Speak Bluntly, and Carry a Big Bat

Why MLB exec Sandy Alderson is the tough guy to watch

If big-league baseball's strike zone seems a bit roomier this year, don't blame your bifocals. Blame Sandy Alderson.

Better yet, thank Alderson. As one of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's top two aides, the bookish-looking-but-hard-as-a bat executive is in charge of one of the new season's most refreshing experiments: restoring the maligned strike zone to its long-neglected rule-book dimensions.

According to baseball's official rules, the strike zone extends from "the armpits to the top of [a batter's] knees." But as umpires modified the zone to their liking in recent years, it shriveled to the point where a pitch above the belt often was called a ball. To many in baseball, the shrinking target has fed an unhealthy trend--runaway offenses and three-hour-plus games that tried the patience of fans.

Still, restoring the zone to its rightful shape has not been easy. When owners tried a few years ago, power hitters, who tend to wait for pitches in certain locations, threw tantrums and umps moaned about the abuse they were taking. The plan was junked.

THINKER. The reason for more optimism this time around is Alderson, one of baseball's deeper thinkers and, say colleagues, among its most unyielding execs. "When I knew Sandy was doing the strike zone, I felt we had a chance," notes Chicago Cubs General Manager Andy MacPhail. Adds Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Bob Welch: "It got to the point where the strike zone was the size of a gnat's behind, and Sandy is doing something about it."

The strike zone is Alderson's latest, if not most formidable, challenge as he hones a growing reputation as MLB's tough guy. In his role as executive vice-president for baseball operations, he was at Selig's side two years ago when MLB pummeled the umpires' union in contentious negotiations that left the union emasculated and its brassy leader, Richie Phillips, discredited. And while his role in collective bargaining with the players, starting in October, remains unclear, Alderson might be Selig's not-so-secret weapon.

His background is a good part of the reason Alderson could be the exec to watch as the MLB tries to avoid another shutdown. In baseball, where many execs climb the ladder after playing pro ball or toiling for minor league clubs, Alderson's path to the top is unusual. He graduated from Dartmouth, did a tour as a Marine that included an eight-month stint in Vietnam, and went on to Harvard Law--all without ever giving a thought to a pro sports career.

In the late '70s, Alderson was practicing business law in San Francisco when a partner at his firm became an executive and part-owner of the Oakland A's. Alderson, who had handled the legal work for the sale, became general counsel in '81 and general manager two years later.

As owner, Walter A. Haas Jr., whose family controls Levi Strauss & Co., let Alderson make most of the baseball decisions, and he performed brilliantly. In his first 10 years as GM, the A's nabbed four American League West titles, went to three World Series, won one championship--a sweep of the Giants in '89--and nurtured sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

Alderson's other contribution was a no-nonsense management style, recalls Walter J. Haas, son of the late owner. "People allude to the `Marine, tough-guy' image, but more than that, Sandy's a leader. He's not one to worry about political correctness," says Haas, whose family sold the A's in 1995.

UNRELENTING. Nor is he one to back down from a fight. For years, Alderson sparred with Bay Area newspapers over coverage he judged second-rate to the rival Giants. Former San Francisco Examiner Sports Editor Glenn Schwarz recalls Alderson marching into the office to complain. "Sandy has a way of getting his points across, very directly," recalls Schwarz, now the San Francisco Chronicle's sports editor.

Players also have seen a steely side to Alderson. In his three years on Selig's staff and in the preceding 17 in Oakland, he has been a frequent critic of reckless spending. He even attends press conferences to scoff at the rich deals that are being announced. Last December, when the Colorado Rockies signed Mike Hampton to an eight-year, $121 million deal, Alderson took a shot at the pitcher's claim that he was swayed by quality-of-life issues, not the money. "The spin to which that deal was subjected, I think, was just an embarrassment," he told the Chronicle. Responded Hampton's lawyer, Mark Rodgers: "Sandy's a very bright man, but he doesn't know my client, my client's wife, or his children....Walking into collective bargaining, I hope he'd be able to check his anger at the door."

So far, Alderson's role in preliminary talks with the players has been limited. Selig has delegated the discussions to MLB's labor negotiator, Rob Manfred, and Chief Operating Officer Paul Beeston, a former Toronto Blue Jays executive and MLB's second-in-command. In baseball circles, Beeston is seen as a genial consensus builder, a far cry from the unrelenting, dogmatic Alderson.

Privately, baseball officials acknowledge a strain between Beeston and Alderson. (Neither Beeston nor Selig returned a phone call for this article.) The reasons for the rift aren't clear, but Alderson seems to be taking pains to lower his profile in response. He declined to be interviewed a second time or photographed for this article.

Still, Alderson may find it difficult to stay out of the limelight in the months ahead. Any time an armpit-high pitch is called a strike, his name will be on the batter's lips.

Corrections and Clarifications A table accompanying "Speak bluntly, and carry a big bat" (Sports Business, Apr. 16) says Mark McGwire was traded from Oakland to St. Louis in 1998. He was traded in 1997.

By Mark Hyman

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.