In the average Major League clubhouse, where thick-armed, barrel-chested men curse and fart with equal aplomb, there is little room for conventional dorkiness. The majority of ballplayers are, after all, the guys who ruled high school, who cruised the hallways with caps backward and skipped class without punishment, who were anointed prom king by 9 p.m. and getting laid two hours later. They are not Jon Daniels.
The 30-year-old general manager of the Texas Rangers, Daniels is 5-foot-11 and built like a ballpoint pen. His awkward grin suggests neither confidence nor worldliness. When he spits — as baseball people tend to do — the saliva dribbles from his mouth, less cool than, well, embarrassing. Though he has the power to trade $8 million-per-year All-Stars and determine the fate of a manager, Ron Washington, who has devoted 37 years to the pro game, Daniels last played organized baseball in eighth grade, when he was a Little League catcher in Queens, New York. The next year, he tried out for the freshman team at Manhattan's academically elite Hunter College High School and got cut. His personal scouting report: "I could throw, and I wasn't afraid to take a beating. But I couldn't hit for shit."
No matter. Today, he's a leader of an unprecedented Major League trend. In an age when individual franchises are valued as high as $1.2 billion (the estimated worth of the 2008 New York Yankees), geeky, stats-loving, post-Moneyball general managers like Daniels are being charged with overseeing teams' baseball operations — and they're changing the game. Of the last 10 GMs hired, 6 have been age 40 or under. Not one has played a single pro inning.
Young Jon was raised worshipping at the altar of Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, and the '86 New York Mets. But it was never a boyhood goal to run a baseball team. "I just couldn't see how someone with no baseball ability — me — could wind up heading an organization," he says. "No way in hell." Indeed, upon graduating from Cornell with a degree in applied economics and management, Daniels went to work for Allied Domecq, the parent company of Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts. He was placed in the department assigned to synergize the two brands. Salary: $40,000. "It was," he says, "not especially fun."
At the same time, Daniels's college roommate, a nonathlete named A.J. Preller, was making peanuts serving as an intern with the Philadelphia Phillies. Yet while Daniels was miserable, Preller was living his dream, sitting in on scouting meetings and seeing the innards of a major-league organization. Soon enough, Daniels was tagging along to ball games, hoping Preller's good fortune might rub off on him. In April 2001, Josh Byrnes, then an assistant GM with the Colorado Rockies, offered Daniels a six-month internship. It paid $275 per week. "I had to take it," Daniels says. "Absolutely had to. Because I was learning early on that money definitely doesn't equal fulfillment."
When the internship ended, Daniels — knowing how hard it is to land a plum baseball gig — planned to move to California and find yet another dull corporate job. Just before his departure, he interviewed with the Rangers, who needed a baseball-operations assistant to veteran GM John Hart. "I was immediately impressed," says Hart, now one of Daniels's advisers. "He was a guy who knew the game and clearly had a high ceiling."
Hart was right. In October 2005, a mere three years after Daniels accepted a salary of $30,000 to work for the Rangers, owner Tom Hicks named him to succeed Hart, who was retiring after four seasons. At 28 years and 41 days, Daniels became the youngest general manager in baseball history. (He's still the youngest in MLB.)
Though the local media initially mocked Daniels as Hart's caddie (one newspaper dubbed him "Boy Blunder"), he proved to be anything but. Long respected by peers as a sound baseball man, Hart was, in fact, an antiquated, paint-by-numbers GM who surrounded himself with good people but too often listened to none of them. His greatest misses included acquiring John Rocker, trading the talented Travis Hafner to Cleveland for a bag of nobodies, and hiring Buck Showalter — an overbearing taskmaster — as his manager. While Daniels has conducted his share of questionable trades — and the Rangers were hovering, at press time, around .500 — he is, in the words of Don Welke, the Rangers' senior director of baseball operations, "helping revolutionize the role of a general manager."
