WASHINGTON — There is still a bit of eighth grade school teacher in John Schuerholz. You can see it in the way he talks, the way he moves, the way he makes eye contact with everyone in the crowd, glancing from one person to another, reading their faces as if asking himself, “Do they understand EXACTLY what I am saying?”
Clarity. This was the great gift of John Schuerholz, the commanding instinct that helped make him one of the most successful general managers in baseball history. He sought clarity. He demanded clarity. Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore tells a great story about his old boss. Moore had just been given his first big baseball job, and he was in his first big meeting.
Schuerholz asked a simple question about a young player’s bat — will he hit in the big leagues?
Moore launched into a thoughtful and detailed response. He had not seen the player but himself but he had heard from the scouts that the kid had some offensive talent but he would have to overcome various deficiencies and his success or failure would largely depend on what kind of coaching he received and so on and so on and so on. Schuerholz wordlessly went on with the meeting.
Afterward, though, Schuerholz pulled Moore to the side and said: “Dayton, don’t ever do that again.” He had asked a direct question. He expected a direct answer. He did not have the time or the bandwidth for ambiguity or hedges. Yes. No. “I haven’t seen the player either,” Schuerholz said. “I just need to know: Can he hit?”
In his book, “Built to Win,” Schuerholz explained it this way.
Losers think, “Nobody knows.”
Winners think, “Let’s find out.”
Teachers command clarity, the good ones do. There is the right answer and the wrong one. There is the well-reasoned answer and the chaotic flood of words meant to obscure the fact that the student didn’t do the work. Schuerholz taught composition and grammar and geography at North Point Junior High School in Baltimore until he was in his mid-20s.He never did lose that part of himself.
His entry to baseball has become legendary; Schuerholz was restless and he sat down one day and composed a letter on a Royal Typewriter, a letter to Baltimore Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger. He explained that he loved baseball (he had been a good player at Towson State), and he believed that he could be an asset to the Orioles. In the ensuing years, thousands of people have written such letters to Schuerholz, but alas baseball has changed. It was a smaller game then.
Hoffberger passed the letter on to Frank Cashen, a lifelong Baltimorean who had worked as a sportswriter, a publicity director for racetracks and so on. Cashen’s knowledge of Baltimore meant that he was well aware of the Schuerholz name — John comes from a long line of successful Baltimore athletes and coaches. Cashen gave Schuerholz the great honor of getting everyone coffee, running errands, typing official documents on that Royal Typewriter of his and so on.
Schuerholz was making $6,800 a year as a teacher.
He would make $4,700 a year with the Orioles.
As he has joked many times through the years, it isn’t easy to leave a teaching job for LESS money.
But Schuerholz was in baseball, and that was the point. That was 50 years ago, 1966. He had joined one of the great teams in baseball history, and there was knowledge floating around like smoke.
Three years later, he joined an expansion team in Kansas City, another extraordinary baseball play. In time, he became general manager there and won a World Series. Then, of course, he became the GM in Atlanta and together with Bobby Cox and a swarm of talented and hungry baseball people, they won 15 division titles, four pennants and World Series.
Clarity. That was his job, as he saw it. “I know trades are a crapshoot” someone said to Schuerholz as he wandered the crowd here at the Winter Meetings and accepted congratulations.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think trades are a crapshoot at all. You do the work. You know the people involved. If you do your work, you are not guessing.”
Yes … the schoolteacher always — don’t guess. Know. The defining moment of John Schuerholz’s time in Atlanta probably came in 1992, just after his Braves had stunned everyone by going worst to first and losing the 1991 World Series in seven games. Schuerholz believed his team had many good pieces and expected them to continue to be a good team … but he felt like they needed something extraordinary to make them a great team year after year after year.
And that’s why the Braves traded for Barry Bonds. He was still young then, getting ready for his last year before free agency, and Pittsburgh understood that it could not keep him. Schuerholz swooped in, made a deal for him, worked with ownership to have a large sum of money put aside to sign Bonds long-term. He had no doubt whatsoever that once Bonds joined the Braves, he WOULD sign Bonds long term.
He had made the bold move that secured the Braves’ bright future.
And then, to hear Schuerholz tell it, the Pirates just pulled out of the deal. Understand, they didn’t walk right up to the edge and abruptly pull out of the deal. No, they MADE the deal and then pulled out. Schuerholz was horrified. And angry. And crushed.
But Schuerholz also believed: These are the moments that define you. He’d made these wonderful plans and they blew up … so now what? Well, the next offseason, Schuerholz took the money he had earmarked to resign Barry Bonds and used it on a pretty good pitcher, you might have heard of him, a guy named Greg Maddux.
And then in July of that year, he traded for a power-hitting first baseman, you might have heard of him, a guy named Fred McGriff.
And then a bunch of kids named Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones started to make their way to the big leagues.
And guess what? The Braves turned out to be OK.
“Losers,” John Schuerholz likes to say, “will tell you ‘that’s the way it’s always been done here.”
“Winners,” Schuerholz adds, “will say, ‘Well, there ought to be a better way.”
John Schuerholz’s passion is writing poetry. Yes, he always was and always will be the old English teacher in Baltimore. Many years ago, he was riding around with a young and cocky Jack McKeon, and he noted just how arrogant McKeon sounded about more or less everything. And he wrote a poem, one he read often, one that came to define his own philosophy about baseball and life and all the stuff in between.
He might just read it on the day he goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I and My are words oft used
By those who are themselves confused;
Why won’t their super egos trust
The use of words like We and Us?