The Game of His Life, continued
The son of a career Air Force pilot, Alderson developed an important skill early on in the peripatetic life of a military family. He learned how to adapt to different environments, different circumstances.
On a ROTC scholarship, he attended Dartmouth. Though the United States was then embroiled in Vietnam, the decision to join the military was not difficult, given his background, Alderson said. He made two brief trips to Vietnam, to see his father and to work as a foreign correspondent. On his third trip in 1971, he went as a soldier, a Marine infantry officer, for an eight-month tour of duty.
"It really became more of a matter of waiting things out than having any thought of doing something really beneficial," said Alderson. "On the other hand, there were, at that time, modest things that we could do to ameliorate the immediate situation of the Vietnamese with whom we were involved and also the U.S. servicemen who were partly my responsibility. . . . I think we felt a responsibility to the country. I certainly feel we had a responsibility to act, had an obligation to act responsibly in that situation, and so what we did was toward that end."
He might have stayed in the military but for his acceptance to HLS. Being a veteran among many students who had protested the war did not heighten the challenge in any way, Alderson said. The School was rigorous, for him and for everyone, and he fit in just fine, he said.
After graduating, he worked for Farella Braun + Martel in San Francisco. Roy Eisenhardt, one of the firm's partners, left to become president of the Oakland A's when his father-in-law bought the team. Alderson did legal work on the sale and joined the team as general counsel in 1981. He did more than general counsel work, however. He attended minor league games with scouts, traveled with the team, interacted with baseball lifers, like Billy Martin, then manager of the team. In 1983 Martin was fired, and many of his colleagues in the front office left with him. To fill the general manager position, the most crucial position in the organization, Eisenhardt chose Alderson, a man in his mid-30s who had last put on a baseball uniform while playing at Dartmouth.
This was not the way things worked in baseball. You had to ride the buses in the minors, pay your dues on the field and in the locker room from the time you were 18 years old. And for all the jobs in the world for which an HLS degree is a golden pass, this most assuredly was not one of them. In fact, for the "real" baseball men, the Ivy League pedigree only made things worse.
"It was off-putting to a lot of people," Alderson said. "We're often judged on the basis of our background and our stereotype based on history and associations, but I recognized that that would be a problem."
So he did something about it. He kept his mouth shut, he listened, and he learned the lexicon of the game, both on and off the field. He also understood that he didn't need to evaluate talent as much as establish a philosophy and ask the baseball people to find the players who would fit it. His approach, borrowed from baseball writer Bill James, relied on batters with power and a high on-base percentage and pitchers who didn't give up many walks or home runs. Alderson drafted future stars Mark McGwire, JosČ Canseco, and Jason Giambi and built a team that played in three straight World Series, winning one of them in 1989. Even the baseball men had to approve. For a time, he and his team were on top, and loving every minute of it.
"It was fun to be around. It was a team with more than self-confidence--you know, a swagger," said Alderson. "I can still remember coming out of Fenway Park in 1988 after beating the Red Sox in the playoffs and walking underneath the stands from the visiting clubhouse to the buses, and it was a great feeling."
"On the other hand, nothing lasts forever," he added. "I think what inevitably happens these days is that money and other things get in the way."
And that is the crux of the problem.
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