Over the course of a 15-year Major League Baseball career, a guy sees just about everything. Players come and go, teams rise and fall. The older you get, the more strange things you see.
Just ask Jimmy Rollins. As trade rumors swirled this winter, the former NL MVP and three-time All-Star shortstop reached out to Dee Gordon. The weird part for Rollins, 36, was that he had been teammates with the 26-year-old's father, Tom "Flash" Gordon, in Philadelphia from 2006 to 2009. So, yeah, that made Rollins feel old. But he invited Dee -- an infielder for the Dodgers, one of the teams rumored to be in the market for Rollins -- to come hang out with him during the players' association's annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.
"I thought it would be a good opportunity to bond," Rollins said. "And to help him learn about the business of baseball."
As a veteran of at least 10 seasons and more than five seasons with the Phillies, Rollins knew the team couldn't traded him without his consent. A week after he met with Gordon, Rollins was dealt to the Dodgers for two minor league pitchers. Rollins had agreed to waive his no-trade clause because he liked the idea of playing in Los Angeles, thanks to the talent the Dodgers had returning from a 94-win team and ownership's willingness to spend whatever it takes to build a World Series contender.
By the time Rollins got to L.A. for his introductory news conference on Jan. 7, the team he was joining had been radically reshaped following a dizzying series of trades and free-agent signings over a 72-hour period at baseball's winter meetings. Gordon had been dealt to the Miami Marlins. Outfielder Matt Kemp was in San Diego with the Padres. Hanley Ramirez -- who had signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent on Nov. 24 -- was in Boston. All former All-Stars and fan favorites. All gone.
Rollins watched it all unfold from Florida. He called his agent, Dan Lozano, repeatedly, trying to get information to make sense of what the Dodgers were doing. But like the rest of the baseball world, he was stunned. It was hard to see, in real time, how everything fit together -- much less a master plan.
"It was," Rollins said, "definitely very different."
By the time the Dodgers' new front office -- president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, general manager Farhan Zaidi and vice president of player personnel Josh Byrnes -- arrived at their private hotel suite in San Diego for baseball's annual winter gathering, it had long since decided the team needed a radical makeover. The debates between them by that point were over details, not philosophy.
The 2014 Dodgers had a lot of good pieces but was never a good team. Its 25-man roster was woefully inflexible. Its defense was awful. Its bullpen was thin and untrustworthy. Its clubhouse was toxic, as All-Star-sized egos and agendas bumped up against each other.
During the offseason, ownership spent millions to build a think tank of baseball's most innovative minds. Friedman -- the 38-year-old former Wall Street executive who had worked miracles with the small-market Tampa Bay Rays -- had been calling the shots since the Dodgers hired him in October. A few weeks later, L.A. completed the front-office makeover by plucking Zaidi from the Oakland A's and bringing on Byrnes, a former GM for the Arizona Diamondbacks and division-rival Padres.
Friedman likes to walk around pumping a squeeze ball in his hand. He does it less to release tension than to initiate interaction. He'll toss the ball at people -- colleagues, reporters, anyone he needs to get information from. His job is to evaluate and make decisions. He needs as much detail as he can get to make good decisions, so he initiates and engages people to get it.
Friedman ran the Dodgers' war room in San Diego with that same process-driven cool. The rest of the baseball world might have been baffled by the Dodgers' myriad moves -- at one point, Friedman got a text from one of the team's beleaguered beat reporters, begging him to "just stop already." The rapid-fire deals didn't make sense to the outside world as they unfolded in real time. But inside the room, where Friedman & Co. could see their master plan laid out on the board, things were remarkably calm.
Well, most of the time. Several times over that 72-hour period, the tranquility in the room was shattered by Frank Sinatra.
And now, the end is near; And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I'll say it clear; I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
The meeting would stop, and all of them would turn toward the sound, only to see Tommy Lasorda cracking up and fumbling for his cellphone. Of course, "My Way" was Lasorda's ringtone. The 87-year-old Dodgers icon has always done things on his own terms.
But it wasn't the song that threw everyone. It was the volume.
"There really is no way to describe how loud his cellphone is," Friedman said.
"You think there's an air raid coming," Byrnes said.
