On Oct. 4, 2005 Jon Daniels ’99 was named the General Manager of the Texas Rangers, making him the youngest man to hold the position in the history of Major League Baseball. Daniels led Texas to its first-ever World Series appearance in 2010 and was named Executive of the Year by Baseball America. Sun Sports Editor Evan Rich sat down with the Cornellian to discuss his journey to the Majors. The following is the first in a two-part interview.
The Sun: When you took over as General Manager of the Texas Rangers in 2005 you became the youngest person to hold the position in MLB history. Was becoming the GM of a professional sports team a dream of yours from a young age or was it more of an idea that only became a real possibility when the opportunity presented itself?
Jon Daniels: I was always interested in professional sports, but I did not think that … it would be a realistic option for somebody who didn’t have any playing experience at a high level. A friend of mine — also a Cornell grad — A.J. Preller ’99 … got involved [in sports] while we were at school, and he was focused on it, and I started paying more attention to it. And when he got established, I found myself paying more attention to his job than I did mine. Ultimately, through spending some time with him and meeting some different people, I got my foot in the door that way.
Sun: There are many Cornell students interested in sports management who see general managers like yourself — someone who broke into this business at a young age — as a role model. What would be your advice to someone looking to enter the industry?
J.D.: I think the biggest thing for me is to spend as much time around the game as possible. My sense is that a lot of … the younger job seekers probably lean a little bit more towards the analytical side — sabermetric side. That’s good, I would encourage them to read everything that they can, but there’s another side of the game that probably is more important, so I would encourage them to be more well-rounded. I would encourage guys to watch as much baseball as they can, go to as many games as they can — go to high school games, college games, minor league games — introduce themselves, when appropriate, to scouts. Obviously you’ve got to remember these guys are working at these games … but introduce yourself, see if you can pick their brain a little bit — see what they’re looking for, what they watch. We as fans tend to watch the ball, but there’s a lot more to [the game], and these guys have a feel for everything that’s going on — on the field and also off the field. Effectively at a young age I would expect guys to build their network, and spend as much time watching and talking about the game as possible.
Sun: What were the things you did at school and in the first few years after graduating that sort of put you on that fast track to becoming a general manager?
J.D.: My story is probably not the model I would encourage people to follow, only because I got fortunate in that I had a good friend that was involved, so I kind of put all my eggs in one basket. Now I ultimately made the contact with the people from the Rockies, and built that relationship on my own, but had I not originally gotten involved via A.J., I’m not sure I would have had those opportunities. I think the lesson from my [career path] is to use your contacts, use your network and develop relationships. I had been talking to the Rockies for over a year before I ultimately got the internship, and all the while I was working a full-time job.
Sun: How difficult was it to leave a fairly secure job in finance to go out on a limb and take an internship in Colorado?
J.D.: It was a fairly easy decision. I was young — I was 23 years old. If there was a time in my life to take a chance, that was certainly it … It was a good job; I enjoyed it. I liked the city of Boston. There were some sacrifices, but it was the chance to pursue a dream and that part was a no-brainer.
Sun: For decades baseball front offices were led only by men who played the game. What do you think has changed in the sport to allow someone like yourself, who did not have any playing experience, to take over as a general manager?
J.D.: The economics of the game have changed, and I also think that the owners have changed as well. There are new owners that have had success in different businesses, and maybe are looking for a little bit different skill sets, but at the end of the day the same traits that succeeded in past generations are the traits that are going to succeed now. It’s hard work, it’s creativity, it’s communication — understanding the nuances of the game and what works and what doesn’t. That hasn’t changed, but because of the scale of the dollars, the decisions that we make are probably a little different.
Sun: Would you say that Billy Beane and the Moneyball movement shaped that change or was it more organic and would have happened regardless?
J.D.: That book and the subsequent discussion it created, I think it was an opportunity for a lot of people with maybe non-traditional baseball backgrounds to get involved and feel like they had a little bit more of a seat at the table … Obviously Oakland did not invent on-base percentage or plate discipline, but what they did do was identify it as a market inefficiency, and there were a lot of other clubs that probably used it in their evaluations. What [Moneyball] did was highlight the market forces involved in baseball and player acquisition, and it created a whole different level of discussion about the game.
Sun: With such a wide range of responsibilities falling on the general manager, from player development to free agency, is there any one part of the job that you feel most falls on your shoulders?
J.D.: I’m involved in everything — day to day I’m most involved in the management of the Major League club. We have really good people in place in each of our departments, and I have a lot of faith in them to run their areas following the philosophy that we have established as an organization.