Last Tuesday, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson stepped down from baseball to wage a war with cancer. I knew most of Sandy’s achievements before I met him at the Baseball Winter Meetings in 2000 in Dallas. He was working for Bud Selig at the time and had a mission to improve the umpires calling of balls and strikes. He gathered all the major league managers and umpires into a conference room and, with Frank Robinson at his side, made a power point presentation.
Changing the Rules
The gist of it was that over the years, umpires had gradually lowered the top end of the strike zone to about belt level. We all knew this to be true – at least the manager did. Sandy admitted that the rule-book definition of the letters of the uniform was outdated. Any hard-throwing pitcher would be overpowering if pitches that high were called strikes. What he wanted was to raise the zone to about halfway between the belt and the letters, which made perfect sense.
Frank Robinson nodded approval, but skepticism was evident in facial expressions on both sides of the table. Old habits die hard.
We talked it through, expressed concerns, but in the end, it was clear that this change was expected to be put into practice in 2001. The umpires would be furnished with video to study and the managers were asked to give them a break while they got used to it. Early on, there were some really high strikes called and some good pitches in the mid zone called balls. It became evident by mid-season that each umpire still had his own strike zone. By and large, the top of the zone edged back down toward where it had been. But in my mind, it was worth a try. Now we have an electronic strike zone provided in most telecasts. I think it’s more consistent than the umpires’ zones, but that’s another story.
The point of this story is that Alderson was never afraid to try something difficult and almost always able to accomplish it. After graduating from Dartmouth, he studied law at Harvard. He became a lawyer because he was either extremely bright or hard-working. From what he did with his education, I tend to think it was both.
But Alderson didn’t take on baseball right away. No, he took on a bigger challenge with the Marines in Viet Nam. This was at a time when I was attending National Guard Meetings, just like George W. Bush, in order to avoid the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Bush’s father got shot down as defending United States interests in World War Two and later became a public servant, eventually winning the presidency in 1988. Alderson’s dad was a fighter pilot in that war and in Korea and Vietnam too. When you grow up with fathers like that, a lot is expected. Both Bush and Alderson met those expectations. Bush started out in the oil business in West Texas. Then became governor of the Lone Star State, before being elected president in 2000.
Extensive Career in Baseball
Alderson took a job with a law firm in San Francisco and became general counsel to the Oakland A’s, which launched a long and meritorious career in baseball. He took over as General Manager of the team in 1983 and after a few years of rebuilding, he put together four division championship teams, losing a World Series to the Dodger in 1988 and winning it against the Giants the next year.
In the nineties, the A’s fell back, and attendance sagged. An ownership change in 1995 brought an austerity program with it and Alderson responded to low payroll requirements by studying the metrics of the game. He was the first G. M. to play the numbers game. This did not bring winners right away. That came later to the man he mentored, Billy Beane, who became famous for his use of analytics in Moneyball.
In 1998, Sandy took a job in the baseball commissioner’s office. He worked for Bud Selig until 2005. That’s what he was doing when I encountered him in Dallas. Maybe they wanted a higher strike zone back then to help pitchers combat the steroid-aided long balls of that era. Given his background, I would guess that he was trying to help rid the game of P.E.D.S. His boss Bud Selig had become known as the Steroids Commissioner, a label he was desperate to shed before leaving office. When Alderson left the commissioner’s office to become General Manager of the Padres in 2005, the Players Association agreed to a deal that would allow for testing and tough punishments for steroid use. That issue, though it will never die, was at least in decline.
The Padres lost in the first round to the Cardinals in 2005 and 2006, but once again, Alderson had shepherded a baseball team into the playoffs. After another brief stint with the commissioner’s office, he took the Mets job. The first few years sent him back to his low budget days with the A’s. Owner Fred Wilpon was entangled in the Bernie Madoff scandal, and Alderson’s marching order, even in New York, was to cut salaries. They called those teams the Moneyball Mets and their record showed it. Most baseball teams were familiar with analytics at that juncture, so Sandy was unable to get any real advantage. In 2012, Alderson signed David Wright to a seven-year contract. It was a departure from the austerity program, but Wright was a great player and leader and for the first few years, he measured up. Then in 2015, Wright was struck with spinal stenosis and his iron man days came to an abrupt halt. But the Mets soldiered on and made it to the World Series anyway.
Wright remembers: “I’ll forever remember the picture of us [after] we had just swept the Cubs in the NLCS and he is just sitting in the stands watching us celebrate on the field. He didn’t want the attention. He wanted the positive attention on the players and when things go bad on the field he is the first one to take the heat. … That picture was Sandy in the nutshell.’’
Sandy Alderson was diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer just a month after the Mets lost the World Series to the Royals. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy and continued to work in 2016 and the Mets won their division again but lost to the Giants in the first round.
Last year the Mets fell back to 70-92 and this year, after firing manager Terry Collins, they got off to a great start, before falling back.
Alderson addressed the baseball players on Tuesday. When he finished speaking the players stood and cheered him on, some of them fighting tears.
Last summer, Bud Selig was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. In my opinion, they should have enshrined Sandy before Bud.
Larry Dierker was born September 22, 1946, in Hollywood California. Larry is a former Major League Baseball pitcher, manager, broadcaster, and he is also an accomplished American novelist, blogger, essayist, playwright, motivational speaker, and digital entrepreneur.