Maybe not today, but sometime soon, a general manager in a professional sports league will be fired, and the search for a replacement will commence. From that point until the day the press conference is held announcing that replacement, the press, fans, and executives across the sports leagues will speculate as to who will be filling the position.
For the fans of this club, the search is about a savior – someone that can right the ship and get the team winning. For many, they see the GM as having vast powers, and an uber-scout mind, able to cull some deep well of player knowledge for the Draft, trades, and free agent signings.
Now, here’s a reality check: most GMs aren’t that person.
A general manager is, for lack of a better term, a master decision maker. They are also, as the title suggests, a manager; someone who manages a staff that hones in on a roster's weak points.
It is that staff that is what makes or breaks GMs. A great GM pulls together the personnel from the scouting director, assistant GMs, and, in baseball, the dugout manager to allow the club the best chance to win.
They also are not the be-all-end-all in terms of what players are selected, or many times, who is on the staff.
The GM is, as we said, a “manager”. They are not a CEO, president, or owner, with the latter the person that really makes or breaks what direction a club goes.
The owner is the ultimate decision maker. A GM that goes to an owner and says, “I want to let you know, this is the trade we just made,” doesn’t keep his job very long. The best GMs lay out their case as to why he wishes to go after a player, how that deal will impact the bottom line now, and in the future, and waits for ownership to approve or deny the deal.
As mentioned, ownership can also control a staff. On more than one occasion a GM has been hired with the knowledge that no matter how badly that GM candidate wants to blow the whole staff up, ownership has a personal relationship with one or more of them, and therefore, they are off-limits…or at least for a time being. They are, after all, the “owner”.
The best example of this could be the recent firing of Jim Bowden from the Washington Nationals. There had been numerous reports that he was not let go earlier due to his personal relationship with owner Ted Lerner.
There are other matters that the GM oversees, but is not directly involved in the minutia. A good example would be allowing part of the assistant GM staff to work on matters that tie directly to the amount of money that will be dedicated to player payroll. This could involve having the assistant GMs to work on matters such as preparing for salary arbitration, or details for contract negotiations. If the GM is involved in a league where there is a cap, often times they have been hired due to their ability to manage payroll well under those restrictions.
Finally, I would wager that even Billy Beane will agree with me on this: the general manager does not have to be an all-knowing master of player talent; a walking digest of every player’s stats across all levels of play. The GM relies heavily upon their scouting and analytics department to provide him with the best information on the talent available to then allow them to make educated decisions.
I said early on here that the best general managers were master decision makers, but that really is an oversimplification. They need to be master communicators, facilitators, and often times, manipulators in order to get the deals done. After all, if you have to engage with agents like Scott Boras one day, and the likes of say, Peter Angelos the next, you better be able to deal with the psychology of the back-room deal.
So, the next time you’re at work, think about the best managers you work with. The ones that really shine are the ones that rely on their staff to make the best decisions, and get everyone moving in a singular direction at the behest of those higher up the chain. As mundane as that may sound, in many ways that’s what the general manager in professional sports is really all about.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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