March 4, 2015

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Baseball GM’s talk building the right connections

Ben Cherington and Chris Antonetti’s experiences as graduate students at the University of Massachusetts went well beyond their time spent in the classroom. They also developed certain relationships that would help get their “foot in the door” and take them on their paths to an executive career in Major League Baseball.

Taylor Snow/Collegian

One relationship in particular that was most integral to Cherington and Antonetti, who both earned a master’s degree from UMass in 1997, was the one with fellow UMass alumnus Neal Huntington, who gave each their first opportunity with the Cleveland Indians organization as interns.

This importance of building relationships and surrounding yourself with the right people was one of the major themes of Tuesday’s “Covering the Bases – An Evening with our GM’s” event featuring the three UMass alumni, who spoke on behalf of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the Isenberg School of Management in front of about 750 people at the Campus Center Auditorium.

The event was moderated by fellow UMass graduate Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com.

Huntington, who is currently the general manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates, served as a kind of mentor for his younger subjects, saying he “feels like the old timer of the group.”

“You have to rely on the people you believe in,” Huntington said. “There are lessons learned in the classroom and out of the classroom.”

Cherington, who is entering his second year as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, was adamant on becoming a baseball executive from the moment he came to UMass.

However, there was a point in Cherington’s UMass days that he was considering other career paths. He said reaching his goals was “not an easy thing to do.”

Once he got his first opportunity with Huntington and the Indians, that all changed.

The connection between the two began after playing under the same baseball coach, Bill Thurston, at Amherst College, where both went to school as undergraduate students.

“As we were looking for an intern to oversee our advanced scouting, Ben’s name was brought forward,” Huntington said. “We confirmed that he continued to be exceptional at UMass. Because of who he was and what he’d done, he was an easy guy to bring on board.”

Antonetti is currently the general manager for the Indians, the same place he got his first opportunity thanks to his connection with Huntington. Antonetti considers Huntington one of his biggest influences because he was an “advocate for him in Cleveland.”

“Neil took a chance on me,” he added. “He gave me the opportunity to grow and develop.”

During his time with former MLB franchise Montreal Expos, now the Washington Nationals, Huntington and fellow baseball executive and UMass alumnus Dave Littlefield were looking for an intern for the summer and used their connections with UMass to find Antonetti, whom the university “raved” about and “exceeded expectations.”

“You pull for good people in the game and (Cherington and Antonetti) are obviously both very good people and very talented,” Huntington said. “Friendships have continued to form and evolve and I consider them two of my closest friends in the game.”

Approaching a career

While the three all expressed the importance of having the right connections, one also needs to have the skills necessary to not only make it in the field of sport management, but to succeed.

Antonetti said that with so many qualified people, that each individual must find their own way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. That usually means having a unique skill that makes one particular person stand out.

Antonetti also added that there’s more to being a baseball manager than just being a fan of baseball.

“There’s a difference between having a passion for baseball and a passion for working in baseball,” he said.

Cherington echoed those sentiments when discussing the day-to-day activities of an MLB general manager. He said that while some people think of being a general manager as simply making player transactions and signing free agents, there are “more enjoyable parts that have nothing to do with that.”

Examples he used included finding regional scouts to find potential prospects for the team, as well as seeking out no-name players who could potentially have an impact on the team.

Executives in baseball are often judged by the general public based on their team’s success year-by-year. And nobody expressed more than Huntington, who considered it a “results oriented industry.”

However, the positive results haven’t been there for each of the three general manager’s in terms of win-loss record in the last year.

This is especially the case for Cherington, who said he is still trying to get through the challenges of the past season with the Red Sox in which the team failed to make the postseason for the third consecutive year.

“You have to see through the fog and look to the things to get back on track,” he said. “I take it personally when things aren’t going well.”

The biggest challenge Antonetti made note of was trying to balance his work life with his family and social life, while being aware that sometimes his vacations don’t go as planned when a major event regarding his team takes place.

Influences

Both Cherington and Huntington spoke very highly of former Red Sox general manager and current Baltimore Orioles executive Dan Duquette, and considered him to be a key influence in helping them move up in their professions.

Duquette gave Cherington his first full-time opportunity with the Red Sox in 1999 when he hired him as an area scout and baseball operations assistant.

“(Duquette) gave me the opportunity to learn a lot more than I was probably ready for at the time,” Cherington said. “I made some mistakes, and had some successes.”

Following Duquette’s departure, Cherington then drew a big influence from current Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, who succeeded Duquette as Red Sox general manager in late 2002.

Epstein gave Cherington the “opportunity to learn” as his assistant until leaving for the Cubs job last year, giving Cherington the opportunity to be his successor.

All the hard work had finally paid off.

Nick Canelas can be reached at ncanelas@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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