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Schuerholz a baseball institution after almost 50 years

Legendary architect of winners in KC and Atlanta continues to add to legacy

Almost 50 years later, John Schuerholz still isn't sure why he sat down and wrote the letter to Baltimore Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger.

"I just had a sense that I needed to," Schuerholz said.

That letter would ultimately change his life. It would change baseball, too, making it better in countless ways.

Schuerholz shaped two franchises, building winners. In 26 years as general manager of the Royals and Braves, his teams finished first 20 times and won 2,348 regular-season games. Atlanta's streak of 14 consecutive division championships between 1991 and 2005 is one of the more remarkable accomplishments in sports.

Along the way, Schuerholz gained a reputation for integrity and an unfailing commitment to doing things a certain way. For his work with the Braves and Royals alone, he seems to be a slam dunk to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame someday soon.

Retirement? No thanks.

At 74, Schuerholz is one of baseball's wise men -- a trusted confidant of Commissioner Bud Selig and his chairman for one committee that implemented instant replay and another studying pace-of-game issues.

He's also president of the Atlanta Braves and a guiding force in the design and construction of a ballpark and mixed-use complex scheduled to open in 2017.

OK, back to that letter.

Schuerholz was 26 years old and plenty happy teaching at North Point Junior High in his hometown of Baltimore. He was newly married and making the whopping sum of $6,800.

Life was good.

"I loved teaching," Schuerholz said.

His original career plan was to play for the Orioles. He'd attended Baltimore City College High School across the street from Memorial Stadium, and spent plenty of hours gazing at that magnificent structure thinking it was meant to be.

"For some reason," said Schuerholz, "they overlooked my talent."

Schuerholz did star in both soccer and baseball at Towson State. When he finished his degree in secondary education, he found something he loved.

When Schuerholz wrote the letter in 1966, he was teaching world geography and other classes, while also taking night classes at Loyola University -- aimed at getting a master's degree.

Then, for some reason he still can't explain, during a break one day, he sat down and crafted a letter to Hoffberger. He just had a nagging sense that he was meant to do something else.

"I wanted to be in baseball," Schuerholz said.

His timing was perfect in ways he couldn't have imagined.

"I explained to Mr. Hoffberger that I was near my master's degree. I'd played baseball, I was decent at it, I still love it, it's still in my blood," Schuerholz said. "This combination of an administrative/academic background I'm providing myself and my love of baseball might be attractive, yada, yada, yada."

Hoffberger handed the letter to his team president, Frank Cashen.

"My letter arrived at a time when everyone had just been promoted," Schuerholz said. "Harry Dalton was promoted to general manager, Lou Gorman was moved up to director of player development and there was no one on the bottom rung of the ladder in baseball operations/assistant director of player development."

Schuerholz? That name rang a bell with Cashen.

"In addition to being a lawyer and working for the brewery, he was at one time a sportswriter," Schuerholz said. "When he was a sportswriter, he knew of the Schuerholz family name. My grandfather, William, was one of the most renowned basketball coaches of his era. My dad, John Boland Schuerholz, was regarded as the Bob Cousy of his day. My uncle, Gilbert, who was my godfather, was the goalie on the United States Olympic Soccer Team. Frank Cashen used to read about and write about and know about my family.

"He said, 'If this guy comes from this family, we at least ought to talk to him. He comes from good stock.' That's what he told me when I went to talk to him."

And so the Orioles asked Schuerholz to come in for an interview.

That day, he met with three legendary baseball men -- Cashen, Dalton and Gorman. At the time, the Orioles were on their way to sweeping the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series.

They'd constructed a franchise that was smart and efficient, a franchise built on great people -- not only talented executives, but great scouts and smart instructors. Later, their work would come to be known as the Oriole Way. Back then, it was just the way they did business.

Schuerholz's core beliefs were shaped in those four years in Baltimore, watching and learning.

