Schuerholz still enjoys challenge of building winners
Braves president looks back on his successes in KC and Atlanta
A school teacher in his native Baltimore, John Schuerholz made his entrance into professional baseball as an administrative assistant to Minor League clubs for the Baltimore Orioles. Forty-seven years later, he is still in baseball -- having become one of the most influential executives in the game. He spent two years in Baltimore before joining the expansion Kansas City Royals in 1969, where he spent 22 years -- the last nine of which he served as general manager.
Schuerholz moved on to Atlanta in 1990, where he served as the Braves' general manager until assuming the role of team president following the 2007 season. He was a part of the management team that built the Royals into a contender that made seven postseason appearances in a 10-year period, capped off by winning the World Series in 1985. The Braves have been to the postseason in 17 of the 24 years Schuerholz has been with the team -- including a professional record 14 consecutive first-place finishes from 1991-2005, highlighted by a 1995 World Series championship.
With the Braves back in the playoffs again, Schuerholz, who turned 73 on Oct. 1, took time to have a conversation with MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby.
MLB.com: The Braves have advanced to the postseason 17 times under your leadership, winning that one world championship in 1995.
Schuerholz: It is sad that the story of the Atlanta Braves ends with the word, "but." People talk about the great run we had, 14 consecutive division championships. All my cohorts in the business say, "What a remarkable accomplishment. No one will ever do that." The media examines what we have done as productive, but the end of sentence is "but only one world championship." That is frustrating to me. We had teams good enough to be world champions. The team that won may not have been most talented we had -- both in Kansas City for me in 1985, and in Atlanta in 1995 with the Braves. That happens. Luck of the draw. Bounce of the ball. Getting breaks. Being at your best. Not having injuries all factor in. That's not excuses. It is reality. It is something I live with. We've been so consistently competitive, and it's sort of the hallmark of our organization, right now, one world championship.
MLB.com: It's not just Atlanta. You enjoyed success in Kansas City, too.
Schuerholz: I was proud of that. Kansas City is a small market, tucked away in the Midwest, and our fans came from all over -- as they do here. We gave them comfort in knowing and believing we were going to make an effort to put a winning team together on the field. I was as proud of what happened in that run in KC -- not just the '85 world champions, where you get to stand in the clubhouse and get champagne poured on you, but we won consistently. We had seven postseason appearances in 10 years. Building a winning team is easy. Sustaining it is the real effort, the real challenge. We were able to do that in Kansas City, and we have been able to do that in Atlanta.
MLB.com: A key to that would seem to be that you aren't static with your roster. You are always bringing in a young player or two to refresh the roster.
Schuerholz: Pete van Wieren came up with a stat that we averaged 10 new players every year on our roster in Atlanta during that 14-year run. We knew our core. We knew who we had to keep if we could afford to keep them. We kept that core together and built around it every year, and we were able to sustain that run. Young guys played a big part of that. As they grew in our farm system and grew to our Major League club, they were ready to produce.
MLB.com: You made it seem easy, but it's so hard for everyone else.
Schuerholz: It was not easy for me. I live by one theory as a leader -- surround myself with as many good people as I can. Talk to the people who worked with me in Kansas City or here in Atlanta. I empower them. I trust them. I ask their opinion. That's how I make my decisions. I don't make them in a vacuum. This guy is smarter about outfielders. This guy is smarter about pitchers. This guy is smarter about infielders. I surround myself with good people, listen to them, and motivate them the best I can. I empower them, and they respond to that.
MLB.com: Any disappointments in your career?
Schuerholz: We had a team in a number of years that [could have been] world champions. I am disappointed not just for myself, but for the talented players -- some Hall of Fame-caliber players, certainly many All-Star-caliber players -- who didn't get multiple world championships, so that none of the sentences about the Braves ended with the word, "but." That would be eliminated. This would be an organization that people would say, "Here is an organization that proved itself a true winner. It dedicated itself to winning continually. It did it, and succeeded." Period. No buts.
MLB.com: You always had strong relationships with the managers.
Schuerholz: You have to have that working relationship. You respect each other, first of all. There was a mutual admiration between both Dick [Howser] and I [with the Royals], and Bobby [Cox] and I. When the baseball day was over, we had baseball nights -- which were a lot of fun -- and we reaffirmed our relationships on those nights.
MLB.com: What led to the decision to give up the general manager's job?
