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David Stearns Continues Baseball’s Ivy Invasion

With the Brewers set to hire Astros’ assistant general manager David Stearns, the Ivy League’s takeover of Major League Baseball continues. The 30-year-old will be the game’s youngest head executive, and the second youngest in league history after Texas’s Jon Daniels. Stearns represents what David Lennon called “baseball’s new executives” at Newsday: young, highly educated white men with advanced baseball experience, but whose training prepared them for Wall Street instead of sports. It’s a new era for the Brewers, who join a seeming ever growing list of teams prioritizing education over experience in front offices.

Stearns now joins Daniels, Matt Silverman (Rays), Jeff Luhnow (Astros), Sandy Alderson (Mets), Jeff Bridich (Rockies) and A.J. Preller (Padres) as active Ivy League general managers. Throw in three¬†Amherst graduates (Boston’s Dave Dombrowski, Pittsburgh’s Neal Huntington and Baltimore’s Dan Duquette), a Wesleyan graduate (the Cubs’ Jed Hoyer), an MIT graduate (the Dodgers’ Farhan Zaidi) and a Georgetown graduate (Cleveland’s Chris Antonetti), and 13 of MLB’s 30 top executive¬†positions are held by graduates of prestigious private east coast universities. This doesn’t count the Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman or the Cubs’ Theo Epstein, who have recently transferred from GM roles into higher-level executive positions.

Brewers owner Mark Attanasio is an Ivy Leaguer himself, with a B.A. from Brown and a J.D. from Columbia. The club made it clear early in its hiring process it wanted a candidate with, as Jerry Crasnick reported, a “blend of youth, analytics and scouting acumen.” It hired Korn Ferry, an executive search firm to assist with the search. Everything pointed to another young Ivy leaguer. Indeed, two of the three external interview candidates Tom Haudricourt reported on September 10th, Oakland assistant GM Dan Kantrovitz (Brown) and Tampa Bay VP of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom (Yale), fit the bill.

It’s hard to have much sympathy for the old guard the Ivy Leaguers are replacing. The baseball lifers who staffed front offices for much of the game’s history wouldn’t hesitate to screw over a player via contract manipulation, like Cy Slapnicka and Hugh Alexander did for so many years. They harbored a culture of racism that wound up deeply lodged in the subconscious of many, no matter how well meaning, as Al Campanis showed the nation in 1986. It’s a culture that continues to manifest itself as teams hire inexperienced white managers without even granting interviews to black or brown candidates. And lastly, as longtime readers of Baseball Prospectus well know, the stubbornness with which they cling to outdated and unproven ideas of how to build winning baseball teams is a source of constant frustration for fans.

The Ivy Leaguers are often, as David Lennon wrote for Newsday in 2013 and Murray Chass wrote for the New York Times in 2007, portrayed as a new wave, a culture clash transforming Major League Baseball. But of the issues listed above, the only one the Ivy Leaguers have resolved is the latter, via their embrace of sabermetrics and a data-driven approach to team building. Stearns comes from an Astros organization that tried to lowball a pair of draft picks, Brady Aiken and Jacob Nix, in the 2014 draft and engaged in a hellacious tank in 2013 that saw the team’s payroll slashed to an absurd $26 million, a strategy that has looked brilliant this year, but may be revisited if the club can’t hold on to the 2.5-game lead for the final American League Wild Card spot it is desperately clinging to at the moment.

Player discontentment with the Houston front office boiled over in 2014, as the team’s special treatment of top draft pick and bonus baby Mark Appel failed to show respect for the idea that rewards in baseball should be performance-based. Investment bankers see their employees as “cost centers” with the worker’s humanity secondary to cost control. Baseball’s Ivy Leaguers, many of them former investment bankers themselves, aren’t tossing that mindset out the window when they’re hired.

And, as Howard Bryant wrote for ESPN last year, the demand for Ivy League GMs has had the effect of closing an avenue for post-career employment for black players. This racism could very well be just as unconscious as the racism exhibited by baseball lifers like Campanis, the result of a devout belief in the meritocracy that has produced the current state of the world today. Only six black men have served as general managers, and only one, Dave Stewart, is working today. But shifting the hiring pool to elite university graduates, of which less than 10 percent are black, isn’t going to help things. Ivy League institutions have accepted far more minority graduates in recent years, but it will take time for those changes to be reflected in society.

The Brewers, as mandated by the Selig Rule, interviewed a black candidate in Pirates’ director of player personnel Tyrone Brooks. Brooks is a University of Maryland graduate but has much more in common with the Ivy Leaguers than the baseball lifers; his entire baseball career has come in front offices since beginning as an intern in Atlanta in 1996, and his name should be in high demand given the success of the Pirates under his watch. Contrast Brooks’s 17-year career to Stearns, a 30-year-old who took his first baseball job in 2008 for an indication of how, as Bryant wrote, “the finish line might seem continually to move farther away” for black GM candidates.

After over a decade of old-school baseball men like Doug Melvin, Ned Yost and Ron Roenicke at the helm of the Brewers, Stearns may prove a breath of fresh air. But Ivy League intelligence is neither a guarantor of success nor particularly unique in Major League Baseball today. Stearns’s credentials are impressive, but he has to prove he’s more than a diploma and a suit. For me, these new bosses, once you get past the fancy degrees and the Wall Street veneer, don’t feel all that different from the old bosses, and when it comes down to wins and losses, stubborn reliance on a flawed metric is just another flavor of stubborn reliance on a flawed philosophy. Let’s just hope Harvard taught him well.

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6 comments on “David Stearns Continues Baseball’s Ivy Invasion”

Rick Hahn is GM of W.Sox, went to Harvard.

Joe

Michigan undergrad though, Harvard was for JD

Joe

Dombrowski didn’t go to Amherst…

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