"Harry and I had a nice conversation," Schuerholz remembered. "He [was] so sharp. He [could] analyze. I answered honestly and passionately when I felt it and whatever. He took me to Lou Gorman. Lou and I hit it off. We were like two peas in a pod. He knew immediately. After he hired me, he said, 'As soon as I had my talk with you, I knew you were the one I wanted to work with. I wanted you to be with me.'"

Only thing is, weeks passed, and Schuerholz didn't hear back from the Orioles. He figured he'd given it his best shot.

He was two courses from finishing his master's, which would mean a nice bump in that $6,800 salary.

"I came bounding in the door one Saturday morning with a trophy not much larger than your iPhone," Schuerholz said. "[I was as] proud as a peacock because our faculty basketball team had just won the Baltimore County Recreation League Championship. I've got this trophy, and I'm flying high. I didn't think I could feel any better.

"I had a message to call Lou Gorman. I said, this is 'Thanks for your interest, but the job's going elsewhere.'"

Gorman got right to the point.

"I'm going to offer you the job to be my assistant with the Baltimore Orioles," Gorman told him.

Forty-eight years later, memories of that conversation still give Schuerholz chills.

"My feet left the ground that day and haven't touched since," he said.

Now, about that $6,800 teaching salary.

"After hard negotiations, the Orioles agreed to pay me $4,700," Schuerholz said. "I'm the only person in the history of mankind who left a teaching job for less money. Most men left teaching because they had to make more money to support their family. I didn't have any children.

"I pulled into work that first day, went into this place beneath the ground -- no windows, no view of the outside of world at Memorial Stadium. I [was] assigned to this office with a linoleum floor. My desk [was] a portable typing table with plastic casting wheels. I had to put the brakes on, so it wouldn't slide around. If I wanted more room, I'd flip up the wings on it."

That was the good part, the part where Schuerholz knew that letter had been a good idea. He was in baseball.

"At the end of that day, after going through files, reading files, finding out what I could about baseball, learning what I'd gotten myself into, I knew at the end of that day this is where I belong," said Schuerholz. "This is exactly where I belonged in my life. I just had a feeling.

"Little did I know on that first day -- on those linoleum floors with no windows going through the files -- that it would be much like teaching. When I became assistant director of player development and earned my stripes a little bit, my relationship with these young players was like a teacher or guidance counselor."

That first job consisted of running errands, reading reports, handling whatever task came up. Again, he was in baseball.

"And in every spare moment, I read the National Blue Book -- which was the guideline for the Minor Leagues rules and regulations," said Schuerholz. "I absorbed 'em like crazy. I loved it. I wanted to learn it as quickly as I could. I did it all with passion because I loved being around the Orioles."

And then one day, Gorman summoned him into his office.

"John, I've got some exciting news. We're going to Kansas City," Gorman told him. "I've accepted a job with the expansion Kansas City Royals, and you're going with me."

Schuerholz wasn't so sure.

"Lou, this is my home," said Schuerholz. "I'm a Baltimore guy. I'm a city guy. They've got cows walking up and down the street in Kansas City. You have to tie your horse up to the rail. I'm a Baltimore guy."

Gorman prevailed, and the Royals were built using the Oriole Way as a blueprint. In 1981, at 41, Schuerholz became baseball's youngest general manager.

"Imagine that," said Schuerholz. "Now, I'd be among the oldest."

Between 1976 and '85, the Royals went to the postseason seven times -- culminating with winning the '85 World Series.

He was part of a great organization, one led by owner Ewing Kauffman and his team president, Joe Burke. Schuerholz hired a great manager, Dick Howser, and the two of them bonded quickly -- two competitive, like-minded men.

"Dick had a great ability to understand and appreciate how hard it is to play the game of baseball," Schuerholz said. "He played in the Major Leagues. He was not an overly talented guy, but he knew how you had to work and how you had to prepare. He knew you had to have the winter commitment. He had all of that. He knew what it took. He also knew what it took to be a member of a winning team. He knew the kind of guys you could build winning teams with. He was a great competitor. He insisted the guys that played for him compete from the first out until the last.

"... I respected the heck out of this guy. I looked at a guy not much bigger than I am, and he played in the big leagues. I admired him."

