Sports Nut

The Cult of the General Manager

Can we go back to worshiping athletes already?

Thanks to Red Sox GM Epstein, kids dream of signing the guy who hits the game-winning homer

A full-page ad for in this week’s Sports Illustrated shows a clean-cut, white, college-graduate type in an empty baseball stadium. He’s staring beatifically into the distance, maybe watching batting practice or studying the crevices in the outfield walls. “Whether you’re a five-tool player or a five-tool accountant,” the ad says, you’re in charge of your career path. Hovering above our white-bread college grad are these words: “You are the General Manager of you.”

The Monster ad left me wondering what, exactly, an accountant’s five tools might be. But more significantly, it represents a breakthrough in sports metaphor. Sports commercials used to encourage people to drink beer to “bring out your best” on the amateur football field, or implied that the right deodorant would get you laid as often as Joe Namath. But the interface between consumer and sports has changed. When sports-loving kids stare wistfully into the distance now, they’re not daydreaming about being like Mike or coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. No, they’re dreaming about pulling off a deadline trade or finding a “sleeper” in the low rounds of the draft.

We’re in a sports age in which Executive of the Year is an award on par with the MVP, where there’s always a seat for an ex-GM on Baseball Tonight, where Knicks fans hate Isiah Thomas not because he’s dismantling them on the court, but because he’s doing so from the front office. Michael Jordan is remembered as a failed executive. A general manager, Billy Beane, is the most controversial figure in baseball. His intellectual disciples Theo Epstein and Paul DePodesta are almost like folk heroes.

It’s hard to say whether the growing popularity of general managers has made everyone want to play fantasy sports or if the nation’s fantasy sports obsession has made everyone think they’re a GM. Either way, people have lost sight of the fact that general managers, however great or however incompetent, are just guys in suits who can spot talent, endure talking to agents, and memorize a bunch of rules. One popular site, RealGM, gives armchair executives the privilege of sifting through the same arcane salary-cap labyrinths as their favorite number-crunchers. When I clicked on “GM Resources,” I was asked this question: “Need to know if your team can get rid of that contract from their books early or when a player’s Base Year Compensation ends so it is easier to trade a contract?” Well, I think, I would if I were a general manager.

If you don’t care about buying, selling, and trading, the sports world has much less to offer you these days. Around baseball’s trading deadlines we’re flooded with absurd trade rumors while the action on the field goes relatively unnoticed. There’s also little distinction made between fantasy sports news and real sports news. When I went to the other day, a full-page fantasy football ad popped up before I could get to the home page. I clicked through, and a ticker said I had less than a minute to make my first draft selection. If I wanted to be the general manager of me, I’d better hurry.

Meanwhile, on SportsCenter, I found Dan Patrick discussing “six running backs you don’t want on your fantasy football team.” I’m not sure who Michael Bennett plays for these days, but I do know that he is, at best, a “late-round draft risk.” Even considering ESPN’s lousy summer, with that idea-bankrupt “50 States in 50 Days” feature and the endless reports on Barry Bonds’ knee fluid, this was disheartening. Patrick is ESPN’s top talent. It was as though CNN called Christiane Amanpour back from Iraq to cover a Risk tournament. Excuse me for wanting baseball highlights.

I’m as susceptible to the charms of fantasy sports as any healthy American nerd-male. It’s basically Dungeons & Dragonswith the added attraction of getting drunk on draft day if you’re in the right league. But I play fantasy baseball because I love sports, not because I love business. I wanted Carlos Delgado on my team (the Washington Balls of Anaheim) so I could see what numbers he could put up under my watch. I’m not salivating at the chance to flip him for a couple of prospects in a waiver deal.

My modest GM fantasies begin and end with baseball, where numbers rule and where such obsessions were born. Every other sport has to stay relatively pure in my mind; I’ve struggled for years to ignore the NBA’s arcane salary cap rules, and I’m not about to change now. Regular consumers of this space know that I live and die by the Phoenix Suns, but reading about general manager Bryan Colangelo’s “difficult front-office summer” appeals to me less than reading about his colonoscopy. I want to see the final product, not hear about how it was made in Santa’s workshop.

As deathly dull as a general manager’s machinations may be, there’s obviously an audience for it. I think that’s warped. Yes, athletes are overpaid, pampered assholes, but their jobs are still inherently fun and interesting. Heroes don’t analyze spreadsheets. Really, who would you rather be, Tom Brady or the guy who signed Tom Brady to a long-term deal? This may be the age of the general manager. But the quarterback still has more fun.