But not everyone was surprised. For several seasons, bestselling author Steve Kettmann has had unprecedented access to Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson. In Baseball Maverick, originally published a the start of this historic season, Kettmann tells the story of Alderson’s unique and influential career, and follows Alderson’s painstaking rebuilding of the Metsfrom big trades that brought back high-profile prospects to the development of young aces including Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. Updated and expanded to include the playoff run, Baseball Maverick is a gripping, behind-the-scenes look at a revolution in baseball and the making of a magical season.
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In 1955, the year the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series, a rollicking, seven-game classic against the New York Yankees, military pilot John Alderson and his young family were living on an Air Force base in Osaka, Japan, listening to the games on the radio. Four days after the Series, the Yankees set off on a six-week barnstorming tour through Asia, and when they played in Osaka, John Alderson was on hand to watch with his son, Richard "Sandy" Alderson, all of seven years old. Sandy had his eye on that day's Yankees third baseman, a vinegary little guy from California named Billy Martin.
"Some Americans were razzing Martin," Sandy Alderson says now. "When he looked over to the stands to give it right back, the hitter smoked one right past him."
This was just ten years after the end of World War II, and for the Aldersons the fenced-in base was alienating. But for all the sense of jarring separation from the local Japanese, they did have one thing in common: baseball. Sandy attended third grade in Osaka and it was his first chance to play organized baseball. He'd been tossing the ball around with his father since he was small, but finally he was playing in real games. Baseball had been introduced in Japan late in the nineteenth century and was deeply established by the 1940s. "We would occasionally play Japanese teams," Alderson told me. "They would kick our butt. They were much better than we were."
The Aldersons traced their roots back to England and Wales. John Alderson grew up not far from Niagara Falls, New York, and was a pitcher for Gasport High School, which was where he was said to have squared off against a good left-hander starting for South Park High in Buffalo by the name of Warren Spahn. On February 1, 1943, with the morning papers showing pictures of the RAF's night bombing of Berlin and headlines about Joseph Goebbels' "brutal" push for total mobilization of the German adult population, John enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and learned to fly the twin-engine AT-10 at Moody Field in Georgia in preparation for flying B-24s in Europe. He joined the Forty-Fourth Bombardment Group in England, but arrived too late to take part in its most famous mission, Operation Tidal Wave, a coordinated low-altitude attack in August 1943 on nine oil refineries in Romania in which more than fifty aircraft were lost. "I wasn't there yet, thank God, because that was a tough mission," John told the New York Daily News. "I'm no hero."
Hero or not, he flew thirty-two missions in World War II. Home after the war, he enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle and of all things became a drama major. "Either he wanted to meet girls or it seemed an easier option than some other things," Sandy explains. John set his sights on one of the stars of the department, Gwenny Parry, who grew up in Denver, her parents recent immigrants from Wales. In 1947 John had a role in the school production of The Philadelphia Story, and he may not have been able to act a whit but, based on a picture in the yearbook, at least he looked good in tails and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He and Gwenny were soon married, and she gave birth to Sandy that November. They were living in Denver when John was recalled to duty to fly B-26 bombers in the Korean War. Sandy, his mother, and his sister, Kristy, born in December 1951, stayed behind until John was transferred to Japan.
Next up after Japan was eight months at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, which afforded John and Sandy the chance to go to a doubleheader at Comiskey Park, where Sandy rooted against the visiting Yankees. Later, at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, Sandy played Little League and his father coached him. John taught Sandy always to be aware of the situation. If you were on first base running to second on a ground ball, you hustled. Sandy might have learned the lesson too well. He was eleven years old and went in hard to second to break up a double-play chance — and elbowed the kid playing second. His coach flipped out. No son of his was going to play like that. John made Sandy ride the pine the rest of the day.
In 1960 the Milwaukee Braves played an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds at Capital City Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, near Shaw AFB. Sandy was starstruck to see Hank Aaron, his idol, and tracked him down getting into a cab with his teammates Billy Bruton and Wes Covington. "I knew all these guys by heart," Alderson says. "The Braves were my team. I was a twelve-year-old kid asking for an autograph on a ball, and they signed it and gave it back."
