Dipoto hired Servais, his longtime friend and colleague, even though he had zero managerial experience. The decision was based on more than a baseball bromance developed over the past 15 years.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The strides were strong and clean, save for the minor hints of a man who had squatted behind home plate for roughly 7,000 professional innings over 14 years. The shoulders were back with the chest sticking out just enough to say, “Yeah, I’ve been a catcher, a coach, a scout, a farm director, and now I’m a manager. I’ve done some things. I got this.”
It was a meaningless first Cactus League game during spring training. But it was the first game of any sort that Scott Servais served as manager. A career with stops in every phase of the game led to that moment March 2 at Peoria Stadium,
There was significance in Servais taking the lineup card to home plate before the game. So much that the man who hired him pulled out his iPhone to snap a couple photos of his friend and manager handing the card to the umpire.
“It’s a big deal,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said with a wide grin. “This is a lifelong dream for him. He’s always wanted to do it. And the fact that he’s now getting the opportunity, he’ll tell you, ‘I pinch myself every day. I’m having the time of my life. I have a great group of guys in the clubhouse, this is going very well, and we’re developing a culture.’ ”
But the picture wasn’t just for Servais. It was for Dipoto, too. There was personal and professional importance for Dipoto in Servais delivering that lineup card. They are in this journey together.
Servais was Dipoto’s hire. This was his decision. Instead of retaining Lloyd McClendon for the final year on his contract, Dipoto decided to choose his own manager. This wasn’t like his previous GM job with the Angels, in which he inherited longtime manager Mike Scioscia. Their relationship became a power struggle, and Dipoto resigned in July.
Dipoto’s unemployment was short-lived. He was hired by the Mariners — an organization with a dysfunctional front-office reputation — in September. He was given freedom to reshape a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2001, baseball’s longest postseason drought.
The decision was based on more than a baseball bromance developed over the past 15 years. It was a move to form a philosophical consistency within the baseball-operations and field staff.
“We can’t ease our way into this and figure out how to get to know one another as GM and manager,” Dipoto said. “We can’t figure out how to get to know one another as staff and manager. This had to be a cohesive plan from the get-go, and it really has been.”
But will it succeed?
Like many long friendships, the details of their introduction and early conversations are a bit fuzzy. Servais thought it might have been in spring training of 2000 when they were both with the Rockies.
Dipoto’s almost photographic memory recalls him being introduced to Servais through a mutual friend, current Mariners special assistant Pete Harnisch. Dipoto and Harnisch were friends as Mets teammates, and Harnisch got to know Servais in his time with the Astros.
“Nothing more than a conversation here or a conversation there,” Dipoto said of Servais. “When we were playing each other we’d say hello. I can remember having a conversation out back in the clubhouse at old Candlestick Park one day when I (struck) him out on a horrific pitch and it might have been the first time I ever got him out. As I was walking out of the clubhouse, he said, ‘How’d you get me out with that?’ ”
But their relationship blossomed with the Rockies under the most basic way baseball can force players to communicate — a pitcher throwing to a catcher.
“I caught him a few times that spring,” Servais said.
And those talks sprouted into conversations and dinners with other teammates. Servais made the team, but Dipoto was shut down because of a bulging disk in his neck. In August, Dipoto and Servais were on rehab stints with Class AAA Colorado Springs. It was there where they really began to talk baseball. The conversations started while carpooling to games and continued in the dugout and clubhouse.
“You’ve got two veteran major-league players in Triple A in August, the dog days of the PCL season,” Dipoto said. “When we were in the clubhouse, I spent all my time with Scott. We’d sit and talk baseball. We’d talk about what we were seeing from the younger guys that we were watching. We’d talk about what we were doing ourselves. At that point I started to understand his baseball, and the two of us both liked to talk the game but saw things through a similar lens.”
The neck problems forced Dipoto to retire in spring training of 2001. Because he had spent time learning in the front office while on the disabled list in 2000, Dipoto moved right into a job with the Rockies. Servais grinded through another season in the Astros’ organization before retiring after the 2001 season. Their paths crossed again in 2003 when Servais joined the Cubs as a roving minor-league instructor and Dipoto was a pro scout with the Red Sox. One of the teams he covered was the Cubs. The two shared a condo that first spring training.
“We’d go separate directions during the day and we would come back each night and meet up for dinner or sit at the place talking baseball,” Servais said. “The next few years he would call me about Cubs players, asking me what I thought on certain guys. That’s where the relationship really started to get to where it’s at today.”
In 2005, Dipoto was named the Rockies’ director of player personnel. He immediately hired Servais as a pro scout. It was there where Servais began to understand Dipoto’s unique thoughts and love of statistical analysis. Because Servais lived in the Denver area, he asked if he could come down and hang out in Dipoto’s office during his first months on the job.
