Milwaukee Talks: Brewers General Manager David Stearns
There are lots of people in Milwaukee who lead very public lives. We see them on television and hear them on the radio and read about them online. Behind each of these public faces is a private person, much like the rest of us.
Today we talk to David Stearns, who has been the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers since September 2015, succeeding Doug Melvin, who remains with the team in an advisory role. At 30 years old, Stearns then became the youngest general manager in MLB, and he is one year younger than Brewers star Ryan Braun.
OnMilwaukee: Let's start at the top. Do you like your job?
David Stearns: It's tough to complain about a job like this. I get to wake up every morning and come to a ballpark, and the ballpark is my office. It's a pretty unique position to be in and to be able to do that in a city and environment like this makes it all the more special.
What do you mean a city and environment like this?
I've been fortunate to work for a number of different organizations. Cleveland, Houston, Pittsburgh, the New York Mets. So I've gotten to experience a number of different fan bases, a number of different markets. This is a unique fan base. It's unique in the passion that this group displays for this team. It's unique in the knowledge that it has about baseball in general and about what we're doing.
I think that's made my job much easier. It's allowed me to be much more honest and transparent with what we're doing and have this constant dialog with our fan base that allows everyone to get on board and understand. It's certainly made our communications efforts a lot smoother.
Transparency is a difficult concept for somebody in your position. I had the same conversation with the chief of police. You want to be open. You want public support. How do you juggle that part of it, the part that you've got to keep things close to your vest until you're ready?
There are different levels. I think what we can always do is be honest. That's something that from the moment we started this process, we said we're going to be honest. Now that doesn't mean I can always share the trade discussions we're working on or our internal evaluations of particular players, but I can be honest that we're not going to share those. I can be honest about our overarching goals and our long-term plan. To the extent that I can do that, I think our fan base appreciates that. I think our community appreciates that, and it gives them a greater understanding for what we're doing.
What don't you like about your job? There's got to be something.
You know, I don't like losing baseball games. I don't like that part of it. Even the best teams go home upset 70 times a year. That's tough, and because we have those feelings so often, learning how to handle those ups and downs of a baseball season is a big part of this job. It's a big part of what our coaching staff has to do.
How do you handle the frustration, or maybe stress is the right word?
Yeah. This is generally not a lifestyle job. This is a 24/7, constant focus position, which is great. I think everyone in this position has a slightly different way that they handle the stresses of the position. For me, it's staying physically active. I try to make time every day to go for a run or work out or find some time just to – whether it's 30 minutes, an hour – to be physically active and put my phone down and give myself time to recuperate a little bit.
I think the other part of it is for the little time we do get away from the ballpark, try to leave the work at the ballpark. That's not always easy. Sometimes it's not possible, but where it is possible, it's certainly a good goal.
You just got married, is that right?
How's that going?
So far, so good.
You haven't done anything lousy?
Well, I don't know about that. I haven't done anything too damaging yet, but I'm sure I've done some stupid stuff. We're three months in. So far, so good. We had been dating for quite some time. I met my wife, Whitney, while I was in Houston. She followed me to Milwaukee and has really enjoyed it here, as well.
She likes Milwaukee?
She does. She's in the medical field. She works at Froedtert and has really enjoyed the people here. She had never experienced the winter before this winter, but got through it just fine, and so it's been a really nice move.
You go out and have dinner in Milwaukee. What do you like?
We like pretty much anything. We're pretty open to anything. We've been to most of the restaurants in the Walker's Point, Third Ward area. We live over on the East Side, so we've been to a number of the restaurants over there. We've walked over to Lake Park Bistro. If there's a restaurant on the East Side, we've probably hit it.
I think that's a good way for us to relax together. My wife has a fairly stressful job, as well. She's a nurse anesthetist. When she has bad days, they're really bad days. Puts my job in perspective a little bit. It's nice when we can get an evening to decompress and talk about something other than baseball or medicine.
Baseball's a game, but it's also a business. You've worked in offices, general manager's offices. But now you're the guy here. What does that do to you? How has that changed you?