Soon the family had moved again — this time across the Atlantic for three years at Alconbury Air Force Base in England. Overseeing the base's Babe Ruth team was Ed Ellis, a colonel from Alabama who took a liking to young Alderson. Up until this time Alderson had been called Sandy or sometimes Rick. But when Colonel Ellis took to calling him "Richie," which he hated, there was not much he could do. Soon everyone was calling him "Richie," including the colonel's two sons, Buster and Rip, good friends of his.
The Alderson family left England in early 1964 when John was reassigned to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, working a desk job in the U-2 spy-plane program, a staffing choice that sounds like some kind of Joseph Heller joke about the genius for ineptitude that is military bureaucracy. John Alderson as a desk jockey? John, predictably, "hated" it. Sandy tried to take the move in stride.
"By that time we had moved so many times I had gotten used to it," Sandy says now. "Since you don't have any other experience and don't know anything other than this periodic movement from place to place, it wasn't that traumatic. But it had its impact. You develop a group of friends someplace and then go someplace else and develop a new group and the old group tends to fall by the wayside. It does make one very adaptable. That's a positive. But it probably stunts long-term relationships as well, and that's a negative."
The family decided to live in Falls Church, Virginia, where the Ellis family had also settled after leaving Alconbury. "We could have lived anywhere in the Washington area," Alderson says, "but we ended up getting this temporary apartment in a dumpy apartment complex in Falls Church, so I could go to high school where I'd have some friends." Alderson had a year and a half at Falls Church High, playing both football and baseball. Flipping through the school yearbook offers an intriguing glimpse: His senior picture captures a young man grappling with shyness, having come to the school long after most friendships had been formed. He's good-looking in the scrubbed, athletic, all-American way of Good Will Hunting–era Matt Damon, his tie impeccably knotted, his dark hair just past crew cut length, his half-smile starting to form into the sort of crooked grin useful for punctuating the occasional sarcastic one-liner.
"He was outgoing, he was social, but he wasn't real effervescent," says Tom Bradley, the star pitcher on the Falls Church High baseball team and Alderson's best friend. "He fit in really well. You always do when you play a sport."
The two sat next to each other in algebra, taught by a retired Navy rear admiral named Stephen Tackney, whom Alderson remembers walking around the room listing to one direction. All through class, the two would smirk and wisecrack, and Bradley would keep squeezing one of those squeaky hand-strengthening gadgets. "We got thrown out of the admiral's class a few times for talking and laughing," Alderson recalls.
"He was really smart, but also a little bit of a troublemaker," remembers the cocaptain of the cheerleading squad at Falls Church High at the time, then known as Linda Huff. "He would get Tom Bradley in trouble in Admiral Tackney's Algebra 2 class. It wouldn't bother him if he got kicked out of class. He still got an A."
One of the surprises of the Falls Church yearbook is that there is no mention anywhere of "Sandy" Alderson. He's always "Rich." For that he had Colonel Ellis to thank.
"I ended up at the same high school as his kids, so I couldn't escape it," he says.
"Poor kid!" remembers Linda. "He came and everybody called him 'Richie' and he really hated it. To this day good friends from high school call him Richie and they know he hates it. He just really didn't like it. He tried to be 'Rich.' I called him 'Rich.'"
She still calls him Rich. Linda and Sandy started dating on Halloween night their senior year, though Alderson took her home early so he could go hang out with his friends Rip Ellis and Tom Bradley, or that at least is the way Linda remembers it. She forgave him for that lapse. They were married four years later and celebrated their forty-fifth anniversary in December 2014.
"He changed his name back to Sandy when he went to Dartmouth," Linda says. "I called him 'Rich' the first year and a half. I still call him 'Rich,' instead of 'honey' or something. I just can't look at him and say, 'Sandy, pass the butter,' and we've been married since 1969."
