BY KEVIN KERNAN
Brian Cashman made a brilliant move bringing Brian Sabean back to the Yankees this week as an executive advisor, not only because of Sabean’s knowledge of the game and people, or the hardware of three World Series trophies in San Francisco in 2010, ’12 and ’14, but because of Sabes’ everlasting love of the game – the players and the people behind the scenes that make for a successful organization.
One month ago, I wrote about the pendulum swinging back to baseball a bit, and the Yankees – to their credit – have brought back Sabean and also hired Omar Minaya as a senior advisor to Cashman, swinging that pendulum even more in the direction of baseball.
Sit back and enjoy these enlightening comments from Sabean to The Story about what makes the game go – and what he expects to accomplish in his new role with the Yankees, his second time around with the ballclub.
This is an education in the art of baseball and a must read for all owners and baseball executives who really want to build winning organizations and not just talk a good game.
Sabean believes in numbers, but he also believes in people – so let’s get right to it on what made his management style successful with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees when he was Director of Scouting and Player Development to help set the foundation for the Yankees championship run in the 90s and then build championship teams in San Francisco.
It all starts with a bit of humility, competitiveness and the willingness to learn in every situation.
“If I was the smartest guy in the room I was in the wrong room.’’ Sabean told BallNine on Saturday, the start of a nine-inning conversation about the importance of surrounding yourself with smart people.
“You know my history,’’ Sabean said. “Cash and I have remained very close. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and his front office, and he doesn’t get enough credit in what he has done. He’s in his 26th year and if there was ever a Hall of Fame executive, he might be the pinnacle in any sport. So that’s exciting but more so, they have a very diverse group and despite my years in the game – which at some point perhaps can be used against you – you realize that the game is forever changing, you have to be open minded. In my situation going forward I just want to be a link in the chain.’’
Brian Sabean will strengthen the Yankees chain.
“I want to be used as I report directly to Cash, as he sees fit, as well as maybe lend an opinion in an area that he has a blind spot or more so, find a way to improve some areas,’’ Sabean said. “The excitement is because it’s New York, because it’s the Yankees. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Steinbrenner family and the organization for starting my career, so many people that mentored me.’’
A baseball foundation is built from the ground up – and Sabean has always been a scout’s guy, whether as GM or whatever, so he is coming back to his roots. He first was hired by the Yankees in 1985 as a scout.
“I look back at my relationship and how I was mentored by Stick and Bill Livesey, scouting never stops,’’ Sabean said of Gene Michael and Livesey, who came to the Yankees in player development in 1980 after coaching in college. Sabean also coached in college and was coach at the University of Tampa before joining the Yankees.
That is such a great comment: “Scouting never stops.’’
“Your brain is not in your gut or your butt. That’s as simple as I can put it. Yet for some reason, these savants of the game don’t want to give the credit for their acumen. Give me a break.’’
San Francisco Giants general manger Brian Sabean attends practice at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)
More teams and executives would do well to recognize that and now Sabean wants to deepen the point.
“It starts with how you are brought into the game – there is always the constant process of evaluation – in reality, until the day a player is released,’’ Sabean explained.
“To be able to have that knack or that skill set is very good for all parties. One of the things we tried to do with our scouting staffs – not only in New York and in San Francisco – was to constantly remind ourselves of how tough the game was to play,’’ Sabean said. “You have to look at the positives. Don’t be overly critical. Note what they can do and try to fix the areas that need polishing. Within that, I think if you have a player-centric attitude, and you know the importance of of a strong minor league system – or more so, developing your own – it really, in most cases, is your core or foundation for championship runs, championship years. It’s usually coming from that pipeline.’’
Sabean, 66, helped build the Championship Core Four pipeline for the Yankees and much more and the point he makes on not being overly critical is important, too. He then dropped this bit of wisdom on us on the physical art of scouting, learned decades ago.
“In Bill Livesey’s case he used to always tell us, ‘See as much of a player that you need to see to get him right. Once you get him right, don’t go back unless you heard he’s had an injury or some other dynamic going on; if you go back, you are going to see him fail.’ ’’
That is such a wise point.
“The other thing, too,’’ Sabean said, emotion growing in his voice, “is that I don’t think people know what an inexact science and a bitch of a job that scouting is. These folks have to put their butt on the line every time they see a player and have to write a report – and it’s for posterity – and it’s almost for public knowledge. And it’s not easy to translate your thoughts and your ideas about a player into writing and on top of that project the future. It kind of irritates me that these folks over time haven’t been given enough credit in general just for their relative intelligence and baseball acumen.’’
A World Series ring worn by Brian Sabean, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of the San Francisco Giants, as he watches batting practice before Game 3 of baseball's World Series against the Kansas City Royals at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group via Getty Images)
That is another golden point that is often lost in the game. Here at BallNine, we believe in scouts as much as Sabean believes in scouts.
The first step for Sabean is always the same, scouting your own organization, and now that’s the Yankees.
