Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Interview

When I was in New York this summer I met a guy(Jared Zwerling) who works for Sports Illustrated.  We wound up talking about sports and it led to the fact that I write a blog.  He then asked if he could interview me about the blog, and here it is:

Sports Prodigy is Next Theo Epstein

written by: Jared Zwerling

I boarded my returning flight to New York City, departing from Tel Aviv, and found my aisle seat towards the back of the plane. A buddy of mine filed into the center seat and a young boy was already reading by the window. As I was getting comfortable and thumbing through several magazines deciding what I wanted to read, I overheard them starting to chat casually about the flight and how they spent their time in Israel. Soon their conversation switched to sports, which prompted my friend to say, “He works at Sports Illustrated.” I looked up and the young boy leaned forward and said, poached with excitement, “You do?” followed immediately by, “You have to read my blog.”

This kid’s automatic approach was like a sales pitch, and he definitely had my attention. I wasn’t yet sure how old he was, but he carried a prodigious clout with him well beyond his years. I sensed this was the first time he had met a credentialed sports professional, like myself, and he really didn’t want to burn this bridge.

As he was promoting his blog and grilling me with questions about my profession, I noticed he had a baseball book nestled under his arms. When I asked about him this, he proceeded to scurry underneath his seat to show me his fleet of baseball books. Thinking they were fictional or autobiographical works written by authors like Mike Lupica, they were actually ones that Major League Baseball general managers would probably keep in their office libraries. One he had was called It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, which is a statistical analysis of the 10 greatest pennant races in baseball history. Along with the statistics behind the selections, the book’s contributors identify the key players and moments in each pennant race and provide reasons for the teams’ surges and collapses.

Okay, now it was time to ask, “How old are you?” His answer? “14.” His name? “Ari Berkowitz” (pictured). While growing up in New York, where he kept to his father’s faith in the Mets, Berkowitz became an obsessed baseball fan at just eight years old and started reading sports business books for fun, like Moneyball, that graduate school students in the industry are required to read. Two years ago, Berkowitz moved with his family to Efrat, a small town located in the West Bank of Israel, but he still spends his summers in Gotham living with his grandparents. All the while, he plays baseball and hardly misses an MLB game, dissecting the sport using statistics and formulas on his baseball blog, Baseball Outlook, which he started in March. Its tagline is: “Where Baseball, Mathematics, Science and Theory merge to form something more magnificent than art… Baseball Outlook.” Whereas most kids root for their favorite players, Berkowitz looks up to general managers and can be very critical at times about their business decisions.

Ari is a great role model for American youths for two main reasons: one, students are falling behind many other developed countries in math and science education; and two, an increasing number of teenagers are quitting sports as they enter high school because it’s a more competitive environment tailored to elite athletes. Through his dynamic blog, Ari demonstrates that sports can be used as a powerful teaching tool in math and science, and he represents alternative ways kids can find success in sports beyond the playing field. They can be a sports writer, sports photographer or, in Berkowitz’s case, a sports general manager one day, among other lines of related work.

I spoke with Ari as the summer wound down, and a few days before he returned to Israel, to find out more about how he got into blogging, what makes a successful general manager and the economics of global sports expansion. Turns out, I was the one who got schooled.

Q: Tell me more about the book you were reading on the plane, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.
A: It’s a very good book. It’s about the best pennant races over the years where one team is leading and the other team comes back, or it’s a three-team race down to the end of the season. The chapter that I just finished was about the Dodgers and the Giants in 1961 in Brooklyn, New York. The Brooklyn Dodgers were leading by 13-and-a-half games with 50 games left, and the Giants somehow tied them for the division lead by the end of the season. And then they had a three-game playoff, and the Giants won the first game, the Dodgers won the second game and then in the third game the Dodgers were winning but in the ninth inning, this guy named Bobby Thompson hit a three-run home run for the Giants that is called “The Shot Heard Around the World.” That’s very famous

Q: When you started watching baseball, did you get into the numbers, like statistics and formulas, right away or as you fell in love with the sport?
A: Well, I first started watching the Mets every single day. I missed like 10 games a year – that’s it. Besides the games on Shabbat because I couldn’t watch them. I would watch every game and I would just look at the players and see how they were doing. I always liked homers and RBI’s and average. And then, when I was eight I think, I used to talk to this guy – a huge baseball fan at the time – about baseball and he said I should read this book called Moneyball. He knew I was advanced in baseball. At that age, I knew all the rosters and all the teams and stuff like that. I read the book from eight to nine years old. After that, I started looking at baseball in a different way. I started really looking at on-base percentage and statistical stuff. And then I read this book by John Schuerholz called Built to Win and it’s about the opposite perspective of scouting as opposed to statistics, and what are the pros of scouting. After I read these books, I became pretty obsessed and I started reading more Baseball Prospectus books.