In Daniels's third season as GM, you can see ample evidence of how that's happening. He inherited from Hart one of the game's biggest messes — an overpriced roster and a weak farm system. To clean that up, he transformed the front office, where the mess was made. "I like to think of myself as a collaborative decision maker, not a power-hungry boss," he says. "I want everyone's opinion." By everyone, he means the members of one of MLB's quirkiest front-office staffs — about 50% wizened baseball vets like Welke and Hart, and 50% pups like Preller, now Texas's scouting director, and assistant GM Thad Levine, 36. "I'm obviously in charge," Daniels says, "but a good leader knows his limitations and doesn't try to hide them. He trusts the people around him."
Last December, when the Rangers considered trading Edinson Volquez, their top pitching prospect, to Cincinnati for outfielder Josh Hamilton, Daniels consulted with no fewer than a dozen staffers. Some thought the idea was crazy (Hamilton is a reformed crack addict). Some thought it was brilliant (Hamilton has five-tool talent). "I liked that no one was afraid to say what they felt. Everything we do depends on open and honest input," says Daniels, who eventually signed off on the trade. At press time, Hamilton was leading MLB in RBIs.
The Mr. Nice Guy routine is an enormous cultural shift for the Rangers, who for years had one of baseball's least employee-friendly operations — a place where decisions were routinely second-guessed and performance evaluations indefensibly harsh. Though Daniels, characteristically, declines to trash his predecessors, he does say that change was essential. "Things work better when people are happy to be here," he says. "It doesn't take much to show that spirit." And so on Mother's Day, the Rangers now send greeting cards to all female employees and to the wives of male employees. Birthdays are always acknowledged, and before the Rangers broke camp last year, Daniels sent a letter to each person in the organization — "Please keep up the great work," he wrote — along with a $20 Starbucks gift card. "That," says one Rangers employee, "meant a lot."
Daniels's team building has extended, necessarily, to the Rangers' player development. Before his arrival, Texas had one of baseball's most barren minor-league systems and most overpaid Major League clubhouses. (Who can forget how the team, in 2000, signed free agent Alex Rodriguez to an unheard-of 10-year, $252 million contract, then finished last in the AL West in the subsequent three seasons?) Last summer, after first baseman Mark Teixeira rejected an eight-year, $140 million offer, Daniels traded him to Atlanta for five prospects. Though the Rangers signed a handful of veterans leading into the '08 season, none was especially high-priced and none got more than a two-year deal. "We want to stockpile our system with youth," Daniels says, "to the point where we no longer have to sign a free agent."
Rangers scouts are encouraged not merely to observe amateurs and file reports but to go way above and beyond. "We tell our scouts to visit the homes of these young men, to get familiar with the parents, girlfriends, coaches," Levine says. "We have scouts who go watch high-school football games, high-school basketball games. Go watch a track meet. Go pick out the best player in a basketball game or the best runner in a track meet. And ask them some questions: 'Have you ever thought of playing baseball?' We try to get guys in unconventional ways." The result: This year, Baseball America ranked the Rangers as having the game's fourth-best farm system, up from 28th in 2007, the biggest jump in the magazine's history. "Say what you want about ranking systems," says Levine, "but we're doing something right."
Part of that equation is international scouting, another area neglected during the Hart era. The Rangers have not only increased their international scouting budget from a laughable $500,000 in 2005 to $2 million-plus this year, but also revamped their strategy on Latin American development. In the Dominican Republic, where the Rangers opened their first academy two years ago, Major League teams tend to comb small towns for players as old as 21 or 22. "No more," Preller says. "We want the most talented 16- and 17-year-olds so we can help mold them and shape them as people and ballplayers. By the time you find a 21-year-old, he's sort of a finished product. We want the kids."
And that, of course, will be what fans, rivals, and employees will be saying if — and this is a quintessentially big if — Daniels and his cohort can prove that they know how to do the one thing that matters more than anything else in the game: win.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.