They could forgive Lasorda for cranking up the volume. He's almost 90, after all. He naps more than he used to and doesn't hear as well. But his sense of humor remains as sharp as ever.
Not long after Byrnes was hired, Lasorda asked him to stage a call during a speech Lasorda was giving to a group of scouts. Lasorda was recounting a heartfelt story, cracking a few jokes, telling a tale about his wife, Jo. Byrnes just couldn't find the right time to dial him. Afterward, Lasorda marched over and asked, "What the hell are you doing? You were supposed to call me."
Friedman had invited Lasorda to the war room as a sign of respect. He is the last Dodgers manager to win a World Series, after all. A walking, talking reminder that the team hasn't won a title since 1988. But Lasorda was also there because, in addition to squeeze balls in the air, Friedman likes having a lot of books on the shelves to pull from when he's making decisions.
The whole point of Friedman leaving Tampa for the Dodgers job was to challenge himself, rewire his brain a little. Why not keep Lasorda close by as he tried to remake the Dodgers from a surly group of ill-fitting All-Stars into a more cohesive team? Who knew what new nugget or insight the legend might come up with. It certainly couldn't hurt.
But man, that phone. It just rang and rang all day long, like some chirping magpie constantly questioning Friedman's resolve. Did he really want to trade Gordon and Kemp? All those steals and all that power, gone. Two popular, homegrown players off to a division rival (San Diego) and a two-time World Series champ (Miami). These weren't small tweaks. They were franchise-altering moves, and Friedman was still the new guy in town.
"It's uncomfortable for human beings to invite change," Freidman said. "We get comfortable doing something, so why would you change and introduce risk into your life?"
Change is hard, no matter how steady your hand is. And Lasorda's freaking phone was mocking him.
It might seem like a random series of events created that constellation of power in the war room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego last December. If Jon Lester had been able to hold a 7-3 lead against the Kansas City Royals in last year's American League wild-card game, maybe Zaidi never would have left Oakland. If Joel Peralta had made a different pitch to Shane Victorino in Game 4 of the 2013 American League Division Series, perhaps Victorino would've hit a routine ground ball instead of an infield single, the Rays would've held on to beat the Red Sox and Friedman wouldn't have left Tampa Bay. If Clayton Kershaw had gotten just one of his pitches to break a little harder -- and past Matt Carpenter's bat -- in either of the Dodgers' epic playoff battles against the St. Louis Cardinals the past two seasons, maybe L.A. would have won and never decided to break up its front office.
But that's baseball, man. Sometimes, you do everything right and a ball bounces funny. A popup falls between two fielders, a pitch is too good and the batter squibs an infield single instead of a routine ground ball. Call it dumb luck, bad luck, chance, risk, whatever you want. No team is immune.
Franchises that remain static will eventually regress and deteriorate. People, too. So the antidote is to be proactive. Change before you're forced to. Keep putting yourself in the best positions to succeed. When things break the wrong way, break new ground.
For the past five or six years, when he's back home in his native Houston for the holidays, Friedman meets Rockets general manager Darryl Morey at the Breakfast Klub, a diner known for its wings and waffles. The intellectual cross-pollination benefits both of them. Plus, it's safer than comparing notes with a rival GM. So now it's a tradition.
"I just try to pick his brain as much as he'll let me," Morey said.
Morey would ask Friedman about the Rays' player development techniques. Friedman would quiz Morey about the complex, multiteam trades the Rockets routinely execute.
"Historically, there have been more complex trades, involving multiple teams, in basketball," Morey said. "Baseball has more of a tradition of one-to-one trades. I remember Andrew being really excited a few years ago when [the Rays] pulled off their first three-team deal."
At the time, it just seemed like Friedman had an abstract curiosity about constructing multiteam transactions, but this winter, his interest became very real.
The one thing everyone in the Dodgers' new front office agreed upon was that the team's defense up the middle was awful. Hanley Ramirez could still hit, but he'd become a liability at shortstop. If he'd move to third base, a case could be made to keep him at a reasonable salary despite his recent injury history and sour mood during the second half of last season. But once the Red Sox offered him a four-year, $88 million deal -- with a vesting fifth year for an additional $22 million -- the Dodgers moved on.