“He was always working on all these projects,” Servais said.
One of them was looking at major-leaguers and tracking their age at each minor-league stop to see if there were any trends that could help predict the career path of their minor-leaguers.
“I got very interested in it and started helping him,” Servais said. “I’d track players. … Then it was basically going through the Baseball Encyclopedia page by page. We only started tracking players that had 2,500 MLB at-bats or starters that threw 500 innings. It was awesome. I actually still have a copy of the study.”
Servais reached into his desk and pulled out a well-worn, spiral-bound book.
“That’s the original one of two,” Servais said. “Awesome. That’s what started it all. It piqued my interest in all the data and everything available. Jerry took it to another level, and I became just like, ‘Wow, this is the difference-maker.’ This is how you make it work.
“You take our ability to have played and understand the game from that end, and then you take the analytical part, which just started from that and you put it together, and it’s like, ‘Hmm, we have a competitive advantage here.’ ”
The partnership continued. That spring Servais spent almost two weeks in Tucson, Ariz., at the Rockies’ camp and working with Dipoto.
“We stayed up until two in the morning like almost every night, trying to come up with a scouting manual and trying to make it easier for scouts and how our minds work,” Servais said.
You take our ability to have played and understand the game from that end, and then you take the analytical part, which just started from that and you put it together, and it’s like, ‘Hmm, we have a competitive advantage here.’” - Manger Scott Servais
Dipoto loved to challenge Servais’ thinking as a player and coach.
“We’d sit there night after night,” Dipoto said. “I’d show him, “Here’s what I got,’ and it was kind of at the outset of computers being widely used in baseball. I started breaking out a lot of the research projects that I had done over time. I’d say, ‘What are your thoughts on X?’ Then ask him about a player or a circumstance or, ‘When is the right time to do X?’ He would just express an opinion, and I’d say, ‘I don’t think it’s right.’ He’d say, ‘I think it’s right.’ And then I’d say, ‘Here’s the data that says that’s not right.’ And he’d look at it and scratch his head and go, ‘Ah. Can’t really argue that. But I’d still do it the other way.’ ”
The fun lasted just one season. Dipoto took a job as vice president of player personnel with Arizona, and Servais headed to Texas as the senior director of player development.
“I had an opportunity to go to Arizona with him,” Servais said. “I turned it down, and that was one of the toughest calls I ever made … to call him and tell him, because the only reason I got the opportunity to interview for these jobs was because of the education I got working with Jerry. I just felt at the time that I had to do what was best for me in my career, and it was absolutely the best thing for both of us because we both got a chance to learn on our own.”
Six years later, they came together in Anaheim, Calif. Dipoto was hired as the Angels’ general manager, and one of his first calls was to Servais, who was hired as the assistant general manager, overseeing scouting and player development.
From the day Dipoto was hired as the Mariners’ general manager, it was almost impossible to envision him not hiring his own manager.
The sting from his Angels departure was still raw. The friction between him and Scioscia had reached a crescendo in late June. An incident over the implementation of statistical scouting reports led to a contentious weekend of disagreements among Dipoto and his staff (which included Servais), the coaching staff and some players.
The situation was leaked to Fox Sports and became a story. It evolved into the controversial debate of old school vs. new school thinking. Tired of fighting a power struggle he couldn’t win against Scioscia, who had owner Arte Moreno on his side, Dipoto cleaned out his office and resigned days later.
Dipoto has been careful not to fall into a back-and-forth with Scioscia in the media. But he has has said enough to make it clear he won’t be placed in that situation again.
“The best marriages are those in which you fall in love and then get married rather than someone arranging it from a thousand miles away,” Dipoto said at his introductory Mariners news conference.
Dipoto didn’t have it arranged for Servais to be the manager when he decided not to retain McClendon. But it always was assumed that Servais would join Dipoto in some capacity.
“You know, I never brought it up,” Servais said. “He knew that I had past opportunities that I had put on the back burner because of where I was at family-wise.”
Dipoto went through the search process, interviewing Servais, Tim Bogar (who many thought was the favorite for the job), Dave Roberts, Phil Nevin, Charlie Montoyo and Jason Varitek.
“We weren’t afraid to try something new, like guys who haven’t managed before and even with ‘Tek, who’s never been anything but a player,” Dipoto said.
The candidates were narrowed to three finalists: Servais, Roberts and Bogar. Dipoto liked them all.
“The one that made the most sense for me to get this team to the next level or next stage, it was Scott,” Dipoto said.
Bogar, who agreed to join the staff as bench coach, even asked Dipoto why Servais was picked over him.
