Skip to main content
Original Issue

Master of the Trade

When it comes to building a baseball team for the '90s, Andy MacPhail, G.M. of the Twins, is the best in the business

Growing up in Baltimore in the early 1960s, Andy MacPhail spent many of his summer evenings sitting in his father Lee's office, waiting for him to finish work. It was a musty little room, windowless and spare, save for the row of clipboards hanging from nails along the walls. But for a boy, there is often a splendor to the old man's place of business. So it is that the watchmaker's son grows up to lean over benches scattered with springs, and the ophthalmologist's boy finds himself between walls covered with modest T's and mighty E's. For Andy MacPhail, it has been the clipboards.

Lee MacPhail spent his professional life in baseball administration. From 1958 to '66 he was the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. When a night game ended, Lee headed for the Orioles' clubhouse while young Andy and his brother Bruce went off to play catch under the parking lot lights. After a while they would come inside. "Sometimes we'd sit in the office and pretend to be player and management," Andy says. "Our scouting reports were Dad's clipboards hanging on the wall. I remember that negotiating with Dave Nicholson was interesting because he had lots of power and lots of strikeouts." That was about as close to Nicholson and the other Orioles as Andy MacPhail was permitted. "My father," he says, "was very careful that if there was going to be some appeal to baseball, it should be the appeal of the game itself, not the illusory glamour of rubbing shoulders with the players."

Today, at 38, Andy MacPhail is beginning his sixth season as general manager of the Minnesota Twins. He was, as they say, born for the work. Already he has won the World Series twice: in his first, "Boy Wonder" year of '87, when he and his equally precocious rookie manager, Tom Kelly, who was 37 at the time, nudged the Twins past the St. Louis Cardinals, and again last year when the Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves. "In '87, it was a mad scramble," says MacPhail. "In '91, it was validation of a true baseball organization. I take more pride in 1991."

MacPhail has succeeded with an enlightened yet distinctly unsentimental approach to baseball management. He cares about his players, make no mistake, but MacPhail and his wife, Lark, have never gone to dinner with any of them, which no doubt has made the inevitable parting of ways easier. Vanished are the days in baseball when a general manager could form his team and then sit back and watch it play for a few years.

"It's completely different," says Lee MacPhail. "We operated under budgets where one player's salary wasn't going to wreck the team financially. It doesn't seem to me to be as much fun today."

Soon after Minnesota bested the Braves last October, seven Twins filed for free agency. Five of them—Jack Morris, Terry Leach, Steve Bedrosian, Dan Gladden and Al Newman—will not be playing in Minnesota this season. The departures of Morris, a St. Paul native and the World Series hero; Gladden, the popular left-fielder; and Newman, an infielder, were greeted with mild consternation on the prairie. But the fans are growing accustomed to MacPhail's methods. His first move in 1987 was to release outfielder Mickey Hatcher, who was the favorite player of Twins owner Carl Pohlad. Over the years MacPhail has traded or relinquished such beloved Twins as Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, Bert Blyleven and Jeff Reardon. But today "baseball is a business," as Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett says, and MacPhail is the baseball businessman for the '90s.

He didn't hurt his reputation last week when he made up for the loss of Morris—and stunned division rivals—by trading two prospects to the Pittsburgh Pirates for 20-game-winner and free-agent-to-be John Smiley. The deal is a departure for MacPhail, trading youngsters for a player who can leave after this season, but it gives Minnesota a solid chance to repeat. Says MacPhail, "This is an opportunity to maintain our competitiveness when we may be precluded from doing so in the future if the economics go unabated."

"I don't think MacPhail believes winning a World Series and losing $10 million is a successful season," says Pat Reusse, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's intrigued by the challenge of running a team with limited resources."

There is more to MacPhail than simple fiscal sangfroid. He is reasonable: In his six years as Twins general manager, not one player has had a salary arbitration hearing. And he is principled. "Last year he didn't negotiate with any free agents during the season," says third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, a free agent whom MacPhail re-signed for '92. "In some organizations, some guys get extensions during the season, some don't. I'd think that would carry over into the locker room."

