I had the pleasure of attending the ‘Going to Bat for Vermont Farmers’ baseball roundtable this past Saturday. It was an amazing event for a great cause. Neal Huntington, Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, and some scout for the Red Sox spent an evening talking baseball and answering questions from Buster Olney and the (very baseball-smart) crowd at Vermont Technical College. The participants talked openly about their jobs and the state of baseball.
Thanks to the questions from the crowd, the financial inequity elephant on the stage was spoken to. Neal Huntington separated himself from the others on this topic by taking the high road. He pointed out that it’s hard to win with any budget and the main difference between the various markets is simply the margin for error. These words coming from Cashman and Epstein sounded smarmy and disingenuous, but somehow Neal Huntington, the humble son of a New Hampshire farm family, delivered the message in a way that maintained his accountability for the success of the Pirates. He pointed out that in the NFL and NHL, where they use salary cap systems, there still exist “bad teams”. In different parts of the conversation, he engaged the audience by speaking to the nature of his job. He pointed out that in the past four years the Pirates have spent more money on amateur talent than any other team in baseball. Huntington tipped the small-market strategy by talking about what you can get for a $5M investment at the amateur level versus blowing that kind of money on a “situational left-handed reliever.”
The conversation wasn’t all about baseball, though. Theo Epstein, by far the most polished of the panel, sounded like a genius. He talked and talked and talked and had nuanced ideas on every subject. He complimented his Pittsburgh and New York counterparts in direct but understated ways. Theo Epstein probably talked twice as much as everyone else. And yet, I don’t remember much of what he said. It seems the Boston media (or the circumstances of his life) have made it impossible for Theo to tell it like it is. There’s always a spin, an angle, a more important message than the question you asked. Epstein has clearly cultivated a way of entrancing his audience with empty, yet engaging, talking points. He could be a convincing politician… if he didn’t accidentally disclose his imperialist bent on baseball talent mining. When discussing the value of the baseball farm system, he hinted at the challenges in character that come with high-talent “mercenaries” that sign from team to team as free agents. Epstein said that the farm system was the only way for an organization to “put their stamp” on players. He seemed to be talking about imposing a team’s values and way of being on young players. It sounded pretty regular until he narrowed his focus on the “impressionable” kids from the Dominican. Apparently this organizational stamp is needed only for them.
Brian Cashman was clearly the least likable and nuttiest person on stage. He warmed the crowd up with one-liners and funny stories (Padres GM, Kevin Towers once demanded beanie babies in a trade), but his anger and general discontent were just under the surface. His flippant jokes about therapy and annoyance with progress on instant replay were telling. (By the way, his naïve plan for using replay lays the foundation for eliminating umpires. While efficient, it ignores the economic and labor realities of the league and literally denies the profession of umpiring its humanity.) But his true wackiness came out when talking about the recent kidnapping in Venezuela. While speaking Cashman referred to Venezuela as a “Caribbean island”. (Odd…) He talked of Venezuela as a tropical paradise. He even compared it to Hawaii.
And then he launched into his political commentary. He asked us to imagine Hawaii, and then add the fact that it has oil. Incredulously, he pointed out that Hawaii-with-oil was still a “third world country.” How could Hawaii-with-oil not be a cultural and economic utopia? Well, apparently it’s because of Hugo Chavez. He pinned all the unnamed problems of the country (presumably including the recent kidnapping) on Hugo Chavez. Cashman went further to say that the Yankees couldn’t build a training facility there because “(Chavez) would take it.” The assumption here is that the Yankees have the God-given right to build their bases wherever they want; opposition is unjust. Another strange turn: he juxtaposed this hostile environment with the ease he has dealing with the Dominican “on the other side.” Was he talking about Haiti? Confusing…
Then there was Neal Huntington. He talked straight. He was succinct. He knows baseball. Huntington spoke to the challenges of the small market without whining about the inequity. He outlined the Pirates long-term plan. Huntington didn’t bring it up, but Theo Epstein complimented the Pirates on their strategies in transforming Charlie Morton’s mechanics into game-day success. Epstein said the approach was a model for the rest of the league. Huntington simply deferred the credit to those actually doing that specific work. Unlike the others on stage, Neal Huntington didn’t embarrass himself or the team. He offered nothing but class and integrity.