Schuerholz: I spent 26 years as a general manager. I believed in my heart it was time for someone else, someone more aggressive, more energetic. I always had those things, but I could feel it wasn't the same. I couldn't take the disappointment as well. I couldn't take bad deals as well. I went to my boss, the chairman of the team, Terry McGuirk, and said, "Here's the keys. I'm done. Let's put a succession plan in place and talk about who is going to take my place. I'm ready to ride off into the sunset. You can make me a special assistant." He said, "Let me think about it." I came back in a week, and he said, "I have a better idea. I am going to ask you to be president of organization. You won't have to deal with day-to-day baseball operations. You will still be responsible for what happens in the entire organization, but someone else will be in the line of fire." I thought about it for a day and decided that sounds good to me. It is very stimulating. I love building teams, love evaluating players, love mixing players together. I still do it in my mind. I knew I was going to miss that, but it was time for me to do other things. Now, most of my time is spent on the business side -- not only our [organization], but at the industry level, where Commissioner [Bud Selig] has asked me to chair a couple of committees. I'm honored by that. I'm inspired by that."
MLB.com: Do you ever think your fans have been spoiled by the success of the team?
Schuerholz: I wouldn't say spoiled, but they get habituated. They get used to it. It is not as stimulating to them or exciting to them because it's done year after year. I don't think you ever get spoiled by having your favorite team -- whether it's a baseball team or football team or lacrosse team -- win all the time. People like that. It is our responsibility to charge through that -- find some way to make this park more beautiful; find ways to make it easier to get here and park; find a way to make it more fun for families of all ages -- and be modern about our thinking and also keep a good baseball team on the field all the time.
MLB.com: Do you think people understand how difficult it is to consistently win?
Schuerholz: Only a few people who understand the challenges of our business at the team-building level -- members of media, people who follow closely. But that is a small percentage of the fans. I remember many times standing on the field with a fellow general manager looking up at the number of pennants we have won and they would say, "You can't do that." I know people who recognize how difficult it is [to win consistently] realize what we have done and appreciate the success we have had.
MLB.com: How difficult was it to leave Kansas City?
Schuerholz: I was so conflicted. I loved Kansas City. I thought I'd leave in pine box. I loved being there. I loved the ownership. I loved Ewing Kauffman. I loved our new owner, Avron Fogleman, who was coming in as a partner with Mr. K. It is such a beautiful place to live and raise a family, but there was something about this opportunity -- and to have Stan Kasten explain what the opportunity was. He's pretty effective. He was the guy who approached me and asked me for my opinion about who I would recommend to be the general manager here, because Bobby Cox had gone back to put on the uniform and be the manager. Things were unsettled in Kansas City. Leadership was changing at the top. People were wondering who is in which corner. It just happened the thought came to me that maybe it was time for me to go. I looked at Atlanta and Texas as two teams ready to be prime-time Major League towns with good leadership, good management, good plan, and good people. I also was smart enough to do due diligence and look at the work Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder had done to build the pipeline of young players that hadn't been fully recognized yet, and saw what was in pipeline. That made it much easier for me.
MLB.com: What's the proudest moment?
Schuerholz: Sustaining the commitment and effort and accomplishments of an organization that is viewed by the Commissioner, at least, as the gold standard. It is not only about teams we put together, but how we conduct ourselves, how we manage budgets, how we are able to draft in the 30th position and keep good players coming through the pipeline, how the Major League club consistently battles for championships.
MLB.com: You brought in a few free agents that first year and later signed Greg Maddux. But, other than that, it was a home-grown product supplemented with role players.
Schuerholz: The key guy was Terry Pendleton, the MVP [in 1991]. We signed him [to play third], Rafael Belliard [to play shortstop] and Sid Bream [to play first base], and we brought in a groundkeeper. One of my early calls after taking the job was to [then Giants general manager] Al Rosen. He said, "Have you lost your mind?" We were baseball's IBM in Kansas City. We were the blue-chip stock. He said, "Did you do what I read you did?" I told him, "Yes. And I asked him his opinion of the Braves. He said, "You have the worst fielding surface in baseball." I felt if we were going to put a new infield in place, we better get a better field. With Kansas City, we trained at Boardwalk and Baseball, and the groundskeeper was Ed Mangan. Our groundskeeper in Kansas City, George Toma, had a reputation as the game's best, and he said Ed was going to be the next great groundskeeper. We felt we had good young pitching, but to take advantage of that, we had to play defense. We needed quality defensive infielders and we needed a quality playing surface.
MLB.com: Replacing Bobby Cox when he stepped down as manager might have been your biggest challenge.
Schuerholz: Bobby is an icon. He's a Hall of Fame manager. Bobby had a lot of input on the selection. Fredi [Gonzalez] had the Bobby Cox seal of approval, the baseball Good Housekeeping seal of approval. That not only helps with the club, but in the community and the media. And Bobby defers to Fredi. He comes around, but it's early in the day -- before the players and the media show up. He doesn't want people to think he is hovering. He knows Fredi is his own man, and I told Fredi that he has to be Fredi. He and Bobby have a lot of similarities, but Fredi also has his own way of doing things. And I told him, "You can't be mini-me. You have to be Fredi Gonzalez. You are different. You have different backgrounds. You have to embrace that," and he did and he does.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.