John Schuerholz on Hall, Braves’ struggles and future

Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz is acknowledged during a media availability at Major League Baseball's winter meetings, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016 in Oxon Hill, Md.

Credit: Alex Brandon

Credit: Alex Brandon

Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz is acknowledged during a media availability at Major League Baseball's winter meetings, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016 in Oxon Hill, Md.

John Schuerholz called being elected to the Hall of Fame, “The Shangri-La of my dreams.”

So welcome to well-deserved paradise. The Braves’ former general manager and current vice chairman, who with Bobby Cox helped build a perennial losing team into a franchise that won one World Series, five pennants and 14 division titles, will be inducted during ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 30.

I spoke to Schuerholz on a variety of subjects, including his induction, his surprise and disappointment in the Braves’ failures under former general manager Frank Wren and the present and future of the franchise under John Hart and John Coppolella.

Question: Did you wake up feeling any different the day after getting the news?

Answer: Once you’re astounded, the feeling doesn’t change. There’s a whole host of emotions when you get the call, even when you’re told to be around your phone at a certain time. When Jane (Forbes Clark, Hall of Fame chairman) called me, she said, “Congratulations, you’re now a member of major league baseball’s Hall of Fame.” And she said, “You will have to change the way you sign your name.” I was curious about that and she said, “At the end of your name, you will now write, ‘HOF 2017.’ ” Which is pretty cool.

Q: Why did you call this the Shangri-La of your dreams?

A: You’re in this magic land of almost disbelief. And then you’re in the room with (Braves officials and scouts at the winter meetings) and they’re all talking about players and they interrupt that to present a champagne toast to me. We had done that for Bobby a couple of years ago and that made me feel proud. And then it calms down and we start talking about players again, and afterward I walked to the lobby of the hotel for some reason and a sea of people with baseballs and pens at the ready were there, asking me, the newly minted Hall of Fame inductee, to sign their baseballs. Almost an ocean of baseballs. And one guy tried to disguise himself three different times to sign more baseballs. I recognized him and said, ‘What are you doing? Just give me all of the ones you want me to sign now.’

Q: So I guess the value of your autograph is way up.

A: I guess. In fact, as I sit here amid the packing boxes of my office, there sits a packing box that my assistant tells me is filled with baseballs and the request to sign them. But I will never complain about that.

Q: Baseball players walk around the Hall of Fame and see plaques of Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and they think, “I can’t believe I’m here.” Do former general managers walk around looking for other former general managers?

A: I’ve done that. In fact, when (former major league executive) Pat Gillick was inducted five years ago, I wanted to go. The Phillies were kind enough to ask me to join their organizational party. I went there not just to celebrate Pat, but to celebrate the job and what it stands for, and acknowledge and embrace all of the people who’ve done that job, myself included.

Q: Winning World Series with two organizations, the Braves and Kansas City, in two different leagues, has to feel pretty cool.

A: It was, and it’s even cooler that I was the first general manager in history to win world championships in both the American and National leagues. Then Pat did and, of course, Theo (Epstein) just did it. And 1991 was as glorious and impactful of a year for me and this franchise and this community, which had struggled mightily, as any. It was the awakening, the enlivening of the baseball spirit in and around Atlanta. It was remarkable to see the bounce in people’s step. Grandmothers and grandsons would write me. It was remarkable.

Q: When you stepped down from the day-to-day role after the 2007 season and named Frank Wren the general manager, did you have a sense the franchise would struggle for a while?

A: No, I honestly didn’t. I had a clear and solid sense it was time for me to give my keys to my boss, Terry McGuirk and I explained to him why. The nature of the game and the nature of the job had altered so that we needed someone who was younger, more fluid and flexible in terms of modern day technology, the media, the Sabermetrics-nature of the game. I thought we needed to be ahead of this and not get caught without a succession plan in place. No, I didn’t believe we would go backwards. I thought we would get the ship righted. That didn’t happen, as we hoped it would. So we had to make changes.

Q: How long before Frank Wren was fired did you first have a sense, “This isn’t going to work”? Had it been building for a while, because it had been discussed and written in the media.

A: You guys probably had a sense for it before I did. Maybe I was naïve. Maybe I viewed Frank as he was when he was my assistant – intelligent, bright, articulate. He had great qualities, great family. But I began to get inklings that there were unsettled circumstances throughout the organization, without going into details. When it got to the point of critical mass, I’ll say, it was time for me to make a change.

Q: Would I be correct that your disappointment wasn’t about the wins and losses as much as it was the decline in player development?

A: That’s an accurate characterization. It wasn’t just about the records, but what was happening in the farm system, the pipeline, and also the financial burden of some major league contracts. It was the whole cloth, not just one element. And I was probably the last one to get it. I don’t know if I didn’t want to get it. But eventually I knew it was time for a change.

Q: That’s when you convinced John Hart to sort of unretire?

A: Yes. He had his cushy job at the major league television network, which he reminds me of every day. John has done a great job. He and John Coppolella complement each other very well.

Q: How do you feel about the franchise’s future now?

A: I feel spectacular. We’re back in the groove we were in before. And look, organizations that make changes like this don’t always come out of it the way they wish. But in this instance, we did. I’m glad to have that feeling back — with scouts, senior advisers, leaders, players, farm directors all pulling in the same direction.

Q: I know there’s always uncertainty with prospects, but how long before you believe this fruit will ripen?

A: Sooner than later. I don’t know if I can quantify it more precisely than that. Plans take time to coalesce and get strong. In our business, it’s not only the major league club, but it’s the feeder system that sustains the club. Both of those elements are getting better, and when we move into SunTrust Park, we’ll be in a far better position than we’ve been in five years to be competitive and have confidence we can continue to compete. I don’t know how long it will take. We’re close. Another year, maybe? A half year?

Q: When you first came here, you saw the work Bobby Cox had already done with the minor league system and you had a good feeling about things. But in any rebuilding project, can you ever really know when or if it will hit?

A: To the first element, yes: I saw the work Bobby and Paul Snyder and Roy Clark had done, and Stan Kasten allowing himself to commit to those gentlemen in doing the right thing. When I first got there, I knew we needed to improve the defense, so the first thing I did was to sign free agent infielders – Terry Pendleton, Rafael Belliard, Sid Bream. I made a deal for Otis Nixon and signed Mike Heath. So we provided a defense for those young pitchers and that’s all we needed. Pitches turned into outs and outs turned into wins.

Q: How would you describe your role now?

A: Terry wants me to oversee, like an ombudsman. So I’m doing that. I was at the winter meetings. I was a voice and an ear in the room.

Q: Would it be fair to suggest you and Hart are still sort of in grooming mode with Coppolella?

A: Well, Coppy has the position of general manager. He’s not fully formed yet. But he’s brilliant and intrepid and undeniable and creative. And John Hart is a leader and steadies the ship. Nobody’s fully formed in the first or second year. It takes time to grow through the learning process, the bruises you get and the experiences you have, and and you get better. Coppy’s doing a wonderful job.

Q: Ultimately, the lifeblood of this rebuild will be the success of the pitching prospects, correct?

A: No doubt about it. The (Class A) Rome Braves were just selected as the minor league team of the year. They evaluated the quality of the prospects on that team. The pitching staff, all of them, are potential No. 1 starters. They’re a reflection of all the good work that’s been done.