Under the radar, Sabean soars on and on
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In his first major trade as general manager of the San Francisco Giants, Brian Sabean sent fan favorite Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians for four players, including Jeff Kent.
It didn't sit well with the Bay Area media and fans. Six weeks on the job, in the fall of 1996, and Sabean was Public Enemy No. 1.
The anger was such that Sabean announced, "I'm not an idiot."
Sixteen years on the job, and Sabean has proven that, emphatically.
Already the longest-tenured general manager in San Francisco history, Sabean is signed through 2014, and ownership is talking to him about an extension that should assure him to at least two decades on the job. Spec Richardson and Al Rosen, who both spent seven years as the GM in San Francisco, are a distant second to Sabean.
Not that many people realize that.
Sabean lives under the radar.
Fans and media start discussing general managers and it's the Billy Beanes and Kevin Towers and Brian Cashmans and Theo Epsteins of the world who are mentioned.
Sabean, however, is the senior man among Major League general managers in terms of time on the job. He was promoted to the Giants GM job on Sept. 30, 1996, one year and 17 days before Beane took charge in Oakland. The only other current general managers who were hired before the turn of the century are Cashman of the Yankees (Feb. 3, 1998) and Dan O'Dowd of the Rockies (Sept. 20, 1999).
For all that he has done with the Giants, he remains a virtual public unknown, which is the way he likes it.
"It's inherent in my personality," said the New England native. "It's how I grew up as a kid, and it's how I grew up professional. In the Yankee organization (where Sabean worked before joining the Giants) it's the game on the field that is the focal point, not people in the front office.
"The people who are seen and heard are in uniform. They are the ambassadors to the public."
Sabean, however, is the mastermind deciding who the Giants have in uniform, and despite the knee-jerk reaction to his trade of Williams back in November 1996, he's done a quality job. That roster he inherited was 68-94 in 1996, but after his juggling, the Giants won the NL West in 1997.
It was the first of the six postseason appearances the Giants have made on his watch. Three other seasons the Giants were eliminated on the final day of the season, including losing a Wild Card battle with the Cubs in 1998.
The last two of those postseason trips (2010 and 2012) resulted in the first two world championships for the franchise since it moved west from New York in 1958. The only other current general manager with multiple World Series rings is Cashman, whose Yankees were champions in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009.
Not that Sabean is gloating.
"I have lived a charmed life here," he said. "For me to last this long is the result of a great relationship with the ownership, which has changed a few times."
But Sabean learned early in his career about fitting into the environment created by ownership. He cut his front-office teeth with the Yankees of George Streinbrenner.
"The way to survive was to keep your head down and dp your job," he said.
That's a lesson that has served Sabean well.
It's why when things might not work out well with the Giants, he takes the heat. There's no excuses. There's no finger-pointing.
Former owner Peter Magowan was star-struck. Whether Sabean liked it, he was going to keep Barry Bonds in a Giants uniform until Bonds retired, and Sabean's job was to make sure it happened. When Bonds retired, Magowan was worried again about having star power, which played into the signing of left-hander Barry Zito and outfielder Aaron Rowand.
Don't expect Sabean to shed insight into either deal. He has a standard response on player acqusitions, whether it's the bright spots such as landing Marco Scutaro from Colorado last July, or first-round draftings of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, or a deal that went bad.
They all are termed organizational decisions.
And his decision-making is organizational.
He is old-school, which is a compliment.
It means he understands the importance of not only statistical analysis, a longtime tool that has lately become vogue, but also the eyeball evaluation.
And it means he doesn't get caught up in what the other teams are doing, such as last summer when the Los Angeles Dodgers went on a midseason spending spree, but faded down the stretch while the Giants kept plugging away to win the NL West.
"The beauty about baseball is that the cliche is true, you only have to worry about today's game," said Sabean. "You play today and, win or lose, you then prepare for the next game. And your team is the only team you can control so you better not lose sight of what has to be done."
Sabean hasn't lost sight.
In fact, after 16 years on the job it seems like he has a better vision of what needs to be done than ever before.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.