Q: Who’s the best GM today in Major League Baseball?
A: The best GM in my eyes would be Theo Epstein. I actually have a very interesting idea, which is about trading away fallen stars who are leaders of a team. Like Frank Robinson with the Orioles, who was an MVP one season, and the next season he was horrible. And then the Orioles traded him. So even though he dropped off statistically a lot, he was still their key leader and they traded him. And then the next season after that, the Orioles failed. They made the playoffs seven straight years, and then they put an end to that when they traded Robinson. So I want to do a study on if trading away a fallen star but he’s still your team leader, like a Mike Piazza-type player, will that heavily affect your team’s chances of making the playoffs and winning more games?

Q: You made, though, a point in your blog about how there’s so much luck in baseball. Is it harder to do these kinds of studies if there’s so much luck in baseball?
A: Sometimes they do these studies and then figure out that since there are so many variables involved, they just put those off as luck. There’s sometimes no way to attest variables — they just happen.

Q: To that point, the GM in any sport is a frustrating job because your product on the field is constantly changing. Guys getting injured, guys not producing, etc. There are so many fluctuations.
A That’s what makes it so hard, but that’s what also makes it so exciting because at one point you created the perfect team, and then at another point the team’s all injured and all too old, and you have to revamp your whole team. Both are fun jobs: solidifying a good team and rebuilding a whole team.

Q: What skills does a good GM need? Actually, let me ask you like this: Say you just took a job as a GM for a team that’s sub-.500. How would you analyze the team and figure out the next steps looking ahead to the next couple of years?
A: I basically need to analyze my team, the situation, the players, the organization as a whole and the other executives. I will see if I need to improve the scouting and the statistical development of the team. If they aren’t good, that’s not good for the general manager. The scouts are the ones that tell the general manager, “This player performed that way.” That’s what makes the GM’s decision. He weighs them all and then decides. So I would have to take that into consideration and switch it up if I need to. I would hire the appropriate manager. In my opinion, there’s no good manager; there’s only an appropriate manger for the team’s current situation.

Q: Do you think managers and general managers generally get along in baseball?
A: In general, I do not think so because a general manager thinks things more from a second-hand perspective, meaning that he looks at the guy and his statistics and weighs one opinion against the other scouts where he gets his final opinion. The manager just sees everything first-hand, and then says, “Oh, well this guy has a lot of talent.” And then the coach and the GM get into an argument like with Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya. In the general manager’s eyes, a player might be producing, but the manager remembers the key situations when he puts the player in and he fails – not the other situations where he would start him one day and the player would go 2 for 4 with a double and a homer. A manager remembers more of the big moments in the game, like if a player needs a single and he fails, more so than just putting him in and the Mets won.

Q: So you’re saying that the GM is more focused on creating a balanced lineup and the manager is more focused on individual performance?
A: The general manager is further away; he’s basically digesting everything along with other aspects of the game, while the manager encounters one aspect of the game.

Q: How do you think the relationship could be improved so they can work better together?
A: Well, the mistake that general mangers make is hiring quote on quote “the best manager available” and not the best match for the situation the team is in. If I was hiring a manager, I would hire someone that has good chemistry with me, good chemistry with the players that I like and shares the same opinions and outlook as I do for a winning baseball team. The Dodgers hired this offseason Joe Torre, and the only reason why he was hired was because of his track record.

Q: The Yankees will not make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, and obviously GM Brian Cashman is on the hot seat. Are you surprised the team may offer him an extension?
A: I think the deal is that New Yorkers are just so impatient. Brian Cashman is a really good general manager; it’s just that George Steinbrenner, after Brian Cashman would develop a young player, would immediately say, “Trade him away for veteran players.” As George got older and couldn’t deal with that stuff anymore, Brian Cashman started developing these younger players, like Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Darrell Rasner, Melky Cabrera – those types of players. Basically I think Brian’s doing a good job. Also George’s son, Hank, realizes that the Yankees have to build through the farm system to win. Therefore, the owners are giving a lot more command over personnel decisions to Brian Cashman. They know he’ll produce a winning team through the farm system, which is how you should do it nowadays. It’s OK to sacrifice a season by going through that process. It’s just that in New York, everything gets overblown.

Q: Is your dream to be a GM of an MLB team one day?
A: For sure.

