NORTH PORT, Fla. – On an October night in 2017, Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk and three other club officials gathered in the then-SunTrust Club at then-SunTrust Park for a meeting that would change the franchise’s trajectory. They were there to have dinner with Alex Anthopoulos, an executive from the Dodgers’ front office whom they were considering for their open general manager job.
In the weeks before, as he cast a wide net for his opening, McGuirk talked to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and every industry leader he could find to get recommendations for candidates. The Braves were looking for a proven leader who understood how to build a young team into a winner.
The name that continued popping up from everyone: Alex Anthopoulos.
“And, of course, I fell in love with him at the dinner,” McGuirk says now. “He was exactly what we were looking for.”
Before working for the Dodgers, Anthopoulos had been a GM at a young age in Toronto. The Braves knew his background, but were looking for the final piece of the puzzle: How would he fit them?
During the private dinner, Anthopoulos won over McGuirk, vice chairman John Schuerholz, president of baseball operations John Hart and legendary manager Bobby Cox. They saw his enthusiasm and zest for the job. He appeared ready to conquer, which McGuirk said is a must in a job that isn’t your typical nine-to-five gig. Anthopoulos made the decision so easy on them that the sides didn’t even need a formal second interview.
When Anthopoulos returned home from the meeting, he told his wife, Cristina, “I want this job.”
The Braves conducted a few more interviews after their dinner with Anthopoulos, McGuirk said, “but we quickly understood that we had hit the jackpot with this man, and that’s where we were going.”
In November 2017, the Braves hired Anthopoulos. Since then, the Braves have won the National League East every year. They won the World Series last season. And because of Anthopoulos’ magic and work ethic, and the club’s roster, the Braves’ successful run may not be over.
“I expect Alex to be here for a very long time,” McGuirk said.
‘From collecting talent to building a team’
Anthopoulos, the man whose manager, coaches and players praise the organization’s culture, hates the word “culture.” He thinks it’s the most overused term in sports. And he believes it’s silly to imply that one man can implement a culture.
He would know. Years of failure in this area forced him to change his philosophy. “For me, it was shifting from collecting talent to building a team,” he said. As a young GM in Toronto, he stockpiled talented players. The only issue: The Blue Jays weren’t winning.
Sitting at a picnic table outside of the Braves’ clubhouse at their spring training facility, the 44-year-old Anthopoulos said this shift is probably the largest difference between his younger self and current self.
Anthopoulos’ mindset began to change in 2013, when he signed Mark DeRosa. The veteran always talked about clubhouse chemistry and the impact it could have on teams.
At the end of 2014, Anthopoulos committed to the idea of chemistry having a large impact on a baseball team. His moves reflected it as, among other transactions, he signed catcher Russell Martin and acquired third baseman Josh Donaldson.
“We walked away from a lot of really talented players just because they didn’t fit, where in the past, I would’ve just taken the talent and figured, OK, let’s just collect the talent, it should work,” the GM said. “It was more of a conscious: I’m not going to fall into the temptation. I’m going to try to stay disciplined and really be selective about who we bring in, even though we have to walk away from talent at times.”
Before the shift, Anthopoulos estimates, the ratio of talent to makeup in his thinking was 80 to 20 or even 90 to 10, in favor of talent. This doesn’t mean he’s ditched talent. No, the Braves won’t win without players such as Ronald Acuña, Matt Olson, Ozzie Albies and others. But Anthopoulos believes you achieve a good culture by flooding the clubhouse with individuals who can improve the environment.
Anthopoulos said he still struggles with all of this. How important are a club’s organization’s culture and chemistry? Does it guarantee winning?
Here’s what he does know: The Blue Jays didn’t make the postseason until his philosophical shift, and the Braves haven’t missed it since he took this job. “I guess I’m scared to go back,” he said.
Maybe those playoff teams were just super talented. Perhaps their chemistry didn’t matter. But he isn’t prepared to roll the dice and revert to his old ways. He wants to win, and do it with a good group.
“Do you want to win at all costs? No. To be candid with you, I don’t want to win at all costs,” Anthopoulos said. “You want to win with a certain group of people in the right way. If you can do it both ways where you like the group and the community and the fan base likes the group, I think that’s what makes it more special organizationally.”
Anthopoulos used to care only about the pieces. Now he analyzes how they fit.
“He definitely puts a big emphasis on that, and as a player, you love that from him to do that for us,” starting pitcher Ian Anderson said. “He communicates with us who he wants, he’s asking about the kind of guy (someone is).”
Anthopoulos never saw himself in baseball. The story has been told a ton: Anthopoulos’ dad died when Anthopoulos was only 20. Anthopoulos helped run his father’s heating-and-ventilation business with his two older brothers, which allowed him to understand that it was critically important to do something that he loved. So he chased that instead and, after many stops, ended up here. He would have his father back in a second, but the chain of events led him to a future he never saw possible as a Canadian kid who wasn’t a good athlete.