Rollins became a primary target. Yes, he was 36, but he could still play. And with prized shortstop prospect Corey Seager getting closer to the big leagues, Rollins looked like the perfect veteran stopgap solution, especially at the relative bargain of one year and $11 million. The Phillies were looking for young pitching in return, however, and the Dodgers were determined to hold onto those prospects for themselves. It wouldn't work as a one-to-one deal.
So the Dodgers' braintrust decided to expand the scope. Philadelphia would move Rollins for pitching prospects. The Marlins had young arms to spare, but in return they were looking for established players with upside, such as Gordon. That was too high of a price just for a 36-year-old shortstop with one year left on his deal. Gordon stole 64 bases last year, made the All-Star team and wouldn't be a free agent until after the 2018 season. So it wouldn't work as a three-team trade, either. It had to be expanded even more.
Enter the Los Angeles Angels, San Diego and Arizona. The Angels were also looking to add pitching prospects and had let it be known they'd part with second baseman Howie Kendrick for an elite arm. The Padres and Diamondbacks each had catchers who would be an upgrade offensively and defensively over Dodgers incumbent A.J. Ellis and enough young arms that they could spare a few to balance out the trade with the Phillies. The Dodgers would have to trade Kemp or Andre Ethier to pry Yasmani Grandal or Miguel Montero away, but their outfield was already too crowded, and the logjam was only going to get worse as 22-year-old center fielder Joc Pederson ascended to an every-day role.
It all made sense, except for one huge issue: Teams generally don't make major trades with rival teams in their own city (Angels) or division (San Diego/Arizona). Weird -- and uncomfortable -- things can happen when you do that, as the Dodgers would soon learn.
But that was emotion talking, not reason. The pieces all fit for the Dodgers within this five-team construction. Friedman, Byrnes and Zaidi analyzed it all and decided these moves would make them better, deeper and more cohesive as a team. It was time to execute.
It all looked nice and clean, sketched out on the whiteboard that covered part of the wall in the war room. At one point, Dodgers president Stan Kasten even stopped to take a picture of the five-team, 16-player trade diagram with his iPhone.
As they mulled the decisions in front of them one afternoon, Friedman and Zaidi decided to take a break and go for a walk around the hotel. The two men had grown close very quickly in the weeks since they had joined the Dodgers. Friedman is the boss, both in title and in personality. If he is the executive, Zaidi -- who has an economics degree from MIT and a doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley -- is the scholar. But during their stroll they were simply playing the roles of lawyers challenging each other's cases so the decisions could be made confidently.
Kendrick was one of the best right-handed hitters in the game. He and switch-hitting catcher Grandal would help offset the power loss from trading Ramirez and Kemp. Rollins was a defensive upgrade from Ramirez. Losing Gordon would be tough, but his modest second-half numbers were enough to suggest the Dodgers could be selling high.
The real gut check was Andrew Heaney, the 23-year-old left-hander the Dodgers had gotten from the Marlins for Gordon, who they were set to flip to the Angels for Kendrick.
"That's a trade -- in a vacuum -- that you wouldn't make in a small market," Byrnes said. "A guy like Heaney, a six-year [club-controlled] pitcher, for a one-year player? Even though Kendrick is a really good player, that's the one that went against our traditional instincts."
A smaller-market club, like the Rays or Athletics or Byrnes' former clubs, the Padres or Diamondbacks, would value the salary-controlled younger pitcher over the higher-priced veteran position player any day.
The sun glinted off the Pacific Ocean on another picture-perfect Southern California day as they went around and around, debating the merits of each deal. But this was about clearing their heads, not sightseeing.
Things were starkly different now that they were working for the a storied, big-city team rather than in the small markets they'd all come from. Money was no longer a variable they had to solve for. It was a competitive advantage they could use to pull off trades.
On one level, it was deeply empowering. They were free to go out and build the team they wanted, the best team money could buy, a team that had a great chance at winning a World Series.
On another, it was unnerving. How would three men who had never managed a payroll of more than $100 million handle the largest payroll in MLB history? Now that money wasn't a factor, what kind of team did they want? What did they really believe in? And, if all that maneuvering didn't work, who would be to blame?