I don't know that we are always self-aware enough to determine how we're changing in real time. I think sometimes it's easier for us to look back and say after a period of time is over, this is how I've changed. I'm sure I have changed and I'm sure the people around here could probably articulate that better than I could.
I think when you get into a role like this in an industry and a business that's public-facing, you recognize the enormity of the management responsibility. We have 150-plus people working in baseball operations. That includes scouts and coaches, and ultimately, regardless of whether they're working here in Milwaukee or they're working in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic or in Kyoto, Japan, their goal is to help us win one extra game here at Miller Park and ultimately stack those wins on top of each other and get to and win a World Series.
That's a pretty awesome task if you think about it in that way, that we have all these people in all corners of the world with different skill sets doing different tasks and their work product and our work product shows up here every single night on the field in Miller Park. That's what it's all geared towards.
You've got all those 150 people, and yet this is the desk where the call eventually gets made. Are you an analytics guys? Are you a Moneyball guy?
I think I'm an information guy is the way I'd put it. I value information from all areas of our department, and we've greatly increased the size of our scouting department since I've gotten here, and we've greatly increased the size of our analytics department since I've gotten here. We're looking for good baseball people with varying backgrounds to help us make the best decisions possible.
How do you deal with doubt? Things end up on your desk and on one side it looks good, and on the other side, there's this doubt.
I look at it as a little bit of doubt is healthy. We need to question ourselves. We need to recognize that this is tough and the difference between success and failure in these decisions is tenuous. What I go back to when I'm making decisions is have we done everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to make a quality decision? I'm a firm believer that if we've done everything we can to put ourselves in that position that we're going to make more good decisions than bad decisions, and I'll be able to sleep just fine at night.
Baseball's fun. Is it fun for you? Because of the responsibility on your shoulders, do you still have fun doing this?
Yeah, it's still fun. It's still fun. It's fun in a different way now than it was when I was 13 years old, but it's still fun. I've always told myself that when it is not fun, it's time to do something else. I'm nowhere close to that at this point.
Is there a moment that you went from a Harvard degree in political science to all of a sudden you're a baseball guy?
Really, I went to college with the understanding that I wanted to work in baseball. I studied political science and the American political system because it fascinated me. You can't study baseball, nor did I really want to study baseball. Studying political science taught me a lot. It certainly enhanced my critical thinking skills. It taught me how to write. It gave me a framework through which to address complex problems. It was a very rewarding experience there, and I'm certainly glad that I studied it.
You're young. When you're talking to a general manager who's been in the game for 40 years, longer than you've been alive, is there any kind of them, like, patting you on the head.
I'd say a couple things on that. The truth is the GMs who have been in this game for 30, 40 years were at very senior positions when they were my age. They've just had tremendous longevity and they've done really, really good work, but they were at very senior positions when they were my age, as well.
I've also been around the game for a while and in various different positions and I've been able to interact with the vast majority of GMs or assistant GMs for the last decade-plus. A lot of these people have grown up in the game with me, and I've grown up with them. We share experiences and relationships that have been built over last decade or 12 years, not just when I got this job.
One of the things about your job, is that the odds against ultimate success are overwhelming. The odds against the Milwaukee Brewers winning a World Series are probably incalculable. How does that make you feel knowing that you could make every right decision for the next five years and still not make it?
It's motivating. In my first press conference here, someone asked me did I think it was actually possible to win a World Series in Milwaukee. The thought has never crossed my mind that it wasn't possible to win a World Series in Milwaukee. None of us would be here working the way we work if we didn't think it was possible, nor if we thought we weren't the ones to do it. I think we recognize what the odds are. We embrace that and it pushes us to be just a little bit better than we thought we could be.
Are you good at this?
We'll find out.
What do you think?
We'll find out. I think I have confidence in my ability to do this job. I wouldn't have taken the job had I not had confidence. Ultimately this is a results-oriented business, and we need to provide the results over some period of time.
How do you deal with mistakes? Everybody makes mistakes.
How do you deal with them? Try not to do them again?