"When she calls me a printable name, that's what she calls me," Alderson confirms.
Like many his age, Alderson took a summer job after he graduated high school in 1965, but his was a little unusual: working in the basement of the Central Intelligence Agency. It is not a job he has ever disclosed publicly, prior to the publication of this book. One of the issues with the CIA was that anyone who stepped into the building at Langley had to have clearance, even low-level workers, like interns or support staff. That made it preferable for family members of those already working in the building to be brought in as employees. Since John Alderson's assignment to the U-2 spy-plane program meant the entire family had already been vetted, the way was clear for Sandy to take a job there. Clearance levels corresponded to how high in the headquarters building you were allowed to go; Alderson worked in the basement. So if U-2 flights revealed something interesting, as they had in April 1965 when they discovered SAM-2 sites protecting Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, that would not fall within Sandy's sphere. Nor would he have likely been privy to wires on August 28, 1965 — the day Bob Dylan was booed in Forest Hills, New York, for going electric — with information and analysis of a U.S. action in the Mekong Delta that claimed the lives of more than fifty Viet Cong.
Alderson's job was to collect incoming cables from embassies, consulates, and aid offices around the world and code them to be distributed to the right analysts, who worked together in an area of the basement that looked a lot like a newsroom, humming with energy and activity. Talking about it now, Alderson downplays the work as being mostly trivial. "The cables that I was reading had to do with stuff like the wheat crop in Egypt is lousy this year," he says. Then again, the cables offered what had to have been a highly educational glimpse of the ways of intelligence analysts: habits of mind, modes of expression, as well as a road map of the topics and areas that CIA analysts around the world felt worthy of study and dissection. Anyone who spent a summer reading such cables at that age and at that moment of heightened geopolitical tension would have to emerge from the experience smarter and possessing fewer illusions about the ways of the world.
Alderson's tenth-grade French teacher in England had a Dartmouth alumni magazine that he leafed through one day. "That was the first I'd heard of Dartmouth," he says. So he applied to Dartmouth, Stanford, and Yale, and only got into Dartmouth, where he studied history on a Navy ROTC scholarship. His first couple of years, he was more interested in playing baseball — first on the freshman team, then for one year on the varsity — than he was in studying. He was a second baseman, better in the field than up to bat. After two years of ROTC he faced an important choice: He could continue to work toward being a Naval officer or he could opt to become a Marine officer instead. He chose the Marines and it gave him a newfound motivation to study. "I got religion somehow," he says.
Alderson's father could stomach only so much time at a desk before he got himself transferred in the summer of 1965, just after Sandy graduated high school. John wound up as an adviser for a squadron of B-57 Canberras at an Air National Guard Base near Hutchinson, Kansas. A year later John was transferred to the Philippines and then Vietnam, joining the U.S. Air Force's Thirteenth Bomb Squadron, dubbed the "Devil's Own Grim Reapers." By Sandy's sophomore year at Dartmouth, John was back to flying combat missions, his squadron of B-57 bombers deployed in Vietnam for two months at a time, then back to the Philippines. As a military dependent, Sandy could jump transport planes and visit his family in the Philippines on his breaks from school and did that often. If he could get that far, he started thinking, why not continue on to Vietnam? The war was the biggest story in the United States, and Alderson wanted to see for himself what was going on. All he needed was a visa to get into Vietnam. "I was curious and adventurous," he says. "I figured, 'All right, I'll be a freelance journalist!'"
Despite having no experience, he lined up a letter of introduction from a newspaper in Hutchinson, Kansas, and was able to secure a visa. But when he showed up at the Saigon Army Press Office in the summer of '67, the press officer told him: "You've got to have two letters to be accredited. And by the way, we know you're not here as a journalist, you're just screwing around."