Word gets around. Infielder Donnie Hill and pitcher Bill Krueger both signed with the Twins in the off-season although several other teams offered them more money. "The Twins recruit good players with good hearts," says Pagliarulo. "They breed unselfish players who play as a team, win or lose."

Such a player is Gladden. Last winter MacPhail informed him that Pedro Munoz, a thick-waisted young slugger who carries a bat with him wherever he goes, would be the starting leftfielder. "Sometimes you have to take the manager off the hook," says MacPhail. "The day the kid goes oh for four there will be a lot of pressure on the manager to play Danny. It puts me at risk, but that's part of my job." He offered the 34-year-old Gladden a salary cut (from $1.05 million to a package totaling $850,000) to stay in Minnesota as a reserve, knowing that Gladden might not take it. He didn't, instead accepting a two-year, $2.2 million contract from the Detroit Tigers. "I spent five great years in Minnesota," says Gladden. "I have the utmost respect for the organization. When they make deals they get people who fit in. Andy sometimes asked me, 'Will this guy fit in?' I think he does a great job. I'm gonna be working for Andy one day, or he's gonna be working for me."

"I think Andy understands us because he's young," says Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek. "If he walks into the locker room, nobody bats an eye."

Says MacPhail, "I tell the players they can talk with me anytime about the state of the game, contracts, the Democratic candidates for President. The only thing I won't talk to them about is the lineup. Do that, you doom yourself. In Minnesota, everybody has full autonomy. The price they pay is full accountability."

There's no better accountability than wearing a championship ring. What makes MacPhail proudest about 1991 is that the Twins didn't make a trade all season. Morris, Pagliarulo and designated hitter Chili Davis were all free agent signees in the off-season. The organization provided the rest. But with victory came the despoilers. Gladden and Morris were lost (the latter signed a two-year, $10.85 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays). The Colorado Rockies snatched away vice-president of player personnel Bob Gebhard and made him their G.M., and eastern scouting director Kevin Malone was snapped up by the Montreal Expos to be their scouting director.

However, MacPhail re-signed Pagliarulo and catcher Brian Harper, so unless Munoz flops heroically, he will be a member of what is arguably the best starting eight in the game. And besides adding Smiley to the staff, MacPhail brought in Krueger (11-8, 3.60 ERA with the Seattle Mariners last year) to go along with three promising young starters in the Twins' farm system—Willie Banks, Pat Mahomes and Mike Trombley. MacPhail didn't want to lose Morris, "but small-market general managers are always going to be forced to make difficult decisions. A big factor in the Morris decision was Puckett's contract coming up next year. If you have to pay Jack $5.4 million, you'll have to pay Kirby more. Can we pay two players $11 million? Not us."

The G.M. genealogy of the MacPhail family begins with Andy's grandfather Le-land Stanford (Larry) MacPhail—"the Roaring Redhead." Born with a wicked look in his eye and a tempest at his elbow, the irrepressible Larry had sold everything from lingerie to automobiles before his gleam fastened on the Cincinnati Reds. At Crosley Field in 1935, MacPhail, as the Reds' general manager, hosted the first major league night game.

In 1938 he moved on to Brooklyn, where he hired Leo Durocher to manage and Red Barber to broadcast on radio, and sailed a yacht stocked with old bourbon to mellow his critics in the New York press. The boat ran aground, but the Dodgers didn't, bringing Brooklyn its first pennant in 21 years in 1941. Soon MacPhail was headed for the Bronx, where he was the Yankees' chief executive until October 1947, when he resigned during his players' World Series victory celebration. In his day MacPhail introduced baseball to televised broadcasts, team flights, old-timers' games and pension plans. He also darn near traded Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams, "until," says Andy MacPhail. "somebody sobered up and backed off." He ranks with baseball's best-loved characters. "People in Brooklyn still get tears in their eyes when they talk about my grandfather," says Andy.

Larry had two sons: Bill, who became the first director of sports for CBS (and now holds a similar position with CNN), and Lee. Larry had not wanted his sons to follow him into baseball, because opportunities were sparse; but after Lee spent a year and a half cleaning hog troughs for a livestock firm, his father relented. In 1940 Lee was hired as the business manager for Class B Reading. Over time Lee MacPhail—wise, white-haired and well-connected—became the ultimate management insider. Besides running the Orioles, he was the Yankee general manager, special assistant to commissioner William (Spike) Eckert, American League president and president of the Player Relations Committee. It was Lee MacPhail who urged baseball to address its growing problems with cocaine, who ruled that George Brett's pine tar-smudged home run should stand and who repeatedly questioned baseball executives for their lavish spending on mediocre talent.

