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Stearns reflects on lessons learned in Houston

GM stresses organizational alignment with Astros in town
Brewers owner Mark Attanasio brought GM David Stearns on board in September, just days before the Astros' postseason celebration. (AP)
April 7, 2016

MILWAUKEE -- David Stearns was alone, surrounded by unpacked suitcases and moving boxes in his half-empty apartment on Prospect Avenue, a street on Milwaukee's east side populated by high-rise apartments with panoramic views of Lake Michigan. Stearns had little time to take in the scenery. It was Tuesday, Oct. 6,

MILWAUKEE -- David Stearns was alone, surrounded by unpacked suitcases and moving boxes in his half-empty apartment on Prospect Avenue, a street on Milwaukee's east side populated by high-rise apartments with panoramic views of Lake Michigan. Stearns had little time to take in the scenery. It was Tuesday, Oct. 6, his second official day as general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
On that day, the Houston Astros were on Stearns' mind -- and his television. He had spent the past three years helping guide Houston through a rebuild as the team's assistant GM, and Stearns' former team was in the American League Wild Card Game. He watched the first pitch from his office at Miller Park but went home for the final innings, so it was in that unfinished apartment where Stearns watched the Yankees' Brian McCann ground out to sensational young shortstop Carlos Correa, sealing a 3-0 Astros victory and starting a champagne-soaked celebration.
Hundreds of miles away, Stearns celebrated more subtly.
"I actually think it was kind of the perfect timing to have a part in helping to build that, and then not be there when they finally got to where they wanted to go," Stearns said. "It was fun watching them pour champagne all over each other. I want to experience that here.
"That's the challenge. We know we have a lot of work to do. And we know we have a plan we need to follow."
For the second time in a week, Stearns will meet his former team, beginning Friday, when the Astros visit Miller Park for the start of an Interleague series. But unlike last weekend's exhibitions in Houston, these games count.
Stearns is well aware that the Brewers are only at the start of the process from which the Astros are just emerging. When the Brewers made him baseball's youngest general manager last September (Stearns has since turned 31), the team was deep into a rebuilding phase that began with hiring Craig Counsell to manage in May. Since then, former GM Doug Melvin and Stearns have combined to turn over more than half of the 40-man roster. Fifteen of the 25 players on Milwaukee's Opening Day roster were new from the same day the year before.
The Brewers' farm system now ranks among the top 10 in baseball, but graduating those prospects to the Major Leagues is a slow process. Houston averaged 104 losses from 2011-14 before going 86-76 in 2015. Stearns was there for the final two of those losing seasons.
"I learned a lot of things, the first of which is probably the power of relationships and alignment throughout the organization," Stearns said. "There are a number of factors that go into the success Houston has built, the first of which is a shared vision between the owner and general manager, who are completely aligned in how they want to build the franchise. You add on top of that alignment with [manager] A.J. Hinch in the dugout, that was an enormous lesson to me.
"It's the power of what that can do as the organization as a whole -- when everyone sees that the owner, the general manager and the manager all believe in one another and are rowing in the same direction."

In Milwaukee, Stearns said, "we have the foundation of that" between himself, owner Mark Attanasio and Counsell.
It started, as these things often do, over dinner.

"You're running an old story here," Counsell chided Wednesday morning, when the topic of his first meeting with Stearns was raised. "A retro piece."
Counsell nevertheless played along. The first meeting was over dinner in September at the Capital Grille in Milwaukee, after Attanasio had finished an exhaustive search to identify the ninth GM in franchise history. He chose Stearns in spite of the New Yorker's young age, noting instead Stearns' diverse experiences in the Commissioner's Office, where he worked closely with current Commissioner Rob Manfred on labor matters, and in front offices from Pittsburgh to New York to Cleveland to Houston.
"We debated whether to include Craig in the interview process or not," Attanasio said. "We thought that was not a best practice, so really the first time they met, it was, 'Craig, here's the new GM. David, here's your manager.'
"And from what I've observed, whatever differences they might have had -- I'm sure they've disagreed on things -- I don't see it. And it's not to say that in the future, it's not OK to see it. I'm saying they're getting off to a really good start here."
It was a good start from that very first meeting. After dinner, Stearns and Counsell moved to the bar at the Pfister Hotel to continue their conversation over a beer.
"My first impressions? You're excited to meet the guy you're going to be working with," Counsell said. "We talked about how we wanted to sit there and have a 10-hour conversation, but it was quick, really. There's a lot of ground to cover when you first meet the general manager but you don't know each other. You can't cover it in one night, you can't cover it in one week. ... The learning and the process and our working together will always continue to evolve."
Said Stearns: "We need to be able to be completely honest with one another at all times. Sometimes he is going to tell me things I don't want to hear. Sometimes I'm going to tell him things he doesn't want to hear. That's good. I think we've established the foundation of that relationship so that as we go into the season here we can continue that honest communication."
The weekend games against the Astros will offer yet another reminder of where Stearns wants to take the Brewers. All in good time.
"I think it was stranger going to Houston than it will be here," Stearns said. "Going back there right off the bat, breaking camp and going right to the building where I used to work, it was a little strange.
"But those are all still friends, and they are good people. It will be fun to see them -- and hopefully beat them three times."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.