Anthopoulos recently watched Tom Brady’s “Man In The Arena” documentary series, which includes one episode titled, “Maybe.” The episode discusses the story of the Chinese farmer. The quick version: When seemingly unfortunate outcomes occur to the farmer, he simply says, “maybe,” implying that perhaps those events won’t turn out bad.
Anthopoulos relates this to his own life, such as his departure from Toronto. He left the Blue Jays in 2015, and turned down a large contract to do so. This was a difficult decision, but it eventually led him down a championship path – even if he couldn’t see it years ago.
In that situation, Anthopoulos also showed the same conviction that impresses his boss, McGuirk, to this day. The Blue Jays had hired Mark Shapiro as team president, and it seemed Anthopoulos wouldn’t have the same autonomy. So he went elsewhere.
“He knew what he was capable of,” McGuirk said. “He had obviously demonstrated it.”
Balancing work and family
“What’s going to change from your first time around?”
At the private dinner that October night, Braves brass asked Anthopoulos this question. He told them that his Los Angeles tenure – which McGuirk said he also likened to “finishing school” – taught him balance.
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was engaged and didn’t have children. He would show up to work at 4 a.m. and begin grinding.
Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has a wife and two children, an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old.
Years ago, Billy Beane, now Oakland’s executive vice president of baseball operations, told Anthopoulos, “You’re never going to get caught up. There’s always something to do.” It’s true, but Anthopoulos tries to balance both worlds.
“You still work hard and you still care,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s still a struggle because you have a commitment to the job, but you also have a commitment to your family.”
When he’s with his family, Anthopoulos tries to be as present as possible. He’ll take his kids to school. Sometimes, he’ll fly back home for a night to attend one of his kids’ events. As anyone who travels would, he worries about missing the important moments in his kids’ lives. “You don’t have a script,” Anthopoulos said. “You hope you’re doing the right thing.”
But he’s certain of this: He doesn’t want his lifestyle to be tied to his job.
“It’s not going to change the car I drive, the house I live in, what my kids do, where we go to dinner,” he said. “Those things should remain the same.”
‘He’s just a tireless worker’
In March, Anthopoulos executed one of the finer weeks you’ll see from a general manager. It began with losing a franchise player and ended with completing a roster that could be better than the one that took home a championship. Anthopoulos turned criticism into applause.
“He just never stops trying to make this team better,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s just a tireless worker. It’s great. I mean, all he does is try to make this club better, however he can.”
Many fans were understandably upset about the trade for Olson. Even if Olson is one of the game’s best first basemen, the move meant the Braves would not re-sign Freddie Freeman. Anthopoulos soon eased the pain. He signed Olson to a long-term extension, signed reliever Collin McHugh, re-signed outfielder Eddie Rosario and signed closer Kenley Jansen.
And because of all this, the Braves appear to be one of baseball’s elite teams.
“He’s just competitive, man,” said Jansen, who was with the Dodgers when Anthopoulos worked there. “He never quits, he never gives up. He always wants to improve.”
Added starting pitcher Ian Anderson: “He’s always working, he’s always asking questions. You just get the sense that he knows everything that’s going on in the league, and that’s because he works at it. He wants to know what’s going on, he wants to have a good feel of what’s going on around him so he can make the best decisions, and I think that’s a great quality to have for a GM. He almost seems like he was built to be a GM.”
As he showed in that busy week after the lockout was lifted, Anthopoulos always is looking long-term. He ensured that Freeman’s situation, however it ended, would not affect his ability to round out his roster. He balances trying to win now and in the future, which can be a delicate dance.
“He’s a man who thinks out ahead,” McGuirk said. “I guarantee you he’s thinking about not only next year, but the year after every day. I know that because we talk about it.”
Anthopoulos is signed through the 2024 season. McGuirk said any potential conversation about an extension would be “very relaxed.” Both sides seem happy, so he believes Anthopoulos “would enjoy being here for a very long time.” There are no barriers to making that happen, McGuirk said.
‘I’m in the moment’
The question Anthopoulos always gets: “Do you ever reflect on what you’ve been through and have accomplished?”
He hardly ever does, but over the holidays in Canada, he and his son saw “American Underdog,” which tells the story of quarterback Kurt Warner’s improbable journey from FCS backup quarterback to Hall of Famer.
“Just at that moment, at one point it crossed my mind,” Anthopoulos said. “It hit me: Wow, it’s pretty improbable that I’m working in sports today and I got a GM opportunity.”
Everything happened so fast for Anthopoulos. In just over two decades, he’s gone from media-relations intern with the Expos to GM of the World Series-champion Braves.
What’s next? Well, here’s the irony of it all: The guy whose job it is to think about long-term plans is focused only on his present.
“I’m enjoying it, hopefully I’m doing this awhile,” Anthopoulos said. “But who knows? I don’t know, hopefully 10 years from now, I’m still having a conversation about it.
“Right now, I’m in the moment.”