Lee had four sons. In 1969 the eldest, Lee III, who was then the 27-year-old G.M. of the Reading Phillies, was killed when a car jumped a median and collided head-on with his. Allen, the second son, worked briefly for the Pirates before going into the textile business. Bruce never gave a baseball career much thought. Andy never thought about anything else.

"Andy amazes me now," says Bill MacPhail, "because he was a little flaky growing up"—a reputation earned in part by his propensity to run away from home. As a senior at Dickinson College, where he was a rightfielder on the baseball team, Andy wrote letters to the 24 major league teams and eventually landed with the Chicago Cubs. He worked in Chicago from 1976 to '82 and was assistant general manager for the Astros until '85, when Pohlad brought him to the Twins as the vice-president of player personnel. "I wanted a new, fresh, young look, somebody who wouldn't get caught up in old thinking," says Pohlad. MacPhail, who had similar thoughts about a manager, hit it off immediately with Kelly.

They are an odd pair, the pima cotton MacPhail and the dolorous skipper who always looks like a damp sock in need of darning. "Tom and I are as different as night and day," MacPhail says. "What we have is a genuine respect for the game and our functions in the game. Do you think he likes to see Jack Morris leave? Of course not. Does he understand it? Yes."

In 1987, with MacPhail dealing for Reardon, Gladden, Newman, Joe Niekro and Steve Carlton, among others, the Twins won the championship. The next spring he sent Brunansky to St. Louis for Tommy Herr, a dismal deal. "My father will give me advice, and I'll listen," says Andy. "I'd be a fool not to. The only trade I ever made that he didn't like was the Tommy Herr trade—and he was right." He redeemed himself in 1989 by sending Viola, the 1988 Cy Young winner, to the New York Mets for five young pitchers, including Kevin Tapani (16-9, 2.99 ERA last year) and Rick Aguilera (42 saves, 2.35). Now that Viola has left New York and signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox, that trade can be categorized as one of the biggest heists an American League G.M. has perpetrated on the Nationals since Lee MacPhail sent Milt Pap-pas from Baltimore to the Cincinnati Reds for Frank Robinson back in '65.

But in the wake of their world championship the Twins' fortunes fell, and by 1990, with the team playing poorly, the local press had dubbed the young G.M. Andy MacFail. "But in 1990," says MacPhail, "we saw Tapani and [pitcher] Scott Erickson come on, and [second baseman] Chuck Knoblauch had a good year in the minors. We saw progress. My father gave me a sense of perspective. If baseball becomes your sole focus, you can only expect life to be a rough roller coaster, because that's how the game's designed. I try to read a lot of biographies, and my problems, compared with those Churchill was facing in 1945, don't amount to anything. That's helpful when you're in last place and people are writing that you shouldn't have your job."

As it turned out, MacPhail was right about Erickson and Knoblauch and Tapani—they were keys last season. And this year? "I don't think that anybody in our division significantly improved their pitching," he says. "It'll be an interesting division." The telephone rings. It is Pohlad. "Well, Carl," MacPhail tells him, "I think we're pretty well positioned to see what happens." As a G.M. in the '90s, one can never be too cautious.

MacPhail's success may even help perpetuate the family trade into the next century. In Baltimore there is a husky 22-year-old who began interning with the Orioles as soon as he was old enough to drive. "In no way do I think I'll ascend to the top as quickly as Andy did," says Lee MacPhail IV, Lee Ill's son, Andy's nephew and a full-time scouting assistant for Baltimore. "But I'd like to be a general manager."



Despite small-market constraints, the 38-year-old MacPhail has won two championships in five years.



MacPhail let Morris (above) move along, then replaced him with 20-game-winner Smiley.



[See caption above.]



Larry MacPhail (above, with Durocher) was beloved in Brooklyn; Lee (right) was a keen insider.



[See caption above.]