“And I said to him, ‘I could make this decision 50 times and I might go the other way; it depends on that team in that moment, stylistically how you play the game, the way this culture needed to develop,’ ” Dipoto said. “I’ve seen Scott do this at multiple stops now.”
The hiring was criticized.
“Plenty of guys wrote about it,” Servais said. “You have to prove yourself, whether you’re a player, whether you’re a coach, manager, general manager. You have to prove your worth on an almost everyday basis. I knew it was going to get written, and it really didn’t bother me.
“I’ve never managed a major-league game. They’re right, they’re going to take their shots at that, and I’m going to screw up a few times. There’s no doubt. There’s nobody that does it perfectly right out of the chute, but I think I do know what my strengths are. I’m smart enough to know where my weaknesses lie, and I’m going to work on the weaknesses.”
Dipoto also expected it.
“Some of that is probably because it’s understood that he and I have a good relationship,” he said. “But I can assure you, and I think you’ll probably learn that over time if you haven’t learned that already, Scott’s not here to be my yes man, nor is he here to be my puppet. That’s not the way this thing works.”
NO EXPERIENCE NEEDED
It’s not uncommon in the major leagues these days for a manager to have no experience. Scott Servais played 11 seasons in the majors but retired in 2002 and had been in front-office jobs in the years since. Here’s a look at other current major-league managers who started with zero post-playing field experience.
Brad Ausmus, Detroit Tigers
In his first year, Ausmus’s team won the AL Central. Last year, they finished last in the division with only 74 wins.
164-159 W-L record (career)
Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals made a good choice. He’s the first manager in MLB history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.
375-273 W-L record (career)
Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers
Despite a new GM taking over this season, Counsell remains as manager for the Brewers, who finished last in his first year.
61-76 W-L record (career)
A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros
Hired as the Diamondbacks manager with no experience in 2009, he now manages Houston and led the Astros to the postseason.
175-199 W-L record (career)
There is misperception in trying to define Dipoto and the philosophy that he’s bringing to the Mariners with the help of Servais. The easy label is that Dipoto is an analytics or sabermetrics guy, part of the new wave of baseball thinking.
But he bristles at that notion. One thing Dipoto has tried to preach to the organization is continual growth and constant expansion of thinking and ideas.
“If you engage the group and you make them a part of the decision, now they embrace it and they value it as their own,” Dipoto said. “Information is protected. They’re trying to think of how to enhance it and make it better.”
Dipoto and Servais are trying to foster that level of thinking and discourse in management they shared on those nights in Arizona. Discussion, debate, ideas are all good, whether it’s on players, development or strategy. It starts with general manager and manager.
“We don’t always agree on everything, and I think that’s a real healthy thing,” Dipoto said. “ He doesn’t mind, he’s known me long enough, he doesn’t mind looking at me going, ‘You are out of your mind.’ And I don’t mind the same.”
Servais pushed it on his coaches.
“The willingness to be open and learn,” he said. “I told everybody when I interviewed them, we talked on the phone, ‘I need you to be open, because if you think you’ve got it all figured out, this is not the place for you.’ ”
It’s a reason Bogar stayed with Dipoto after not getting the job he wanted.
“Most people have at some point in their career been in place where they feel like their voice isn’t being heard,” Bogar said. “That is not the case around Jerry and around Scott. They will hear your voice, but you better have a reason why you are saying what you are saying. Don’t bring something without A) having a plan to fix it if it’s broke or B) a reason why it needs to be done and how it’s going to benefit the whole organization.”
Dipoto and Servais don’t suffer through half-baked opinions and analysis.
“You have to bring your ‘A’ game,” Servais said. “You can’t just go in there and (talk) and say, ‘Ah, you know, gut feeling on this one.’ … Gut feel, that just means you’re not prepared. (Dipoto) doesn’t play the gut-feeling game.”
Beyond the roster, things such as changing a culture, stressing communication, building community and pushing comfort levels are being stressed. There have been comedians in camp and a pool table in the clubhouse. It’s a shared vision that doesn’t conform to tradition.
“Ninety-five percent of people in baseball talk a tremendous game,” Servais said. “They talk. They believe it, this and that. Five percent can actually execute it. There’s a difference.”
Dipoto and Servais believe they can execute the concepts and catchphrases into a culture that will make the Mariners different and successful.
“Find a way to mix it up,” Dipoto said. “Find a way to throw a rock in the pond and follow the ripples. If 30 clubs in this league are all doing things the same way, and you don’t find a way to create some small advantage, whatever that advantage is, you lose. Then it’s going to come down to who has the most money if everyone’s doing it the same way, or who gets the luckiest. We’re not in the game of relying on being the luckiest. If we fail, it’s not going to be because we weren’t prepared to be good.”