Q: Do you see yourself going to Sports Business school?
A: Whatever leads to the brightest path in a baseball career.

Q: Are there any other parts of sports business you enjoy, like sponsorship, stadium development, marketing, etc.?
A: Stadium development. I also would for sure go for a President of an MLB team. Basically, as a President you oversee every aspect of the team. There’s a General Manager, or Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations. There’s also an Executive Vice President of Business Sales or for Marketing, PR, all that stuff. And there’s one President who oversees it all. He has the final decision. I also like accounting and stuff.

Q: What got you into blogging?
A: For the past year, I’ve been going to my father and telling him about my opinions. And he would concur. I would tell him about how scouts think and how fans don’t think in numbers and stuff. They think about, “Look at the player and if he’s not good, dispose of him” or “Well, he had a bad game and that’s it.” After awhile, my father said, “You should write your valuable opinions down.” I was pestering him with all these ideas about baseball, and he said, “You should just write a blog about baseball.”

Q: How big is baseball back home in Israel?
A: Where I live, there are a lot of Americans, so they’re die-hard baseball and football fans.

Q: When I was in Israel this summer, I didn’t get the feeling that sports was something people talked about.
A: You came during the offseason. Basketball and soccer are huge in Israel because those are European sports. Maccabi Tel Aviv is one of the top three basketball teams in the European league. The Israeli national league soccer team two years ago tied England in a game.

Q: Does Maccabi Tel Aviv have the kind of money to pay Kobe Bryant or LeBron James $50 million a year?
A: They have tons of money. They would for sure be one of the teams to go after them.

Q: How are these teams so wealthy?
A: Because in Europe, it’s not only the owners’ money; there’s also a pool of sponsors that donate money to the team to spend money on the players. So if you’re getting money from let’s say Geico, Chevy and an oil company, all that together adds up to a lot of money.

Q: In the U.S., Citibank is paying for the naming rights for the new Mets field. It’s going to be called Citi Field. So in Europe, some of Citibank’s money would actually go towards the team’s payroll?
A: Exactly. They sponsor players like boosters in college football.

Q: Do you see baseball becoming more popular in Europe, because outside of the U.S. there’s still more interest in Latin America?
A: I can see it in like 20 years. Because I mean, they’ve already started playing in Russia, and it’s becoming pretty big in China where the Yankees, Dodgers and Padres just opened up schools for baseball. It’ll probably catch on to like 10 million people in China, which is nothing compared to the entire population, but it’s something. And in the Netherlands, it’s already a big sport. Australia too. Also the World Baseball Classic is meant to publicize the sport more. The first one was in 2005 and the next one is going to be in 2009.

Q: There’s definitely a lot of global expansion going on right now with American-born sports.
A: Well, the economy is tough on America right now. It’s 5.5 shekels to the Euro and 3.4 shekels to the dollar. It’s a $1.50 something for every Euro.

Q: Lastly, give me your picks for this year. First, MVP in the American League?
A: I would pick Josh Hamilton.

Q: National League MVP?
A: C.C. Sabathia. He’s only been with the Brewers since the All-Star break. He’s 5-0 with like a 2.00 ERA.

Q: National League Cy Young?
A: C.C. Sabathia.

Q: American League Cy Young?
A: I would go with Cliff Lee.

Q: Most surprising player in Major League Baseball?
A: Josh Hamilton.

Q: Comeback player?
A: Fernando Tatis.

Q: How about the worst trade during the season?
A: Mark Teixeira to the Angels. The Braves got nothing. They got back a worse first baseman and a 26-year-old relief pitcher that’s in Double A.

Q: Best trade?
A: The worst trade is the best team for the other team. For the best trade, I’m going to go with Oakland getting four prospects from the Chicago Cubs who got Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Rich is a very injury-prone pitcher and he won’t sustain healthiness for a long period of time.

When kids show an interest in playing sports, parents, teachers and coaches should think outside the field and encourage them to get involved in other areas of sports, from sports writing to sports photography to sports entrepreneurship. Through fields like these, kids learn lifelong skills such as creative writing, critical thinking and teamwork. To emphasize this point, look at how many athletes take on second careers in sports, including broadcast journalists, business owners and charity organizers. These opportunities can be made easily attractive to kids, who are like sponges, with just a little exposure and education. I bet if you walked into a room filled with kids and asked right out of the gate, “What’s the best job in sports?” most would say “An athlete.” But if you told them that a team’s general manager has more power than the athletes because he’s in charge of which players stay and which ones get cut, I think some kids would turn to each other and say, “Really? They’re in charge? I want to be him!”