“That’s exactly right,’’ said Sabean as he watched his son play a baseball game in Arizona. “Know your side of the fence first and foremost. Take care of the home front and your own business. We had that in New York where I grew up the first time around. I’m sure that we had it in San Francisco. The think-tank that scouting and player development should be is having all pieces of the pie contribute. Not be overly committed to one area versus the other. You have to have freedom of thought and diversity of thought and resumes, too.
“You knew most of our front office (in San Francisco) and people in the field,’’ he said to me. “I had a lot of strong-willed personalities including ex-big leaguers. I wanted it to be that way … Now could I navigate it, put it together to make sense and make the tough decision and explain to everybody why we did certain things, but I wanted everybody in on the first guess and they had meaningful say.
“The other thing, too, is that when you have that kind of camaraderie or connectivity there is a loyalty that’s almost beyond mutual respect.’’
To bolster the point, Sabean noted, “How many of our guys wanted to leave? Nobody asked permission because they knew they wouldn’t leave.’’
That creates a winning working environment. And it takes skill to build those relationships.
“The esprit de corps you can develop by having the coffee and lunches, the dinners and the time spent together is invaluable,’’ Sabean said of the secret to front office success.
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 28: Senior Vice President and General Manager Brian Sabean of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after the Giants defeat the Detroit Tigers to win Game Four of the World Series at Comerica Park on October 28, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers 4-3 in the tenth inning to win the World Series in 4 straight games. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Take for example one of Sabean’s chief scouts with the Giants, Pat Dobson. “He had depth, ex-20 game winner, ex-pitching coach, I could go on and on with how his resume helped him as an evaluator and he never stopped evaluating,’’ Sabean said.
“Stick never stopped evaluating. It was amazing to me that they can be so studious. I never saw anybody more meticulous than (scout) Ted Uhlaender (a former outfielder with the Twins, Indians and Reds). Ted was a statistics major at Baylor. People don’t know this about the folks who are called baseball people.
“They think they are tobacco-chewing, spit on your shoes personalities. The one thing that nobody remembers is back before all the bells and whistles, these guys did everything from memory,’’ Sabean said. “They had a catalogue in their brain or on their coaching staff as to strategy. I was speaking of this and it dawned on me almost by accident, the phrase that I hate most, especially with a manager, is that ‘he did something with his gut.’
“Well, his brain is not in his gut.
“What happens is you program and you condition your brain over time because of all the experiences and the in-game happenings, situations, and you develop an educated guess upon that analysis that you built up,’’ Sabean said. “It’s not a knee-jerk reaction or something by the seat of your pants. It’s a reservoir of knowledge. They might as well say, ‘I made a decision from my butt.’ Your brain is not in your gut or your butt. That’s as simple as I can put it. Yet for some reason, these savants of the game don’t want to give the credit for their acumen. Give me a break.’’
Sabean lived it with the brilliant Bruce Bochy as manager of the Giants. Bochy is returning to manage the Rangers this season, another big plus for the game.
PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 18: Brian Sabean, Senior Vice President & General Manager of the San Francisco Giants talks to the media at the 2013 Media Day on February 18, 2013 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Barry Gossage/MLB via Getty Images)
“Very rarely did I have to see (Bochy) consult a lineup card, a sheet, a notebook, now a lot of it was because of the veteran status of our staff by conversation in the dugout, but to have the mental capacity to file all this and react to it in real time is incredible,’’ Sabean added. “They are just not given enough credit for the advanced way they are attacking the game. I very much appreciate the analytical world for how it prepares you for how you can learn from mistakes, how you can change series to series with the advance scouting, how it can work after games to debrief things, and also to set a tone for what you might want to do during the game. Once the game starts, it changes pitch to pitch, inning to inning.
“All of it has to be put in a pot to create a special sauce. I still don’t believe one way is the best way, you have to have all parties. And there is depth to how the other generation did things.’’
With the Giants in their championship years Sabean & Co. utilized analytics in a quiet, meaningful manner.
“The other thing, I don’t think we ask the players enough is what they want and need or even the coaching staffs,’’ Sabean said, speaking in general terms, not about the Yankees. “Instead here, this is the script. This is what you have to do and why you got to do it.’ No. The players need buy-in. They are the ones that execute.
“You have to know how to translate it, pass it down.’’
And all that helps create the buy-in.
Sabean left the Yankees in 1993 and is thrilled again to be working with Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner, a full baseball circle. The Yankees have not won a World Series since 2009 and need to find a way to advance past the Astros in the postseason.
“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the Steinbrenner family and being part of something and being with Omar, too,’’ Sabean said with gratitude of being a Yankee again. “There is nobody bigger than their brand.’’
There is no bigger brand than Pinstripes.
Brian Sabean with all of his knowledge of baseball and people is once again part of the Yankees brand – and has been welcomed with open arms by Cashman, creating all kinds of possibilities.
The Yankees are the better for it going forward. This will be fun.