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The Game of His Life

Major League Baseball executive Sandy Alderson works to maintain the allure of the national pastime

Sandy Alderson meets with umpires at Fenway Park

Fenway Park pulsed with the sounds of 33,000 fans lucky enough to score tickets in the middle of a pennant race. They pleaded and yelled and stomped and groaned at every pop-up, called strike, or double play. They shook the old place when Manny Ramirez hammered a ball over the Green Monster. Boy, this is fun.

But not for Sandy Alderson '76. For Alderson, this is a job. It's a job he likes, most of the time. On this July night, however, he may have preferred a career in, say, drilling holes in scorching asphalt to being executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball (MLB). Especially when his cell phone rang with a call from a New York Times reporter asking him, yet again, about a subject that for a few weeks in the summer was the sports world's equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis. The reporter had acquired a copy of a memo Alderson had written, which noted that, when certain umpires worked behind the plate, more pitches were thrown than in an average game. That, he said, indicated that they should call more strikes, should, indeed, "hunt for strikes." This turn of phrase burned Alderson, who was roundly blasted for perhaps the first time in his 20 years associated with the game of baseball. The umpires filed a grievance over the memo, which, they claimed, would force them to call strikes willy-nilly to keep pitch counts down and thus keep their jobs. The very integrity of the game had been compromised, some said.

Nonsense, said Alderson. He believes a simple statistical analysis had been misinterpreted and overblown.

"It's all a question of performance against standards, and the most fundamental standard is the strike zone," he said. "You can't have 85 [umpires] with their own standard."

He doesn't regret the memo or any of his ongoing efforts to enforce the rules of the game and preserve and enhance its popularity. "If you're going to get something accomplished," said Alderson, "it's not going to happen of its own weight. You've got to keep pushing."

Since he began three years ago in his current position, Alderson has pushed his view that escalating salaries, disparate payrolls, and competitive imbalance are hurting the sport. No one yet knows if that view will prevail in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, which will take place after the season. But when push comes to shove, Alderson tends to be the person still standing. That was true when he took on the umpires union two years ago, greeting a mass resignation with the retort: "This is either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted." It was true when, as a baseball outsider, he molded the personnel of a team that would become a World Series champion. And it was true when he served in the Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam.

His job brings him to Fenway and many other ballparks around the country and even around the world every baseball season. In addition to his supervision of umpires, whom he met with privately for nearly an hour before the Red Sox game, Alderson oversees international initiatives, such as Major League Baseball's participation in the 2000 Olympics in Australia and the groundbreaking exhibition games between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team in 1999.

But much of his job involves simply watching--the length of games (he'd like them to be shorter), the interplay of pitchers and batters (pitchers should not intentionally throw at batters, and yes, he says, you know it when you see it), and always the umpires. As the Boston Red Sox play the Toronto Blue Jays, he watches things no one else in the stands watches, thinks things no one else thinks. On one hit to deep center field, the ball bounces on the grass and off a wall. He praises the effort--of the umpire, who sprints from second base to the outfield to call it a ground rule double. That, he says, is the kind of hustle he likes to see.

Soon, however, he sees something he doesn't like. "Where was that?" he groans, as the home plate umpire calls a ball on Ramirez. He doesn't have anything against Ramirez or the Red Sox, though he doesn't think much of the $20 million a year they're paying him. He just believes the umpire should have called a strike. And as the fans rise in unison shortly thereafter, when Ramirez hits a mammoth shot onto Lansdowne Street, no Red Sox fan doubts that the team was wise to sign the slugger to a $160 million contract. But Alderson has done the math, a cost-benefit analysis not on Ramirez specifically but on several other high-profile free agent signings. "Does it bear out financially? In most cases, no," he said. "Does it bear out competitively? No."

Later, when he takes the call from the Times reporter, people turn in their seats to see a casually dressed 53-year-old man speaking with clenched jaw into a cell phone about the strike zone and umpires and pitch counts. He leaves early to catch the shuttle to New York, MLB headquarters. All in a day's work.

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