Three things I learned in Vegas

I sent my last college assignment—an International Marketing paper—from Denver International Airport as I was waiting to board my flight. School was over—time to go to work.

Some background: I was genuinely blessed to have been given an opportunity to work as an intern (and then briefly as a consultant) for the Colorado Rockies during 2004 and 2005, my freshman year of college. The Rockies were the reason I left Sarasota, Fla. (and my fishing pole) behind in favor of the University of Colorado at Denver.

I came to Vegas with an intent to reinforce old connections and establish new ones. Beyond those which I knew through the Rockies (some of whom are now with other organizations), I had acquired some new names to my baseball rolodex over the last couple of years by way of two statistical booklets I published and distributed to teams during spring training of 2007 and 2008. I also figured I’d check out the job fair, which is basically a clearinghouse for minor league jobs, in search of an opportunity to meaningfully expand my skillset.

Five days, three important lessons:

1. Never take a single opportunity for granted.

It’s an immensely humbling experience to watch hundreds of grown young men with college degrees (and many prestigious ones, at that) hurdling over one another to get a resume submitted for a concession stand internship in a small town in Idaho that pays $450 a month. That’s no exaggeration; such a job posting was entirely typical and drew plenty of interest.

There’s certainly no shortage of people who would give an arm to work in this game. You can’t think anything is beneath you. No matter where you played ball, no matter how many spreadsheets you’ve built, no matter where you graduated in your class, you must be willing to work menial tasks. This can be as true for a major league job as a minor league job; nobody is going to hand you a role of any significance (let alone of any pay) right off the bat.

It’s also a reminder to maintain your humility and your dedication to the task, no matter what you’re able to achieve in this game. There’s never going to be a shortage of applicants for your job, no matter how unique you may believe you are.

2. This is a game chock full of some insanely smart people.

The Meetings sported enough law degrees to set O.J. free and enough MBAs to save AIG. Seriously—the guy who assists in team travel may well have an engineering degree from Florida and a masters from Princeton. (I personally know of several equivalent cases at the major league level.) It’s incredibly impressive. I’ve encountered a lot of people with the stereotype that all ‘baseball people’ are gray-bearded, round-bellied, sunburned men who grunt arbitrary impressions through a thick southern drawl. Go on and throw that one out.

On the other hand, so what if they are?

I also gained perspective when I realized that no single mind has a monopoly on intelligence, and no single type of intelligence holds a monopoly on what a baseball team can use as an advantage. You can be ‘baseball smart’ with a Harvard degree and an automated forecasting system or with a strong ability to forecast a high-school pitcher five years down the road and a can of Copenhagen (better yet: all of the above).

For example, I doubt (though I don’t have any inside info) that Kenny Williams is building his rotation based in large part on multi-year weighted averages of component metrics passed through a risk matrix. But there are many organizations doing work like that. And believe you me, with all the smart people in this game, there’s no such thing as walking ass-backwards into championship rings. I could open my laptop and demonstrate to Mr. Williams why I disagree with a particular decision he made. In response, he’d only have to flash me his hand.

Those of us in the statistical community have at times been guilty of a narrow perspective. Teams are operating with far more information than we have available to us as fans, and while there are certainly many instances of exceptions, they use it pretty darn well. For example, I was talking to a high-ranking executive and registered my dissent over the decision to leave a certain player unprotected in the Rule 5 draft (note: that does not mean this player was drafted). I popped open my laptop and showed him my projections. His response? “Yeah, that’s right about where I had him. I can’t say why, but believe me, he’s unprotected for a reason.” Just because they came to a different conclusion doesn’t mean they don’t know what you know.

3. It takes time to build.

To have success in this industry requires an immense amount of hard work and the motivation to keep doing it even when it seems no one else is watching.
I first got a phone call from a high-ranking front office member when I was 17 years old. It was not regarding my 81-MPH fastball complete with surgery-scarred shoulder, and he was not my uncle.

Four years later, I found myself sleeping in a car in the Arizona desert, after dropping copies of one of the aforementioned booklets to his spring training office in Arizona. I called and e-mailed several times during the year in an attempt to follow up. Nothing.

The next year (this spring) I FedEx’ed the same executive copies of the new booklet enclosed with a personalized letter. Called several times throughout the year. Sent several e-mails. Nothing.

