They're in the Game
Hitting for average in a home run-crazy world
Bill Smith '80
General manager, Minnesota Twins
Baseball's Minnesota Twins have forged a reputation as one of the most sensible, prudent organizations in professional sports — a smart outfit with great scouting, steady nerves and the patience to build from within. A little slow to reach for the billfold, maybe, but hey, compared to whom? The Yankees? But Bill Smith '80 had no sooner settled into his new general manager's chair last fall than some serious winds of change came blowing through the Twins' offices on Kirby Puckett Place in Minneapolis. Center fielder Torii Hunter and starting pitcher Carlos Silva filed for free agency in October, eventually landing with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, respectively. Then, in February, two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana was mailed to the Mets for a quartet of promising but unproven young players. Fans gulped; bloggers got all ballistic. Looking back at the damage at the start of spring training, beat writer Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune argued that it "might have been the most unpopular roster upheaval in franchise history."
Smith is a bit more circumspect. "This past winter was a little crazy," he concedes with a laugh, but he notes that the strength of the organization lies in its ability to plan ahead, sniff out talent and avoid surprises. "There were many opinions on all fronts, but our scouting staff has provided great information in the past decade to help us make some very good trades," he says. He's betting the newcomers will "keep the team competitive for years to come," and history is on Smith's side. With a small-market operation that ranks just 25th in value among baseball's 30 major-league teams — and a payroll that, at $81 million, is less than a third of the Yankees', according to an April analysis by Forbes — the Twins have finished consistently in the money, winning the American League's Central Division four times in six seasons and the World Series twice in Smith's 22-year tenure with the team.
Along the way, the Twins coaxed Hennepin County into partnering to build a new open-air, baseball-only stadium, scheduled to turn on the lights in 2010. "There's an entire generation of Minnesota baseball fans who have never seen Major League Baseball outside," Smith says of the Twins' vintage digs at the 26-year-old Metrodome. After the move, "we're going to have some cold days in April, and hopefully some cold days in October — the later the better."
As for being in the public hot seat after years of relative anonymity as assistant GM, Smith bears it with an insouciance worthy of a former French major. He doesn't mind wading into the fray, chatting with fans online and sitting for extended interviews with everyone from USA Today to journalists in minor-league towns. He's goad-proof. When Scott Miller of CBSSports.com ran down a list of epithets heaped upon Smith online in the wake of the Santana trade, he responded, "Aw, I've been called a lot of the same names in my own house." And the hours? "I've never had a day when I didn't want to get up and go to work," he says. "But I always tell people, 'If it's important for you to be able to go spend weekends at the cabin, this isn't the job for you.'"
The journey to Minnesota began with a bus ride from Hamilton to Toronto in December 1979. Smith had recently returned from his Junior Year in France and was starting to think about career possibilities. A ballplayer and fan, he decided to check out the major leagues' winter baseball meetings, knowing that the majors had just begun an internship program to bring two college grads into their New York office. "The biggest challenge," he says, "was convincing Hamilton professors that missing the last few days of classes was OK because this was a job search, not a baseball fanfest." Smith proved it by landing an internship after interviewing with Frank Cashen, the Mets' general manager; he recalls that Cashen saw Hamilton mentioned on his application materials and told Smith he was impressed by the College's reputation. "That comment has always stayed with me," Smith says.
Nine months in, he got a call from White Sox GM Roland Hemond, offering him a job in Chicago's minor league and scouting department, where he stayed for two years, "learning the basics of baseball operations," and then it was on to the Sox's Class A team in Appleton, Wis., where he learned "the business side of the game" — sales, marketing, promotions and ballpark operations. "I was able to dive into all areas," Smith says. "It was a tremendous learning experience." He also met his wife Becky in Appleton.
Then, in Chicago in 1986 for a visit with Hamilton friends and classmates Damian Slattery, Nick Campbell and Ned Kennedy, he learned of an opening with the Twins. "A move back to a major league club was difficult, because there is very little turnover each year," Smith says. "Two days later, I was driving to Minneapolis with my wife for an interview." He's been a Twin ever since. "People stay here," he says. "People enjoy working for this ballclub."
That continuity is as important to Smith's personal life as it is to his work. He still talks to Slattery several times a week and recently saw Kennedy and Campbell in Chicago. Those are "lifelong friendships," he says. "We had a great core group of 10 or 15 guys" at Hamilton and Alpha Delta Phi. "I work hard to stay in touch." The ties extend to his whole college experience. In addition to participating in baseball, hockey, and swimming and diving, Smith played on the soccer team that won the ECAC state championship in his senior year. "It was a great accomplishment for a group of players who played as a team, and many of us are still very close today," he says. "I have always had tremendous respect for Hamilton and for the education that I was privileged to receive." Even that French degree and the Junior Year in France turned out to be useful, in a roundabout way. The travel, the discipline of learning a language and the immersion in a different culture all prepared Smith to learn Spanish and work in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic as the Twins expanded their Latin American presence in recent years. "Beyond the lessons learned in the classroom," he says, "Hamilton helped me grow up, learn to study and deal with new challenges."