Human touch: GM fosters upbeat environment
Daniels maintains competitive edge with humor, perspective
SAN FRANCISCO -- Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has a team getting ready to play in a World Series, so everything is just perfect in his world. But it hasn't always been that way.He once had a player ready to kill him. A few years ago, reliever Eddie Guardado wanted to do just that. This was right after manager Ron Washington had told Guardado that he was being traded to the Washington Nationals and Daniels wanted to see him in his office. Guardado, wearing shorts, sandals and a sleeveless T-shirt, was ready to face down his "Boy Wonder" general manager and his cadre of assistants. The date was July 31, 2008, and, after a week of trade rumors, Guardado knew there was a chance he could be traded. But he didn't think it would be to a last-place team, and now he was being summoned to the general manager's office to hear why.
Guardado wasn't interested."I was hot," Guardado said later. "I was going to kill somebody."
Considering Guardado was eight years older than the youngest general manager in baseball, that probably wasn't going to be a problem. But Daniels, after making a crack about Guardado's sparse wardrobe, couldn't keep a straight face. He started laughing, and so did everybody else in the room."It was the Trade Deadline and we weren't making any trades," Daniels said. "So we decided to have some fun. Plus he had dished out plenty, so it was his time to take some." The Rangers are now getting ready to play the Giants in their first World Series, but at that time, they were 12 1/2 games out of first place and knew they weren't going to the playoffs. That didn't keep Daniels from trying to lighten the mood and enjoy a moment with his close-knit assistants at the fun-loving Guardado's expense. "He's a very light person," assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "He has a great sense of humor. He definitely keeps it loose." Fast forward to Game 5 of the American League Division Series a few weeks ago, the second of the three big steps the Rangers have taken this season under Daniels' watch to get to this historic point. Texas was about to play the Tampa Bay Rays in the biggest game in franchise history. Around noon, eight hours before the game, Daniels called his assistants to a meeting on the veranda of their St. Petersburg hotel. When they arrived, he was sitting in a big rocking chair wearing a fake mustache. Then the Rangers' front office prepared for the biggest game in the franchise's history by going to play a couple rounds of miniature golf. "Somebody suggested it and J.D. ran with it," Levine said. "We had done everything we could. There was nothing more to do except play the game. Let's have fun and live for the moment. As an organization, we're enjoying the heck out of this. We're not taking this lightly, and it's not that we're not focused. But J.D. has created an atmosphere that we can enjoy this."
|Kenny Williams||White Sox||10/24/2000|
|Theo Epstein||Red Sox||11/25/2002 *|
Daniels was 28 when he took the job, at the time making him the youngest general manager in baseball history. He is now 33 and after five years on the job, he still has that same youthful look that might suggest this Sunday might be more about trick or treat rather than World Series.But just as Washington and Michael Young are the leaders that define the character of the Rangers' clubhouse, the front-office staff has taken on the personality of a general manager who earned a degree from Cornell in applied economics and management, but still understands the importance of old-school baseball thinking and developing strong relationships with those working closely together. Don Welke's opinions -- based on 45 years of being in the game -- mean more to Daniels coming from his senior assistant than numbers cranked out by computer. "That's a piece of the puzzle, but that's second to the human element," Daniels said. "I've always said that if the scouts' recommendations and the numbers line up, we'll feel really good about an acquisition. But if I can only have one, I'll take the scouts every day of the week." More than going to the World Series, paying attention to the human element is what has defined Daniels in his five years as the Rangers' general manager. That's why when Texas finally made it to the playoffs this season, the club offered to fly in every single full-time employee (and a few part-timers) for the first home game against Tampa Bay. That's why when the Rangers finally finished off the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, the first thing Daniels did when interviewed on the victory podium was acknowledge the work of the front office, scouting and player development departments. "They are why we're here," Daniels said. "Plain and simple. Obviously it's easy to point to the players beating the competition. But it all starts with our [scouting and player development] guys beating their counterparts all over the country and all over the world." That's also why when Washington arrived at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport four years ago to interview for the Rangers' managerial opening, Daniels was there to pick him up personally. "That told me what he's all about," Washington said. "He said he wanted the first person I met to be the one who was going to make the decision. I couldn't believe it when that truck rolled up and it was him. Right then I said, 'Geez, I'd love to work with this guy.'" To do so, you have to be what Daniels is looking for in a colleague. "Open-minded, hard-working, selfless, lack of ego, creative and competitive," Daniels said. "That last one probably means more than anything. We talk about it all the time in Spring Training with scouts, coaches, everybody. What are you going to do today to beat Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle? That's got to be the mindset. "That in-house visit with the kid from high school may end up being a key player for us in a few years or allow us to make a trade down the road." The Rangers' front-office staff loves to have fun, but this is still all about winning. Daniels understands that and made it clear when he held his first organization-wide meeting after a year on the job. They had dinner. They had a bowling tournament. They heard a speech from former Dallas Cowboys scouting director Gil Brandt, a highly successful evaluator of football talent. Everybody had a bunch of laughs. Then, every member of the organization had their ring finger measured. "The goal was to build a championship organization," Levine said. "That gave everybody a symbolic gesture of what we're trying to do." Now the Rangers are four wins away from ring size being more than just a symbolic gesture, and many of the front-office staff that helped put it all together are here in San Francisco, including Levine, Welke, player personnel director A.J. Preller, pro scouting director Josh Boyd, farm director Scott Servais and others. "Our chemistry is reflective of what people say about our clubhouse," Levine said. "It's a tight-knit group of people with varied backgrounds and age levels. But the chemistry is strong. There is a lot of communication and mutual respect for each other. "J.D. is very inclusive. We all have our areas of expertise, but there is very little we do without a collaborative effort and consultation with each other." Club president Nolan Ryan has also become a significant part of that collegial atmosphere. He took over three years ago, inheriting Daniels as his general manager when Tom Hicks was still the owner. Hicks envisioned the two working flawlessly together -- possibly in the same way he had John Hart and Grady Fuson locking arm-and-arm -- but it wasn't always that way. In the beginning, Daniels wasn't sure if he was reporting to the owner or the new club president, and Ryan had no doubt who was in charge. If there was a turf war or power struggle, it was subtle and quietly diffused as mutual respect emerged and, despite 30 years' difference in age, a bond was formed between a Hall of Fame pitcher who spent 27 seasons in the Majors and the Ivy League general manager. Daniels says his relationship with Ryan is "stronger than ever." Ryan has referred to the Rangers as "Daniels' organization." Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg sees a winning relationship. "It's great," Greenberg said. "They obviously come from different worlds and experiences. When Nolan was brought in, the wiring in the front office was a little muddy, but over time, through a series of unusual challenges, they've grown to know, trust and respect each other. They are a great team." There is still a matter of Daniels being able to opt out of his contract at the end of the season. But Greenberg doesn't see that happening. Extensions for Daniels and Washington remain a high priority. "As soon as the season is over, Nolan, J.D. and I will sit down and work things out happily," Greenberg said. "Then he and Nolan will do the same with Ron Washington."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.