"Some things are easier in a small market because you eliminate options before they come up," said Dodgers senior adviser Gerry Hunsicker, who was in Tampa Bay when the then-28-year-old Friedman took over in 2005. "You can't afford to do everything, so it's not even there. Here, the world is your oyster."
They had spent weeks debating what kind of team they should create. For the most part, they found common ground on what they'd prioritize: defense, positional flexibility, organizational depth, savvy, run-producing hitters (which sounds simple but isn't).
None of these things was very sexy to Dodgers fans, and at first, the incremental moves the front office made to bolster their bullpen depth made folks wonder if these small-market guys' skills would translate at the next level.
"Having that base of depth gives you the opportunity to make more aggressive, needle-moving moves as the offseason goes on," Zaidi said a few weeks before the winter meetings began.
He's still trying to live that quote down. Byrnes and Friedman find every opportunity to work the phrase "needle-moving" into conversations with him, even making me promise to slip in a mention during our interview.
During that conversation, one morning at the Dodgers spring training complex in Arizona, Zaidi sipped from a Starbucks coffee cup marked with the name "Frank C." Did some intern named Frank get it for him? He smiled. "No. That's the name I give when I go through the drive-through or at a restaurant," he said. "Nobody knows how to spell Farhan, but I can never really say it with much conviction. They ask my name, and I'm always like, 'Uh, Frank?'"
He delivered the line so sincerely, it was easy to see why Byrnes and Friedman enjoy teasing him so much. When I finally slipped "needle-moving" into a question about the Kendrick trade, Zaidi bit on it.
"That was a turn of phrase that I used at the winter meetings that I never heard the end of," he said.
Without missing a beat, Byrnes said, "What a coincidence."
Zaidi still took the question at face value. "Has that phrase been deeply embedded in your head for the last three months?"
Byrnes laughed. Zaidi finally realized that they'd put me up to it. He shook his head. This was their way of showing affection. Sometimes, he gives it back to them. The analytics guru is funnier than people assume a guy with his résumé would be. But there are benefits to being underestimated.
"It's so easy to exceed people's low expectations," he joked. The only issue is when players assume he sees them as numbers on a spreadsheet instead of people.
"I think they were operating on some of those stereotypes," he said. "But we actually spend a lot of time around the players trying to create relationships with them. Players don't want to feel objectified or commodified. They don't want us in the clubhouse all the time, but having relationships with those guys is important."
All that relationship building is especially important now. But when the Dodgers' front-office guys were making huge decisions on the roster in December, they had to rely on what they'd been told about the clubhouse dynamics by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and several veteran players -- most notably, Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez and Ellis -- who were willing to offer insight when asked.
The picture they painted wasn't always pretty.
"We won 94 games, and you do what you have to do to win 94 games," Mattingly said. "At times I felt like the professionalism wasn't what I would like."
Mattingly didn't name names. That's not his style. But Kemp and Ramirez did little to hide their unhappiness with their roles last season, and it's no secret that it affected the clubhouse. Yasiel Puig's maturity and professionalism were also an issue, as were Ethier's demotion to a fourth outfielder role and frustration among the entire team with the bullpen that led to finger-pointing and mistrust.
Some of those issues could be fixed by excising Kemp and Ramirez from the clubhouse and replacing them with Rollins and Kendrick, but broader issues remained.
On a roster of high-priced All-Stars, no one wants to bat seventh or play out of position. No one is used to pinch hitting or platooning. Lord help you if you need an extra utility man to pull off a double-switch one day.
A bullpen full of former closers sounds good in theory, but what happens when you need someone to give you four innings in a blowout? Or pitch three out of four days? Or come in to face one batter?
"If you don't have any guys with minor league options out there in the bullpen," Mattingly said, "and you have a tough couple of days when guys are getting worn out, you can get caught having to pitch somebody that you're taking a chance of hurting."
L.A.'s lineup also lacked youth and versatility.
"You want your roster filled with veterans who know how to play, but you also want good young guys coming all the time," Mattingly said. "It keeps your team younger and fresher. If you've got all veteran guys who have played a ton of games and are making a ton of money, it ends up being, 'Ho hum, another game.' You want kids that have big bright eyes and can't wait to play today."