Yeah. You know, I think that the best way is recognize them, be honest with yourself that you've made a mistake, and whether that's a player personnel decision, a management mistake, be honest with yourself, and then understand why you made the mistake and then move on. I think there's a line between acknowledging and dwelling, and we can't dwell. We have too much to do and too many decisions to make. Acknowledge it, try to understand how that mistake came about, and then move on.
When you were a 13-year-old boy, you talked about how you felt about baseball. Is there still some of the 13-year-old boy around?
I think so. I think if I weren't sitting here and I didn't have this job, I'd have the exact same type of enthusiasm that I had when I was 13 years old. I still have the same level of enthusiasm. It just takes a slightly different format now with this job.
Baseball taught me a lot of the lessons throughout my life growing up that you hope to learn. Because of that, it's always been a huge part of who I am, and I don't anticipate that changing whether I'm the GM here for 20 years or significantly less than that. I think baseball is always going to be a significant part of my life.
Do you have friends outside of baseball? Here in Milwaukee?
That's always an interesting relationship because they must love the idea that you're friends and that you're in baseball. Is that an outlet for you to get away from this game with other people?
In season, I don't do much recreationally. We'll go out to dinner and we'll ... I'll try to remain physically active. During the off-season, I'll try to play golf occasionally. We'll socialize a little bit more. I think I recognize that what I do is of interest to people and that people are going to want to talk about baseball. I think most of my friends also recognize that I spend a tremendous amount of time talking and working on baseball, and so sometimes when I'm away from the office, we steer the conversations elsewhere.
How's your relationship with your owner, Mark Attanasio?
Mark's been outstanding. Mark is as competitive an owner as there is in baseball, and he wants to win a World Series here as much as anyone. He's given me the complete support to do what I think is necessary to get us on the path to doing that.
One of the difficult things for a general manager, in other sports as well, sometimes is keeping the owner a step away, so that they're not meddling. How do you do that with him?
I think a positive owner-general manager relationship starts with communication. It starts with understanding what our collective goals are and how we want to get there. That began during a rigorous interview process that I went through and it continues daily as we work through this together, and ultimately this is Mark's team. Mark has empowered our group here to lead his team for the time being, but recognize this is Mark's team, and ultimately we work together with him, but take direction from him.
What surprised you about this job?
Really, I think that the biggest surprise, and I touched on it a little bit earlier, is just the scope of the different skill sets and different personalities and different people that you have all around the world, all around the game working towards getting wins at Miller Park.
Obviously, each of them has their own incremental goals for the year; it's to help this prospect get better, to manage this minor-league affiliate or to scout in this area. But the end goal and the reason we're all doing this is to win games here. When you're sitting at the top of that group, it is a different feeling when you recognize that all these people are relying upon you to steer the ship correctly.
Ultimately, they can do incredible work, work as hard as they can, and if I don't steer the ship in the right direction, we're not going to get to where we want to go. I recognize that. They recognize that, and it's a tremendous amount of trust that they have to place in me.
Part of your job, a little part at least, is educational. People who think this whole thing is so simple, and yet in reality, the complexities of this job are unbound. How do you explain to somebody when they say "we should get this guy," "we should fire that guy," "we should get rid of this guy," that there's so much more that goes into those decisions than the simplistic responses.
Look, I think one of the reasons that sports evokes such passion is that it can be looked at in a relatively simplistic way. You win/you lose, my team/your team. It's pretty clear-cut sometimes. That can lead to vigorous debate and passionate debate, and that ultimately is what drives our success.
Obviously the factors I'm dealing with are a little bit more robust than that, and to some extent we try to communicate that. I don't know that we need to communicate all that. I don't know that all fans want to necessarily know exactly what we're dealing with on a day-to-day basis. They're concerned about what's going on on the field at 7:10 every night.
To them, it's the end result.
Yeah, and I do think there are fans that are more eager to dig beneath the surface.
They want to be general managers.
And to those, there are certainly a growing number of resources out there online that allow them to do that. We try to communicate as well as we can on a direct basis to our fan base and try to give them the insight we can. It kind of goes back to the honesty principle that we talked about at the front end. We try to stay honest and when we can't answer a question, we try to be honest about that, as well.
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