwright. But I did also make a trade for Fred McGriff. The lifeblood of any good organization is the prospects in your system.

In those days Kansas City was considered the IBM of the American League. The dynamic thinking of the Royals Baseball Academy (didn’t work but it was outside the box thinking) and the rock solid management. But I came to Atlanta as the Braves were just starting to get serious and emerge as a power, potentially. From worst to first in 1991, the “outdoor” baseball World Champions! (laughter) Of course we played the Twins and they played indoors, and we won all the outdoor games in the championship and they won all the indoor games… but there were four indoor games.

In those days Chipper Jones and Dave Justice and all of them were in the pipeline. We signed Terry Pendleton as a free agent, and Rafael Belliard, and we made a trade for Otis Nixon. It provided a veteran leadership and a great defensive matrix behind those great young pitchers. That spring, Terry called me over on one of the back field that was so far away that we called it “Iwo Jima” and said “We’re going to have some fun here. This is going to be a good team.”

Before we turned out the lights in 1994, when baseball went dark, we were on a trajectory. And in 1993 if raw rookie Ed Sprague had not swung fro his heels and sent a ball out of the park things might have been different. And in 1995 of course it all came together. We won and we became the first and only championship team for the city of Atlanta.

In 1996 we had the Yankees right where we wanted them. But it didn’t happen. All of a sudden the Yankees climbed back in it. Mark Wohlers was our best reliever, and up comes this guy Jim Leyritz. Wohlers throws a slider, Leyritz fouls it back. This is a guy with a 98 mile an hour fastball. But he throws another slider, and Leyritz fouls that one back. Bat head right on it. Good speed. He throws another slider and you know those cartoons where the ball is hit so hard that its eyes bug out? I think that ball looked like that.

The secret potion to succeeding with continuity is the lifeblood of scouting and development. Up in Kansas City these days they took their eye off the ball. They have forgotten that. The Yankees had forgotten it for a while when they had their ten-year-long dip.

The key today to success is to manage your team economics. Most of us have EITHER good scouting like the Red Sox are now doing or saddlebags of money. We’ve done that. Baseball organizations rely on one principle ingredient and that’s PEOPLE. You have to have precise goals. It’s not to “get better” but to win a world series. The commissioner now called the Atlanta Braves the gold standard in baseball.

I believe hiring good people is the key ingredient. Giving them the ability to contribute to your success and give them hope for progress. You have to have enthusiasm for what you do. Two things I saw as a young baseball executive, while in Buefield one day while working for the Orioles. Bunt situation, everyone knew it, guy bunts the ball down the first base line, and the pitcher goes and gets the ball, and runs to tag the runner, and they get in a rundown between first and HOME PLATE. He dives back into home and is tagged, and called out. I asked Lou Gorman later, what would have happened if he was called safe? No one knows.

A couple of weeks later a kid slides into home plate with a cloud of dust and the catcher trying to tag him with the throw from the outfield. The umpire just stands there. The runner goes to the dugout. The manager of the other team tells the catcher, go tag him! He goes over to the dugout and there are 25 guys he doesn’t know from Adam, so he just starts tagging everyone. The manager of that team then pushes the guy out of the dugout and tells him to go tag home plate, because he must never have touched it. The kid ends up in a rundown between the dugout and home plate.

Those two examples really taught me the value of enthusiasm.

I lost the hearing in one of my ears after a high fever when I was a child. It’s amazing I didnt’ lose the hearing in both ears or get brain damage. Well, maybe the jury is out on that. (laughter) What losing the hearing in one ear taught me, though, is to listen to people. I started paying attention to how people spoke, how they communicate. And one of the things I have brought to the Braves is this. I try to teach people to represent themselves well. Present yourself well, dress well, and speak well.

(At this point, people who were going on a bus trip to the Joe Jackson Museum had to get up and scurry out, and audience members lined up at the microphone to ask questions in the Q&A session.)

(Many members got up and started chatting then and wouldn’t leave while the Q&A was going on.)

Question: I’m an Expos fan in mouring. They broke up that great 1994 team. If you had been the Expos GM at that time, what would you have done?

JOhn: I don’t know what the economics were. They were obviously failing, but they knew they couldnt’ afford to keep them all. That’s a tough decision to make. You have to make the choice for your organization to survive.

Q: I wanted to ask about the Sprague story you told. if it was so obvious you should have thrown him three split fingers why didn’t they?

John: Well I wasn’t calling the pitches.

Q: Is it hard?

John: That’s what we do. it’s out job to have confidence in the peopel you hire and rely on and trust. Empower and trust those peopel, and then stand back and let them do it. That’s been my operating philosophy all my life.

Q: If there were one or two things you could change, what would they be?

John: The designated hitter. (applause) There are a lot of old guys who can’t run who can still play, and the union likes it, but… And there’s probably something about the economics I would change, but I’m not exactly sure what.

Q: I’m a Royals fan. i wanted to ask you about the scouting of Dan Quisenberry. Today he would probably have a problem being scouted by a guy with a radar gun.

John: I’m happy to talk about Quis. He had a lot of quotes, like “To be a relief pitcher in MLB you have to pitch like your hair’s on fire.” In college he was a traditional overhand pitcher, and he wasn’t very good. And his college coahch said if you’re going to make it you better try something different. And he did. And his competitiveness and his fire, smart, thinking outside the box, all those things helped him. I was pleased and blessed to have known him.