After canvassing Mattingly and the team's leaders, it was clear to the new front office that things had to change on a fundamental level. They needed more depth, more leadership, more "optionality," as Friedman would put it. The Dodgers won 94 games last year, but the fragile peace they found wasn't going to hold much longer.
The winter meetings ended, and the Dodgers' brass left San Diego thinking its deals were set. But then, the Padres had issues with Kemp's physical, which reportedly revealed severe arthritis in both of his hips. San Diego wanted to amend the trade and get a bit more out of the Dodgers to compensate.
Byrnes was in the Dominican Republic evaluating a group of Cuban players when he got a call from Friedman telling him something was wrong.
This could happen with any deal, theoretically. Kemp certainly had a history of injuries. San Diego was within its rights to examine him thoroughly, but it felt, to the Dodgers, like the Padres making their division rival squirm a little.
The first day, the waiting game was a little annoying. The second day, it was frustrating. The longer it went on, however, concern grew among L.A.'s front office that the deal might fall through and trigger a disastrous chain reaction.
The Dodgers needed Zach Eflin, a pitcher from the Padres, to complete the trade with Philadelphia for Rollins. If one deal fell apart, so did the other. And no one wanted to consider the potential awkwardness of figuring out what to do with Kemp if he remained a Dodger.
Rollins nervously reached out to his agent, asking for updates.
"I just kept calling him, like, 'Hey man, just make sure I get to L.A. I don't care what player they have to deal,'" Rollins said. "He kept calling Andrew, and Andrew kept reassuring him.
"But I'm like, 'OK, that's great. But I've heard a lot of words before.'"
Byrnes told Friedman not to worry. He had worked with those guys in San Diego -- as Padres GM from 2011 to 2014 -- and this was just their negotiating style. They fought for every last inch, but he thought they'd eventually blink and sign off on the deal.
In many ways, Byrnes is Friedman 10 years from now. He played baseball at Haverford College, from which he earned an English degree. Friedman played baseball and got a business degree at Tulane. Byrnes took a job in health care consulting before landing a job with the Cleveland Indians' front office in 1994. Friedman worked for the investment bank Bear Stearns before getting a job with the Rays' front office in 2004. In his 30s, Byrnes left his small-market home for the Red Sox just as Friedman is doing now with the Dodgers.
The difference is that Byrnes has been fired twice and has the scars to prove it. He got two shots as a GM: in Arizona (2006-10) and then San Diego (2011-14). After he was fired by the Diamondbacks in July 2010, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti called to invite Byrnes to visit his organization for a few days. They had gotten to know each other years earlier in San Antonio, when Presti was a young executive with the San Antonio Spurs and Byrnes often passed through town to visit a minor league affiliate. Like Morey and Friedman, they'd found the cross-pollination of ideas intellectually profitable. This invitation was more about friendship.
"I wanted to let him know I was here to support him," Presti said. "But I also told him, 'Let's use the time in between this and your next stop to try to learn something and make ourselves better.'"
The men who hold these type of jobs often share a bond that's hard for outsiders to fully understand. Perhaps it's the stakes, or the constant pressure, or the fine line they all walk between success and failure. They can do everything right and still have it all undone by a bad hop or ill-timed injury.
"You drive by the football stadium and realize that Tom Brady's legacy has been shaped by two plays that he wasn't actually on the field for," Byrnes says. "You have to embrace what you're striving for but also understand that there's some randomness along the way. There's an extreme sense of purpose, but you can't be insane about it."
All any of them can really do is position themselves and their organizations to have the best chance at success. But it's still just a chance.
"If you told me that if we spent $500 million on our payroll, we'd win a championship, I'd do that in a second," Dodgers owner Mark Walter says. "But there's nothing you can do to guarantee winning."
As chairman of Guggenheim Partners, Walter manages over $230 billion in assets. His expertise is in financial modeling, in picking companies that can be bought low and either sold high or held while they grow and make huge profits. He's been right a lot more often than he's been wrong during his career; otherwise, he wouldn't be in position to own the Dodgers. He's been wrong enough, however, to understand risk.
