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Column: Baseball general managers are an underappreciated group

Published 12:00am Thursday, September 20, 2007

By Jon Laging, Talking Sports

General managers labor in anonymity, little recognized and appreciated. To the average fan starting position players are better known than the guy sitting behind the desk in the front office. For example, most baseball fans know that Derek Jeter is the Yankees&8217; shortstop, but not many know that Brian Cashman is their GM. I&8217;m sure that few Yankee fans would know that Terry Ryan is the Twins&8217; General Manager.

Yet general managers are extremely important to their teams and Andy McPhail was just as important to the 1987, &8216;91 Twins&8217; World Series champs as Kirby Puckett. Millions around the world have heard of Babe Ruth, but never heard of Ed Barrow, the man that talked the Boston Red Sox out of Ruth. The greatest slugger and gate attraction of all time.

When you think of the thousands of players that have starred in the majors and the millions of words that have been printed and spoken about them, you realize that general managers attract very little notice. They often get less mention than the 25th player on the team sitting at the end of the bench.

When I look back over the more than 100 years of Major League baseball only a few GMs got much publicity:

Connie Mack, (Cornelius McGillicuddy), owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Little is mentioned nowadays about Mack who managed the Athletics well into his 80s dressed in a suit and tie with a fedora on his head moving his players around with a folded newspaper. He was quite a sight, a tall, rail thin, dapper, man directing the team while sitting in a dugout. He took time to be the GM and did a masterful job. The Athletics were as good as the Yankees during the late 20s and early 30s winning three pennants during the Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane era.

However, Connie Mack the owner, did in Connie Mack the general manager by selling the stars of the team. One of the first examples of baseball&8217;s devotion to the bottom line.

The next general manager that comes to mind is Branch Rickey. He is best known for his work with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The innovator of the present day farm system and perhaps more importantly, the breaking of baseball&8217;s color line with Jackie Robinson. He even had a movie made about him.

In modern times the best known general manager is probably Billy Beane. He wasn&8217;t the focus of a movie, but he was the subject of a bestseller called &8220;Moneyball.&8221; Still, he is hardly a household name.

Terry Ryan is not a household name either and I doubt Jay Leno or David Letterman will ever mention his name. That&8217;s all right with Terry. In fact that appears to be one of the big reasons he is stepping down. He doesn&8217;t like publicity.

You heard all his reasons for leaving: he&8217;s tired, too much stress, he found himself changing, he wants to go back to what he enjoyed. Granted those are all legitimate reasons and the Twin Cities sports writers hastened to write that with Ryan, &8220;what you see is what you get. &8220;That Terry told it the way it was, I think he did too, but I also think that he left some things unsaid. Much like when you ask at the bus stop in Mexico City whether the bus stops here and the answer is s&8220;. One

might wish to pursue that further by asking if the bus stops here today?

Did the financial constraints the Pohlad&8217;s imposed on him wear him down? Did he really have the freedom to pursue a free agent hitter prior to this year&8217;s trading deadline? If he didn&8217;t, was that the straw that broke the camels back? I don&8217;t know and I don&8217;t think we will ever know, but a guy wonders.

Jon Laging writes a regional sports column from his home in Preston.