View Full Version : Baird deserves praise

04-06-2003, 11:13 PM
One of the problems in sportswriting is that the nice guys in sports often do finish last. Dave Shula, for instance, is a very nice guy. He's the kind of guy you wish was your neighbor. You could wave to him over the gardenias, borrow his lawn mower, have your kids carpool together.

Alas, Dave Shula was an awful football coach.

What could you do? You had to write it. That's the business. Over and over, all across America, sports columnists skewer some very nice people because their teams lose, because they make lousy trades, because they strike out with the bases loaded, because they have a couple of bad recruiting classes.

That's why it's nice to celebrate a nice guy every so often.

Saturday, the Royals won again. Unbelievable. They are 5-0 for the first time in their history. They are a shocking and wonderful early success. And as of today, nice guy Allard Baird is the general manager of the year.

You have to understand: Everybody likes Allard Baird. Everybody. Hardened New York sportswriters like him. Furious fans who meet him like him. That's because Baird is utterly unique in professional sports: He has no ego whatsoever. People rip him -- he doesn't mind. People praise him -- he doesn't buy it. If people send him nasty e-mails, he's quite likely to call them up on the phone, just to talk.

"Look, I understand how you feel," he said to one embittered Royals fan. "If I were you, I might feel the same way. But I promise you, we both want the same things. Stick with us."

The last three years, Baird has made some high-profile moves to very mixed reviews. He stuck with Tony Muser too long. He traded Jermaine Dye for too little. He brought in some overpriced veterans who sucked the life out of the team. He also hired manager Tony Pena, who brings boundless energy, and he signed Mike Sweeney, when nobody thought that was possible.

Anyway, the team kept losing.

"I don't blame people for thinking I'm doing a lousy job," he said. "We're not winning. And that's my fault."

Quietly, though, Baird has been reworking the entire Royals system. These are things people don't notice. The man is utterly dedicated and thoroughly honest, and he brought in a plan based on simple principles: Work hard. Make no excuses. Play the game right.

Nobody notices when Baird has a thousand meetings to go over a thousand ways to make the team better, like throwing strikes and being selective at the plate and all those little things that make up good baseball. Nobody notices that he transforms the minor leagues. Nobody notices when he, along with good baseball people like Muzzy Jackson, Brian Murphy and Frank White, instill the team's philosophy into every person involved with the Royals.

But suddenly, people do notice that the Royals have a whole lot of talented young pitching. Suddenly, people notice that Angel Berroa can really play shortstop, that Ken Harvey can really hit, that Raul Ibanez, who Baird just had a hunch about, is the real deal.

Suddenly, you look in the minor leagues and you see a future.

Suddenly, you look at this team and you can feel hope.

Of course, everything looks better when you're in first place, even if it's only five games in. It's a long season. But for the first time in a long time, it feels like the Royals are headed in the right direction, no matter how long this hot streak might last.

"You know what has me excited?" Baird said. "It's not the wins. It's the way we've played. We beat Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon, two of the best pitchers in the game. We came back against Billy Koch, one of the hardest throwers in the game. We've played good defense. We've found ways to score runs. We've pitched well.

"Sure, it's nice to win. But what's even bigger is that our veteran guys believe in the kids. And our kids respect the veterans. That's how you create a winning attitude. That's how you win over a long season."

Some years ago, when Allard first became general manager, we were having dinner. We already had been friends for a couple of years while he was assistant GM, but we both knew things were about to be different.

"Well," he finally said, "I know there's going to come a time when you're going to absolutely rip me."

"Yep," I said, already imagining him trading Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez. "Probably a few times."

He smiled. "Fair enough," he said.

It is the business. And, no doubt, it will come up again. But for now, for the moment, the Royals are winning, and they're exciting, and they're in first place. They're the story of baseball. And a nice guy deserves a pat on the back. Well done, Allard.