Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t just appreciate the performance of the team for which he is partially responsible. More than that, he is fond of these Braves. There is a difference.
“What’s exciting,” the second-year general manager said in his world land-speed-record delivery, “is when you put a team together and see how the pieces fit. When you walk into a clubhouse you can see it. And in the last few days and weeks I’ve had people tell me how much they like the team. Everyone likes winning, of course. You still need talent. But how likable the team is – that is as satisfying as anything.”
These Braves are running away with the National League East for a second consecutive year and seem to be doing so with an abundance of joy.
There are young players like Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies feeding the bliss that Anthopoulos inherited when he arrived. There is one wry veteran – Josh Donaldson – who was his cornerstone signing of an otherwise discreet spring and who has people doing umbrella dances in the aisles. The mix in this dugout has been a savory combination of salty and sweet.
It took the 42-year-old Anthopoulos some time to learn that the employees in his odd industry are more than a collection of percentages and quotients, more than interchangeable walking integers. Oh, he’ll cliff dive into the analytics like any other cutting-edge baseball guy. But along the journey from Montreal to Toronto to Los Angeles to Atlanta, in the climb from menial office wonk to acting as the very rudder of franchises, Anthopoulos has discovered that this job is as much art as mathematics.
So, it is only right to suspect that the general manager who just may be baseball’s executive of the year also is more than the sum of his transactions.
Start from the premise that there really is nothing in his background to suggest he should even be here.
“I don’t think my father thought I’d ever pursue baseball career-wise. I didn’t think I’d pursue it. A Greek Canadian kid in Montreal, I didn’t play pro ball. Am I really going to try to get into this sport,” Anthopoulos said.
The unlikeliness of his ultimate career was written all over his adolescence. Around ninth grade there was a significant shift as Anthopoulos tilted as much toward the bass guitar as baseball. He joined the school jazz band. He jammed in the basement with friends, rattling the windows and more than once attracting a knock on the door from the noise police.
Baked into him at that time was a love for live music that has coexisted even through his most cloistered baseball existence. For instance, as he and his wife, Cristina, went through the budget for their 2010 wedding, cutting here and there, one expense was untouchable: A live band at the reception. (Anthopoulos still remembers the band’s name – God Made Me Funky).
He can talk baseball until he’s hoarse. But also, he can riff on what he believes is the best song for bass, ever – Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song.”
Anthopoulos made some very key acquisitions this summer. He signed Dallas Keuchel in June to lend more credibility to the starting staff. At the trade deadline in July, he acquired pitchers Chris Martin, Shane Greene, Mark Melancon to completely change the prospects and personality of the bullpen - all without sacrificing the Braves’ supply of valued prospects. And he scored a signed copy of “Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass” when the bass player for Rush passed through Atlanta on a book tour.
Even though he long ago gave his Fender jazz bass guitar to the older of his brothers, there remains the sense that he still plays the bass in his current band, the Braves. He’s the guy not quite in the middle of the stage, providing the undertones that help drive the action. The front men are the ones in the play clothes.
“I like being in the background. At the end of the day, people should be talking about the players,” he said. “To me, if your successful, you’re an afterthought, in a good way. No one’s paying to come to the ballpark to see me be general manager.”
As an athlete growing up, Anthopoulos was a fine guitarist. Asked for his greatest moment afield, he’s stumped. He was a sports tourist, sampling games like baseball, football, basketball, rugby, but never settling on one. Most consistent was his affection for skiing and snowboarding, for which no score was kept.
And now that he’s all grown up with a big title and everything, watching sports doesn’t really provide the kind of release that it does for others. It’s can’t be as simple as viscerally enjoying the competition. “You’re scouting all the time in your own way,” he said. So, when he’s watching football Anthopoulos said he finds himself fixating on mechanics like the arm slot of the quarterback. He’s been known to watch draft nights almost clinically, in order to study the demeanor of the picks and what clues that might provide to future success.
So, to review.
Anthopoulos is one of three sons of a Greek immigrant. John Anthopoulos put himself through school, earned an engineering degree and opened a heating and ventilation company in Montreal, an inspiring example to be sure.
Alex would spend many summers visiting kin on the Greek island of Lemnos, never absorbing as much of the language as his father had hoped.
How he loved going to Expos games as a kid, and yes dreamed about a life in baseball (or music). He studied economics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and felt almost compelled to apply that one day to his father’s business. John Anthopoulos died too young, in 1998, and his son tried to carry on with the company. He really did. But soon realized that he couldn’t spend a lifetime doing something that didn’t move him. The family sold the business and the sons went their own ways.
For Alex, the way forward was baseball. He carpet-bombed baseball people with offers to do anything at any wage or no wage at all just to breathe the same air as them. He was a shameless cold-caller who in 2000 dialed the Expos’ spring camp when, providentially, who should answer but the general manager. A few months later, Anthopolous was a volunteer working the clubhouse on home weekends and sorting players’ fan mail. To pay the bills, he worked as a bank teller.
It was a long climb from there, requiring the combined force of a constant curiosity, an innate intelligence and a willingness to work absurdly long and hard. As it was once described to a Toronto reporter by Dana Brown, the former Expos executive who gave Anthopoulos his first scouting gig, “He is overdosed on passion.”
This was a date night for he and Cristina, circa 2004, as told by Anthopoulos:
“At time when I was scouting coordinator, they didn’t automate the pitch types. You’d have to have a gun behind the plate. We would put the numbers into a computer – type in 94 4-seam or 86 slider, like that. We’d do that behind the plate. Me and the other scouting coordinator would split the games. That way Cristina and I got to spend a lot of time together. She started coming and sitting with me while I’d chart. And I’d make $100.”
He said the stories about him evaluating the flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman right up to the I-dos on his wedding day are a little overblown. The Blue Jays didn’t get Chapman. And he promises he had his phone off for the ceremony.
He’s still young to his career, the first gray just intruding on his beard. He likes to think he’s getting better as he’s learning ever more. As the father of two young kids, he’s grappling with the life-work balance thing. He thinks he’s got an improved relationship with sleep than he used to, which in his case now might mean a little more than five hours or so at a stretch.
And if he’s learned nothing else thus far, there’s this: Don’t be smug.
Here he is overseeing a team that is the delight of the town. Why, wasn’t it just seven months ago that many of the same fans were questioning whether Anthopoulos was hibernating through the winter while Philadelphia and Washington and the Mets were making all these noisy deals? He’d have some cause to gloat, but he won’t.
All he says is, “That’s a part of being a GM. You have to expect to be criticized throughout your entire career – it’s going to happen no matter who you are. As a younger GM maybe you’re more in tune to it, to a fault. After a while you get thick skin. People have a right to have their opinion.
“Along the way you’re trying to do what you know is the right thing by the ballclub, even if it may not seem to be right in the short term or right for the optics or PR. You know if you’re doing right by the club it’s easy to put your head on the pillow at night. It really is.”
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