Q: I saw the Rome Braves play a few weeks ago. That team looks great and I appreciate they all wear their socks high. Is there an organizational policy on that?

John: from Triple A to the rookie league we control everything. The major leaguers have a union backing them. And Bobby Cox does the best job he can to wear the uniform with dignity and honor and respect. And that’s the way our whole system does it. We imbue that feeling in them. That is our policy.

Q: You said statitistics never lie. What role does the advance in stats take in your office?

John: I’ve had to learn a whole new language. WHen John Coppolella talks about BABIP and VORP I thought he was talking to me in Martian. But I’ve learned. In the war room if you will talking about trades and acquisition, we constantly talk about stats we never used before. It used to be sophisticated to just to home versus road and turf versus grass. Now we’re in a new stratosphere of stats.

Q: I think the Expos were probably going to win in 1994, playing at full speed, while everyone else knew there was going to be a work stoppage. The other teams were just going through the motions as professionals. What is your take?

John: I think the players were fearful that their game might be taken from them and their livelihood was going to be taken from them. Probably the weight of that kept them from playing with verve and vigor. Why the Expos didn’t feel that I don’t know. Your observations are likely very true and accurate.

Q: When you changed from KC to Atlanta, were you aware that the KC organization had developed a multi-level aversion to walks?

John: Quite candidly, it wasn’t that specific. We hadn’t reached that level of statistical sophistication in KC at all. I left because of an internal ownership circumstance and the problems that was creating in the organization. The fracturing and unsettling of the ground beneath us, I couldn’t take it, and then this opportunity presented itself and I took it.

Q: When you grew up who were your baseball heroes?

John: It was an International League team in Baltimore then, but when the Orioles came into town in the 1954, when the St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore. I started late being a fan, but I remember catching those styrofoam baseballs that they were throwing from convertibles in the parade when they came to town. Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger, those guys were mine.

Q: Level salaries?

John: Most clubs do have a better feeling about their ability to compete now. We are better at spending what money we have. But smartly, the rich clubs are also investing into scouting and international signings, so they have the same advantages there.

Q: What is Sid Bream had been out? Would it have derailed the franchise?

John: Thanks to psyschoanalysis I no longer get nightmares. (laughter) It was a close play. Bonds’ throw was up the line about three feet. And Randy Marsh got the call right, and…

Q: It sounds like you realy HAVE thought about it a lot.

John: Maybe a little. I don’t think it would have derailed the franchise.

Q: Yankees fan here.

John: Brian Cashman is one of the smartest guys in baseball, one of the brightest running a team. George Steinbrenner, god rest his soul, often made things difficult for his people, but even he eventually realized to let Brian do his job. Thankfully I’ve had some success and every owner I’ve worked for has trusted me to let me do my job. Hughie Kaufman and Ted Turner was like the difference between Mars and Earth. And by the way, Turner was the one on Mars. Kaufman was the first sabermetrician I ever met. He knew mathematics so well that was one of the ways he always had success, even from poker games in the Navy.

Q: Drafting of george Brett and what about Mike Schmidt? Who went in that draft.

John: You might remembre Brett was not our first round pick. We drafted Roy Branch who people had said was like the next Bob Gibson. But he had some bone chips, and we said well, if there’s any doubt about Branch, get this shortstop from El Segundo, Brett. We got them both fortunately, Brett in the second round, and Branch blew out his arm.

Q: (couldn’t hear it)

John: The other players who come to Turner Field and see the 14 consecutive division championship flags, the Derek Jeters and A-Rods who come in, they never say “But you only won one championship.” Those guys know how hard it is, they know how getting there is the hardest part and how much a part luck can play. That “but” is really not fair to the players and managers who worked so hard.

Q: What’s been the effect of being on the TBS “Superstation”?

John: After we won, I got tons and tons of letters from elderly people in Idaho and Montana and Ohio and wherever saying thank you, thank you, “my boys finally won.” Sadly, once we lost the super satellite signal because of the super high tariff on it, we’ve now lost those fans.

Q: Would Whitey Herzog have lost his job if he had won?

John: It was an oil and water mix. Whitey was a great baseball man, and he did a great job for us in the short time he was there.

Q: I’m a Yankee fan, but I thought the Braves had a better ballclub in 96 and 99. I was surprised the Yankees won both World Series. Did you guys feel like you should have won one or two of those?

John. YES. (laughter) Okay, I do wake up at night seeing that Leyritz homer. I rest my case.

Q: Were you there when Ted decided to make himself manager?

John: No. I watched it with great glee from Kansas City. But I did accept a job from that guy.

Q: What about your relationships with agents?

John: I’m negotating a contract with Alan and Randy Hendricks. Contracts should be based on facts, right? It was a guy named Keith Creel from Texas. He had a horrible year. I have to sanitize this story a bit. I figure I have it made. I read off all these stats, and figure the guy is not getting a raise. ALan says “Spare me the freeking stats.” I said waitasec, you quote stats to me all the time! But when stats don’t work for agents, they ignore them.

Closing comments and such. Giving John a complimentary SABR membership, saying now he can email everyone to do his stat analysis for him.

Coming up later today, the New Technologies in Baseball panel, and tomorrow, the Seymour Medal winners panel.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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