In fact, during these two spring training sessions, I dropped off copies of my work to 22 of the 30 teams. I “shotgunned” the desks of executives; for example, I’d stop off at a spring training facility with three or four individually wrapped and named packages in the hopes that they’d have a better chance of getting read. These works took literally hundreds of hours to produce. I received a total of two e-mailed responses for these efforts.

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

During the meetings, I bumped into the aforementioned executive. I had put together a packet for him containing the booklets, in addition to a projection of his ’09 roster. He immediately recognized the booklets, and remarked to me not only that he had received and read them, he had actually put them to use in what I felt was a quite flattering way.

The point is this: if you’re passionate about this game and becoming a part of it, you have to be willing to demonstrate it. Show your skills, show your aptitude, and especially show your drive. It won’t pay off in a week; it may pay off in years. That’s why everyone I was able to find an excuse to approach—whether Billy Beane, Peter Gammons, or Barry Meister—left our brief encounter with a packet of my work in his hand. It may not get read at all, but it may plant a seed and take you from a stranger to somebody whose name has a meaning, however slight.

I’m writing now as my plane is in the air back to Denver, and I’ve left Vegas with a couple irons at least warm in the fire and a handful of long shots worth mentioning. I won’t be a director of baseball operations this spring; I may be fortunate enough to have a shot at learning from one.

Other random tidbits:

– Use the words “please,” “thank you,” “ma’am,” and “sir” with everyone from the guy emptying the garbage cans on up to the general manager. I learned this lesson from a doting mother and honed it during my spring training excursions, and as hoary as it may sound, it works (especially if you’re genuine).

There have been multiple occasions where this alone has gained me access to places I probably wouldn’t have been otherwise. Once you’re there, walk with a purpose and project confidence; basically, act like you belong. Three different times during the convention I was mistaken for being someone significant, and I don’t look like anyone in particular. (Yes, there were times I wore my credential denoting me as a ‘job seeker’ backwards on purpose.)

One woman stopped me as I was progressing through the back halls of the Bellagio—where a lot of club functions took place—and asked me if I was a general manager, later remarking “Oh, well you just looked like you were doing something important.” Seriously, it may seem silly, but people pick up on these things. The right combination of self-confidence and respect towards others goes a long way.

– Man, has the information age taken off. I was in the right place at the right time during a couple moments when team personnel and/or agents tell things to their favorite reporter in hushed tones. Their words were printed verbatim within literally 10 minutes at the rumor blogs. It was surreal.

– I had thought of my baseball career thus far as a grind, and there certainly has been a fair amount of due payment to date. But what I mentioned about spending a couple nights in a car in Arizona is a picnic compared to things one high-ranking executive told me of his past. (Neither his name nor his experience needs mention here, but trust me, he’s earned his position.)

I talked to several other execs about their journeys, soliciting advice, and found out my experiences in terms of hard, thankless work and sometimes extreme circumstances are far less unique than I used to believe. And these are guys who went through that with already impressive resumes: gaudy degrees, notable playing experience, or some combination thereof.

– If you do everything right, you’ll be impressed by just how gracious and accommodating these people are. I had a director of baseball operations who knew no more of me than a few work samples and a handful of e-mails sit down with me for an hour on my first night in town and give me fantastic advice. This is a man who had no shortage of work to do at the time, nor a shortage of far more important people who would love to have his time.

I really didn’t get the “leave me the hell alone” vibe from anybody. Whether a complete stranger like Kevin Towers or my old acquaintance Dan O’Dowd, nobody owed me an ounce of his time, yet practically all were willing to give it to me (often buttressed by very kind and encouraging words). In fact, I can count seven current baseball ops people with whom I was able to speak for 10 minutes or more, and let me reiterate: it would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to just walk past and say “no thanks” (not to mention perfectly understandable).

– Old men play poker like old men. That is, if they’ve got the slightest inkling that they could beat you, they won’t budge. I was playing a two-table $60+$20 no-limit game that paid top-three just before coming to the airport. Four of us were left, and I flopped top two pair. An ancient man in a cowboy hat placed a meager bet; I went all in for roughly 6 times the pot. To my shock, he called me for 90 percent of his chips with a gutshot (and he had the low end of it, at that). The turn was a blank, but guess what he rivered? That cost me a guaranteed $115, and as much as $520. Blech.

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