Students who dream of starting a high-tech company may aim for Stanford University, while those who want to be scientists target the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If running a Major League Baseball team is on your to-do list, it pays to attend Amherst College.
The liberal arts college with about 1,800 students counts three current general managers among its alumni, including two -- Ben Cherington of the Boston Red Sox and Neal Huntington of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- that made it to this year’s playoffs. In all, there are more than a dozen alumni in front-office jobs, almost all former players or coaches for Amherst.
“It’s a great program,” said Dan Duquette, the executive vice president for baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles, who played on the varsity team before graduating in 1980. “These guys are very passionate about baseball. It helps to be able to synthesize the data.”
The emergence of the Amherst clique reflects how sports management has changed since a decade ago when Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” chronicled how the Oakland Athletics succeeded even while being vastly outspent by the New York Yankees and other rivals. Baseball executives today want to hire people with a sports background or who have played themselves and are educated and have analytical skills.
“These guys just aren’t nerds sitting behind the computer,” said Brian Hamm, who took over as Amherst’s head baseball coach from Bill Thurston four years ago. “These guys know baseball.”
In his bestseller, Lewis showed how General Manager Billy Beane assembled a competitive roster through the analysis of statistics overlooked by other clubs, most famously a hitter’s on-base-percentage.
“This is taking Moneyball into the 21st century,” said Wayne McDonnell, an assistant professor of sports management at New York University. “Baseball has now adopted this hybrid model where we want the high IQ in terms of sport but we also want people who are very analytical, thoughtful and well-educated.”
While sports are integral to the culture of many elite New England colleges, baseball stands out at Amherst, a very selective school founded in 1821 in the town of the same name, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Boston. It is the oldest organized sport on campus with the team playing in the first recorded intercollegiate match-up in 1859, beating Williams College 73-32, according to Amherst’s website.
Alumni of the college include Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the U.S., as well as four Nobel Prize winners, including economist Joseph Stiglitz.
Amherst plays in the New England Small College Athletic Conference and has won three baseball championships in the past 12 years after making the finals five times.
Duquette, 55, was a catcher in 1980 when two starting pitchers attracted attention from major league clubs. When scouts descended, Duquette sought them out, though not to gauge their interest in his playing ability. He wanted to talk about working in baseball after graduation.
Duquette got his first break with the Milwaukee Brewers, who at the time were run by Harry Dalton, a 1950 Amherst graduate. Duquette was hired as an assistant in the scouting office. He would go on to become the general manager for the Montreal Expos and then the Red Sox, assembling parts of the organization responsible for Boston’s 2004 World Series championship, its first in 86 years.
It was Duquette, working with former Amherst baseball coach Thurston, who also spurred Amherst’s niche in the front office. He hired Huntington, a former standout first baseman, when he was with the Expos. Later, when Duquette joined the Red Sox, he recruited Cherington, a pitcher whose career was cut short by a shoulder injury.
The Pirates, who reached the postseason this year for the first time since 1992 before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals, hired Huntington as general manager in 2007. The Red Sox promoted Cherington to GM in 2011 after Theo Epstein left for the Chicago Cubs. The Orioles hired Duquette in 2011 and made their first playoff appearance last year after 14 losing seasons.
The circle of Amherst influence is growing under the executives. Three of the college’s former players are working in the Red Sox front office, including Cherington. Huntington hired his former coach as a special adviser along with Dave Jauss, a longtime Major League bench coach who graduated from Amherst in 1979, and Will Lawton, a baseball operations assistant in Pittsburgh who was a second baseman and team captain for Amherst.
“I didn’t know if this was going to work out,” said Lawton, 25, who got an internship with the Pirates after graduating in 2010, parlaying it into a full-time job. “I didn’t really know it was a possibility until I got to Amherst.”
Lawton is more typical of the latest generation of budding baseball executives. He arrived at Amherst brimming with visions of one day playing professionally, a dream transformed by meeting Cherington, Huntington and Duquette at campus events. He tailored his studies, taking sports psychology classes, for instance.
While Amherst is known for rigorous academic standards, it has also benefited from being near other colleges in the area. After graduation, both Cherington and Huntington got masters’ degrees in sports management from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Many Amherst athletes enroll in classes with Andrew Zimbalist, the sports economist at nearby Smith College. Amherst, Smith and three other schools in the area have an agreement where students can take classes at each other’s campuses.
The baseball team has also created an internship for an analyst. Jim Logue, one former intern who graduated in 2008, works for the Yankees while Sarah Gelles, another who graduated in 2010, is with the Orioles.
“Baseball front offices are requiring more and more intelligence as the dollars at stake become higher and higher,” Zimbalist said. “There’s a growing competitive advantage for these kids that go to these smart schools.”