During an unusually snowy day in April 1996, one Leverett House sophomore trekked through heavy slush down JFK Street to a bar called The Grill. It was Major League Baseball’s opening day, and the bar would be showing games from all over the country.
Watching the action was an annual ritual for the student, Matthew P. Silverman ’98, an avid baseball fan.
But he was frustrated with the weather, which had caused the Boston Red Sox to cancel their home opener.
“I’m ready for springtime to begin, for the Red Sox to begin, for the Red Sox to get out on the field,” he told The Crimson then.
But this fall, Silverman cheered when the Sox’ season ended early—in 2005, he had been named president of the Tampa Bay Rays, who beat Boston in the American League Championship Series.
Silverman was just seven years out of Harvard when he became the president of the team known then as the Devil Rays. In the team’s decade in the Major Leagues, Tampa Bay had never had a winning season and had finished dead last in the American League East all but once.
This season, with a new name and a team built around young, homegrown talent, the Rays finished first in the division and went on to the World Series, where they eventually lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, a bittersweet ending to a successful season.
“There was initial disappointment because we didn’t get to have that last celebration,” Silverman said in an interview earlier this month. “But after a couple nights of good sleep, the accomplishments of the organization started to sink in.”
‘A COMPLETE 180’
Silverman said the Rays’ turnaround has been “a complete 180,” and that in his three years as president, “we’ve been able to change our image and prospects for the organization.”
The Rays’ sudden success has been attributed to a renewed focus on developing young minor-league talent and increasing the team’s fan base.
As president, Silverman focuses on both baseball operations and the organization’s marketing and finances, with the latter occupying about two-thirds of his time. At this point in the off-season, he is planning promotions and capital investments for next year. In April, he will turn to “execution” of the organization’s plans and begin traveling with the team.
“There is no typical day in baseball,” he said.
Silverman said the youth of his staff—he is 32, and Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman is 31—does surprise some people, but if anything it has aided in their success.
“Certainly it raises some eyebrows,” he said. “We know our limitations. We’re just interested in finding solutions whether they are tried and tested or novel ones.”
While Silverman and his team have succeded in some areas—including picking up talented players in low-profile minor league trades, there have also been hurdles along the way.
This summer, discussions to build a stadium on the waterfront of St. Petersburg, Fla., fell apart, a significant defeat for team officials. They had hoped to have a new home for the team that could draw more season ticket holders. The Rays’ current venue, Tropicana Field, is a cavernous dome that lacks much charm.
Silverman said the team’s success this year has raised the team’s profile in Tampa Bay, and with the future looking brighter, the team will continue its push for a new ballpark.
“We have now a community that is proud of the organization,” he said. “We fell three victories short of the ultimate goal, but the magnitude of the season is starting to sink in.”
FROM WALL STREET TO THE FRONT OFFICE
After graduating from Harvard in 1998, Silverman took a job at Goldman Sachs. There, he worked on several transactions with Stuart Sternberg, a partner 17 years his senior. Despite the age difference, the two quickly became friends, bonding over their mutual love of baseball.
“Baseball was the centerpiece of that relationship,” Silverman said. “Our first conversation was more about baseball than it was about business.” Sternberg had at the time expressed interest in buying a minority stake in a baseball franchise, but nothing came of it. Soon, both men left Goldman Sachs to pursue other projects.
But a few years later, when Silverman was in the midst of writing a novel, Sternberg gave him a call. Sternberg wanted to buy the Devil Rays, and he wanted Silverman on his management team.
Getting into the business of baseball, Silverman said, “wasn’t planned and it wasn’t a primary career interest of mine.”
When Sternberg called, Silverman had written nearly 60,000 words of his book. But even the novel, a story of a father-son relationship strained by addiction, had ended up revolving around baseball. The sport was Silverman’s inescapable passion, and so he accepted Sternberg’s offer.
A STUDENT OF THE GAME
Growing up in Dallas, Silverman would run home after school to catch baseball games on TV. Silverman became an avid fan of the Chicago Cubs, who were televised on WGN, which was then a national network.
From the beginning, Silverman said, he immersed himself in the details of the game.
“My dad tells me I was reading box scores in the newspaper at 5 years old,” Silverman said.
At Harvard, Silverman became even more engaged, taking a freshman seminar that used baseball as a way to look at American history. The class got him more seriously interested in the game and its effects on the wider world. Outside the classroom, Silverman continued to watch games voraciously with his Leverett House roommates.
“We watched a ton of sports on our crappy little 13-inch TV,” said Grant M. Thompson ’98, one of Silverman’s roommates.
But his roommates say that Silverman was less a fanatic than a student of the game. While he vigorously supported his teams, he maintained a thoughtful detachment from them.
“He was not the type to show up at the bar with his face painted and with a foam finger,” Thompson said, alluding to Silverman’s future as an executive. “In order to be a good manager you have to be in some sense removed from the game.”
Another roommate, Mike E. Driscoll ’98, described Silverman as a calm person with a head for numbers. He said that because of those qualities, he was not entirely surprised when Silverman took the job in Tampa Bay.
“Among the roommates we had a joke that he might get involved in the sports franchises in Texas,” Driscoll said. “But none of us expected it would happen as early as it did.”
This year, the Rays’ improbable march to the World Series has brought the blockmates, who were always a tight bunch, closer together.
Driscoll said that though he has never really been a sports fan, he tuned in. During the ALCS, another roommate, Eric S. Olney ’98, even abandoned his beloved Red Sox to root for his friend’s team.
At Harvard, the roommates had a running joke that Silverman seemed to always end up with part of his head or his shoulders cut off in photographs.
After the Rays won the ALCS, one of the roommates sent the others an e-mail with a picture of Silverman at the post-game press conference. Half of his body was out of the photo.
The subject line of the message: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”