The single best decision the Royals made was selecting George Brett in the second round of the 1971 Draft. But they surrounded him with Frank White, Willie Wilson and Dan Quisenberry -- and a long list of others who would have fit in nicely with the Orioles, as well.

"That was our philosophy -- the Oriole Way," Schuerholz said. "I learned that from Lou Gorman and Harry Dalton and Frank Cashen. Surround yourself with good, talented, committed people. Lay out the vision clearly. Map out the goals precisely. Provide a roadmap, so that every individual knows what they have to do and how they must do it to get to the organization's goals -- and their goals individually for their career path. Empower them. Honor them. Trust them. Motivate them -- and stand back."

When Schuerholz is asked about shaping a clubhouse environment and intangible matters, he goes back to hiring the right people.

"If you're making the right decisions when you bring the people in the door, camaraderie comes with the character and quality of the people you bring on board," said Schuerholz. "If you're right in that selection, usually you're going to get better camaraderie. You're not going to have a bunch of ego people, a bunch of individualists, narcissists. You've got people who care about each other and care about the greater good, the organization. If you do that, everybody succeeds together."

By the late '80s, things were unsettled in Kansas City. Kauffman was ill, and Schuerholz was uncertain about the future path of the franchise. One day, one of his peers, then-Braves president Stan Kasten, said Bobby Cox would focus on managing, so Atlanta needed a general manager.

Kasten asked for a name. Schuerholz thought about it a few days and gave him his own. The conversations in which he informed Kauffman he was leaving were among the most difficult of his life.

"We had a father-son relationship," Schuerholz said. "Probably the hardest conversation I'd ever had in my life, because I had such respect for this man. It wasn't just one conversation. There was subsequent conversations. We had some very personal and emotional conversations. He was trying to impress [upon me why] I should remain here. Finally, at the end, he said, 'John, this is on your mind too much. You have to go. I don't want you to go, but you have to do this. You have to take that job.'"

Cox, Kasten and Schuerholz became a great team together and led the Braves on a wildly successful run. During those 14 straight first-place finishes, Schuerholz brought in an average of 10 new players a season. John Smoltz was the only Braves player to be part of all 14 teams.

"You had to identify the core," Schuerholz said. "Who are the guys you can build around? And then ... if you had young players in the pipeline and they were ready, you couldn't leave them down there. That would be ruinous. You had to make room for them. You had to bring in some role players every year and freshen it up a bit. It just kept the clubhouse fresh. But you had to be careful who you selected. Was it the right guy? Most of the times, it was. Sometimes it wasn't."

After the 2007 season, Schuerholz informed his boss, Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, that he was ready to turn the baseball operation over to someone else. Schuerholz thought a "senior advisor" title might be the thing to keep him involved. McGuirk thought about it for a couple of days and offered him the team presidency, putting him in charge of the entire operation.

"It's engaging with people, and it's stimulating," Schuerholz said. "To be involved in new enterprises -- business enterprises -- my brain expanded. Now, with this new ballpark and plaza development, I've been deeply involved in that. It's fascinating."

When the Braves missed the playoffs this season, Schuerholz dismissed his general manager, Frank Wren, and brought in an old friend, John Hart, to take over.

"I got to know him as a competitor," said Schuerholz. "I admired the way he constructed his teams -- the way he constructed his executive teams, the way he expressed himself with clarity and enthusiasm and certainty and confidence."

So with Hart in charge and ballpark construction beginning, Schuerholz is looking forward to the 2016 season when he'll become a 75-50-25 man. That is, 75 years on Earth, 50 years in baseball, 25 with the Braves.

To think, it all started with a letter to the Orioles. Schuerholz had the good fortune to absorb so much in those early days and then to use it and grow into one of the legendary figures in the game. He's legendary both for his success, his style and character, as well as the admiration almost everyone inside the game has for him.

"I've been so blessed," Schuerholz said.

And baseball has been blessed, too, to have a man like Schuerholz for 50 years.

Richard Justice is a columnist for
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