Alex Anthopoulos was stuck on the treadmill, referencing the age-old adage: “What am I doing with my life?”
Perhaps his worst moment became the accelerator he needed.
Ten days before his 21st birthday, Anthopoulos lost his father; a devastating event that led to him becoming the general manager of the Atlanta Braves.
Anthopoulos was thrown into disarray when his father, John, died suddenly from a heart attack in 1998. Alex felt a need to honor his father in helping run John’s heating-and-ventilation business with his two older brothers.
“We were three boys growing up,” Anthopoulos said. “It shook us to our core. We all were kind of going on with our lives a bit, going through school; we all got serious about things.
“I just immediately started working with his company. I felt a sense of obligation. Even though I didn’t take engineering in school – I had no interest in heating and ventilation – I just felt that I needed to try to follow in his footsteps.”
An economics major at McMaster University, it was difficult to find balance between school and work. Anthopoulos was miserable.
“It was a wake-up call for me,” he said. “I didn’t have kids or family. This wasn’t going to be the next 40 years of my life.”
His brothers sold the company so each could pursue their own happiness. One became a teacher, the other a real estate agent and pilot.
Alex always loved baseball. He wasn’t good enough to play after high school, but the memories of attending Expos games were his fondest.
“I decided I wanted to pursue something I loved,” he said. “Baseball was something I loved. I didn’t care what the salary, I didn’t care the position, I just wanted to work in baseball. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to find that out early and pursue my dream, what I loved. I didn’t have anything to lose.
“There was no Plan B. It was going to be sports. I didn’t care.”
After contacting every team, an opportunity rose with those Expos: An unpaid internship for sorting through fan mail on home-series weekends. He was a bank teller at Fidelity to make ends meet until he was promoted into media relations. Networking and curiosity parlayed him into the international scouting department at age 25.
“I used that as a vehicle to sit behind the plate each night and watch games, write scouting reports, try to learn, sit with scouts and try to learn things,” he said. “Any way I could get my foot in there. I didn’t care what the job was. From there, things just kind of evolved.”
He took a pay cut to join the Blue Jays, a recurring theme in Anthopoulos’ journey. He would go on to serve as J.P. Ricciardi’s assistant GM for four seasons before replacing him in 2009, an awkward transition given his friendship with his mentor.
Nine years after the mailroom, Anthopoulos was a 32-year-old GM tasked with rebuilding the farm system. CEO Paul Beeston, who tapped Anthopoulos, called him a prodigy. Anthopoulos wasn’t eager to agree.
“I’d been assistant GM for four years,” he said. “At the time, I told my wife, who was my fiancée, I wish I’d had another two or three years as an assistant GM. I wasn’t in a rush.”
Toronto became a perennial contender under his leadership, but Anthopoulos turned down $10 million and left after a power struggle with new CEO Mark Shapiro.
“As much as I loved Toronto, I met my wife there, I was very proud of everything we’d done,” Anthopoulos said. “I just felt like going forward, for me individually, it probably wasn’t going to be the best fit.”
Up next: Los Angeles.
“I left Toronto, and as you can imagine, the day the news broke my phone exploded,” he said. “But I’m grateful that I had a lot of phone calls from teams. You don’t take lightly being offered a job, especially from a big-league team. I was excited that the Dodgers called, and some other teams that I really respected and wanted to work with called. Ultimately, (Los Angeles) was going to be the best fit for me. But I’m lucky I had a choice.”
The Dodgers created a vice president of baseball operations position to bring Anthopoulos into a crowded, but experienced, front office. He continued dialogue with other GMs, oversaw the development of a deep system and helped assemble the most recent National League champion.
Anthopoulos wasn’t proactively searching for another head-man job. Once a prodigy, there was little urge to jump back in.
“I’d been a general manager. I’d done it. I didn’t feel like I had a marker to hit,” he said. “I was at peace with my career, even though I was still young. I didn’t need to be a general manager again. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t open to it or certainly excited if the right opportunity presented itself, but I was more concerned with enjoying what I was doing and who I was working with.”
He and his wife, Cristina, enrolled their two children in schools that ran through high school. They made offers on houses. Everything was about the long-term, which Anthopoulos believed was the only outlook that keeps one committed to a job.
“I expected to be there a long period of time,” he said. “That’s why we moved as a family. We wanted to be all in. I wouldn’t want to just sit at home and commute while waiting for my next job. That’s not how I do things. When you’re involved, you’re involved. I didn’t want to look at something else. It almost felt too short, to be honest with you. I was really starting to like L.A., settle into L.A., but I mean, this opportunity was one I wasn’t going to turn down. At the end of the day, you can’t dictate when these opportunities present themselves.”
The Braves contacted Anthopoulos before Game 3 of the World Series. Having grown up watching the team on TBS and seeing a once-proud franchise desperately in need of leadership, it was tantalizing.
“I was open-minded when this call came,” he said. “I had no idea how I was going to react or feel. But seeing how excited I got, I really wanted it.
Anthopoulos was introduced at SunTrust Park on Monday. It was the beginning of what he and the Braves hope will be a lengthy relationship. But it was also the culmination of a 20-year trial launched by his father’s death.
“Look, things happen in your life,” he said. “I’d love to have my dad back today. But it was a catalyst. If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I certainly wouldn’t be working in baseball. I wouldn’t be a general manager. So everything happens for a reason. I’d love to have him back, but maybe it was for a reason.”
Anthopoulos lost someone he loved to find another love. He learned in life, passion overrides all. He hopes that’s something people can learn from him.
“Pursue things that you have a passion for,” he said. “Then have humility. That’s the two things I think, in any walk of life, will take you incredibly far. Having a passion for what you’re going to go after, having that humility to get better, to learn, to want to work with people and have people want to work with you. Those are the two most important things.”
Gabriel Burns is a general assignment reporter and features writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After four years on the Braves beat, he's expanded his horizons and covers all sports. You'll find him writing about MLB, NFL, NBA, college football and other Atlanta-centric happenings.