"People live in the illusion of security," Walter said while sitting in his suite at Camelback Ranch one day this spring. "You could be working at Bear Stearns one day, and the next day you're out of business. You thought it was secure because it was a big company. Wrong.
"You can't control the world. If you controlled the world, there would be a lot of things you'd change, right? World peace, poverty, cancer. We'd probably skip business or baseball."
I tell Walter he sounds like a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. He laughs, because he is one.
"Look at last year's playoffs. If I had said to you, 'We own the Orioles, Angels, Tigers, Dodgers and Nationals [during the regular season] and we feel really good we'll get one of them in the World Series.' You'd agree, right?
"Um, nope! We only won one playoff game, total."
A certain randomness led all these men to that hotel suite in San Diego in December to reshape the Dodgers, but each of them had also made a purposeful choice to be there. Friedman could have stayed in Tampa Bay very comfortably for the rest of his career. His reputation needed no adornment. Jonah Keri's 2011 book "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First" chronicled Friedman's success with the Rays. Zaidi could've happily stayed in Oakland with the original "Moneyball" GM, Billy Beane. The Dodgers could have let former GM Ned Colletti -- now a senior adviser to Kasten -- try to reboot this team on his own.
But curious minds are also often restless, yearning to see what's beyond the bend. What fuels guys such as Friedman is often mistaken for ambition or greed, but that's an oversimplification.
His first job out of college was at a financial services firm in New York. "The offices were at 245 Park Avenue," he said. "Same as the Major League Baseball offices."
Was that a coincidence? He nodded. "But I did take the elevator up to their floor sometimes to loiter," he said.
Friedman has had plenty of suitors over the years. Every winter, some organization would call and try to pry him away from the Rays. He always turned them down. But this Dodgers job felt different. He needed this challenge, spiritually as much as anything.
Before answering the Dodgers, Friedman analyzed the choice just as he would a five-team trade: weighing the pros and cons, then doing his best to project the chances of success -- or, in this case, happiness.
He called his family. He called friends. Then, he called Billy Beane.
Friedman and Beane have grown to be close friends over the years. Beane joked that they rarely did business together because they see the world so similarly. But they are very different men.
"I've never viewed my profession as my source of self-esteem," Beane said. He's as competitive as anyone, yes. He puts as much energy and willpower into his job as possible, but he's never been particularly restless.
Beane turned the Red Sox down when they called him at a similar juncture of his career because he simply preferred Oakland. He didn't need to be the king of Boston or to validate his methods in the big city. He wanted to be a good dad and stay close to his daughter. And he believed, way down deep, that one day -- if he kept at it long enough and kept doing it the right way -- things would break the A's way. He believes in the casino, too.
Friedman needed to hear why Beane stayed before he decided to go.
"I gave him the advice a friend would give," Beane said.
Beane didn't tell him what he should do. He told him what it was like to stay. The good and the bad. That he had no regrets. That he never wondered what would have been in Boston.
Friedman nodded. He was different. He would have always wondered.
Rollins had agreed to waive his no-trade clause to come to the Dodgers because they won 94 games last year and seemed well positioned to contend again for years to come.
By the time he got to town, however, that team had been completely remade. He was understandably skeptical.
"Honestly, it was not until we got to spring training and we looked each other in the face, took our first ground balls and BP, that everything started to come together," Rollins said.
By the time a guy has been in the league for 15 years, he has seen almost everything. But this was new, even for Rollins. It took a while for him to understand exactly what Friedman was trying to do.
But, at 5-foot-8, Rollins is used to having to find a better vantage point. After he hit a three-run home run to lead the Dodgers to a 6-3 win over the Padres on Opening Day Monday afternoon, Rollins stood on top of a blue table in the middle of the clubhouse before doing interviews.
"I didn't know until we all got together this spring what we had," Rollins said. "But we have a good team. A really good team. We all like each other. "
As Rollins spoke, Friedman walked across the room and caught his eye.
"These are the visions of that guy right there," Rollins said, nodding at Friedman. "They have to see it way in advance. We have some smart guys up there. Hopefully, we'll do our jobs and make them look like geniuses."