With no accreditation, Alderson had no access to military transportation in South Vietnam. But Colonel Ellis, the man who had inflicted years of "Richie" torment on him, was stationed in Saigon at that time and arranged for him to hop a short military flight to the base at Phan Rang where John Alderson was stationed, flying night bombing missions to disrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in North Vietnam. Ninety-four B-57Bs had been deployed for the war, including many from the Royal Australian Air Force. Sandy showed up at the base, located on the South Vietnamese coastline looking out at the South China Sea, near the ruins of a twelfth-century Cham temple. John was thrilled to see his son; he couldn't wait to get him up in the air on a test hop. One of the rare pictures of Sandy in Vietnam shows him sitting in the rear seat of a camouflaged B-57, cockpit ajar, wearing a flight helmet and grinning broadly, and John in a flight suit, the picture of fly-boy cool and confidence. This was just before John ignored the rules and took Sandy up in the B-57.
"That was a major no-no," said John's good friend Don Graham, who also flew B-57s out of Phan Rang. "You don't take up a civilian in a combat situation, even if that's your own son. I'm amazed they even did that. Imagine if anything had happened!"
John showed Sandy what the B-57 dive-bomber could do with some hair-raising bombing runs over those twelfth-century ruins, though not actually dropping any bombs. They also did strafing runs, John operating the .50-caliber machine guns — but not overland. "That was out in the South China Sea," Sandy explains. "He wasn't that cavalier."
John did everything he could to make Sandy queasy.
"He tried to make me throw up," Alderson says.
"I took him up and got him sick, which was exactly what I wanted to do," John crowed to the New York Daily News. "But it was very enjoyable. I know Sandy'll never forget it."
That week at his father's base in South Vietnam did indeed stay with Alderson. His father would fly off on night bombing runs and Alderson, nineteen at the time, would hang out at the hooch with a fun-loving squadron of Australians, hearing tales of action they'd seen. Rather than concluding he'd been foolish to try to talk his way into a press pass to cover the war in Vietnam, Alderson vowed to give it another try.
Instead of one letter from a newspaper editor vouching for his credentials, he would show up in front of that same press officer in Saigon a year later with two such letters. He'd still be a college kid, but in the meantime he'd have worked to make himself smarter about Vietnam. He asked for and received permission to construct his own independent study course on Vietnam at Dartmouth in the spring of 1968. This was shortly after the decisive phase of the war, the January 1968 Tet Offensive, a massive coordinated campaign of North Vietnamese attacks, despite an agreement to have a cease-fire during T t, the Vietnamese New Year celebration. U.S. forces were caught off guard and fierce fighting raged all through February, especially during the battle for the city of Hu in central Vietnam, home of the walled Imperial Citadel, where Vietnamese emperors had lived and ruled from the first decade of the nineteenth century up until 1945, when Ho Chi Minh declared Hanoi the capital. U.S. forces prevailed at Hu and inflicted huge losses on the North Vietnamese, but Tet marked a decisive turning point in attitudes back home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Baseball Maverick"
Copyright © 2015 Steve Kettmann.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The Meaning of a World Series 1
Part I The Marine Shakes Up Baseball in Oakland
1 Khe Sanh 15
2 Poster Boy 28
3 Holy Toledo! 39
4 Hooked Up with Apple 55
5 Computer Helps A's Zap Tigers 63
6 The Google of Baseball 74
7 Earthquake 85
8 Passing the Torch 99
Part II "Come on, Blue!"
9 Alderson's Brain Trust 125
10 The Madoff Mess 134
11 Anatomy of a Trade 146
12 Winter Meetings 2012 166
13 Spring Training 2013 178
14 Sweep 191
15 Patience 204
16 The Best Day of the Year 217
17 "Come On, Blue!" 226
Part III Line in the Sandy
18 Hangin' with Jay-Z 239
19 The Ninety-Win Challenge 248
20 Don't Think 253
21 Fizzle 265
22 "Throw a Goddamned Fastball!" 279
23 Hanging by a Thread 289
24 Back to Where It All Started 300
25 Talent Unfolds 310
Part IV November Baseball
26 Zero Hour for the Mets 325
27 A Week to Remember 332
28 Finally Back to the Playoffs 344
29 Sixty Feet, Six Inches 356