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A Thinking Man's Game

By David H. Stearns, Crimson Staff Writer

Baseball plays a cruel trick on those of us who were captured by it before we even had the chance to resist. It takes hold of us, a mystical unrelenting force that someone outside the baseball cult couldn’t possibly understand. From the time of your first game, from the time you can put on a cap, from the time you know what 6-4-3 actually means, it’s got you.

It makes you define seemingly important moments in your non-baseball life by baseball-related events. The first time you kissed a girl—also the night Butch Huskey hit two home runs and actually stole a base. The day you learned your Mom got that big promotion—also the day you saw Mark Clark take a no-hitter into the eighth.

What baseball does is it fools you to believe that you can forever combine reality with fantasy—that everyday life is tied to an outcome of a game.

But then, as much as we all don’t want it to, this dream world fades away. You’re told that there are bigger things than baseball—that baseball is a game that in the “real world” is reserved for a few athletically blessed individuals. You, unfortunately, are not among them. And that’s when your dream dies.

But increasingly, there are those without the physical capability to pursue major league careers who refuse to let that dream go. When they show up at places like Harvard or Yale or Princeton, they don’t appear any different from the rest of us. They could be the aspiring consultant in your Ec class or the doctor-to-be sitting next to you in Orgo. But somewhere beneath the responsibility of adulthood, their fantasy remains their reality.

This is the story of the growing number of Ivy League graduates who, faced with all the expectations of wealth and success that come with the label and the degree, chose to never give up on their dreams. They’re proving that the “real world” does include baseball. And while they’re at it, they’re revolutionizing the game.

* * *

Mike Smith grew up at the crossroads of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. New London, Conn.—nearly equidistant from Yawkey Way and the Major Deegan—forces Red Sox fans and Yankees fans to share neighborhoods and playgrounds.

Smith, who quickly chose red over blue as his preferred color, was no different than any other baseball-crazed kid. He liked playing with his friends during the day, and loved watching his heroes on television at night.

And then, after high school, Smith moved 50 miles west along the Connecticut coast to Yale, where he would study geology and geophysics with hopes of becoming a weatherman. Baseball began to drift away.

Dan Noffsinger ’03 seemed similarly fated to distance himself from the game he loved as a kid. Coming into Harvard in 1999, Noffsinger was a fantasy baseball aficionado with Little League experience and not much else. He found his niche on campus as an applied math and economics concentrator and with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.

Then there’s Mike Hill ’93. Hill sustained his dream of becoming a major league player for much longer than either Smith or Noffsinger. Hill stood out in both football and baseball for the Crimson. Following graduation in 1993, he was drafted in the 31st round by the Texas Rangers and set out intent on pursuing what he hoped would be a “career path to be a Hall of Fame player.”

Somewhere along the line, the disparate backgrounds of Smith, Noffsinger, and Hill converged to produce three men determined to break into and make a career in the game they couldn’t escape.

Smith, now Director of Baseball Operations for the Detroit Tigers, Noffsinger, now a Baseball Operations Assistant with the Florida Marlins, and Hill, now Noffsinger’s superior as Vice President and Assistant General Manager of the Marlins, are just three of the many recent Ivy graduates who are helping to redefine the way baseball front offices are run.

The surge of former Ivy Leaguers making their way into baseball operations first came to the forefront in Michael Lewis’ 2003 book “Moneyball.” Lewis followed the inner workings of the Oakland Athletics front office, making specific reference to Paul DePodesta ’95, a Harvard graduate who served as Assistant General Manager to Billy Beane in Oakland at the time and has since moved on to become General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

DePodesta was largely portrayed as the stereotypical Ivy League nerd in the book—perpetually crouched behind the screen of his omnipresent laptop—but at the same time he was given tremendous credit for guiding the A’s through statistical analyses rather than relying solely on conventional scouting methods.

“The point of Moneyball was that you run baseball like a business,” Smith says. “You take all the information possible when making a decision.”

Encouraged by the business aspect of the game that the book highlighted, the number of Ivy graduates attempting to enter baseball front offices increased dramatically. Even before Moneyball reached the bestseller list, however, DePodesta and Hill—along with Theo Epstein, a 1995 Yale graduate and current Red Sox General Manager, and Mark Shapiro, a 1989 Princeton graduate and current Cleveland Indians General Manager—were all well-entrenched in the game. They have now become the examples for the many Ivy Leaguers aspiring to find a way into baseball.

“I think it has to do with the change in dynamics of the game,” says Hill of the growing demand for finance-savvy front office personnel. “Owners are now running teams like Fortune 500 companies. There’s a lot of money now involved in everything that we do.”

The type of statistical analysis used by the A’s and examined in Moneyball produced a winning franchise with a comparatively meager payroll. As players’ salaries and owners’ expenditures skyrocketed, finding undervalued assets became a key focus of all baseball executives.

DePodesta and Epstein quickly became the poster boys for this new-age approach to baseball. Both have demonstrated the effectiveness of using in-depth statistics in conjunction with traditional player evaluation methods, such as scouting.

Dan Shaughnessy, a columnist with The Boston Globe who regularly covers the Red Sox, has observed the transformation of front office operations around the game and does not see it reversing course any time soon.

“It’s clearly more than a trend,” says Shaughnessy of the more-statistics minded approach used by many teams. “It’s the way the business has gravitated.”

And it seems to be a conglomerate of Ivy graduates leading baseball in that direction.

“A well-rounded education that makes you think critically is important,” says Smith about successfully running a franchise. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be an Ivy education, but thinking critically is important.”

But using the Ivy education to break into baseball may not provide the same immediate financial reward as in other arenas.

Following his graduation in June 2003, Noffsinger watched those around him go off to become consultants or investment bankers with prospects of six-figure salaries. Noffsinger, meanwhile, trudged off to work at the Arizona Fall League to pursue his baseball dreams.

“You’ve got to stay humble,” says Noffsinger about how best to deal with less than glorious starting positions in baseball.

“You have to make so many sacrifices in this game,” Hill adds.

Sacrificing potential wealth is something Smith knows all about. After his junior year at Yale, he landed a prestigious internship in Hawaii to study weather patterns. But as much as he tried, he couldn’t get baseball out of his mind.

“All I did all day was sneak out and go watch baseball,” Smith says. “I’d follow games all day long on my computer.”

After completing his internship and graduating from Yale the following spring, Smith briefly tried his hand at an Internet start-up in Connecticut, but realized that any attempt to escape baseball would be futile.

In the winter of 2000, he went to spring training in Florida, slept in his car for two weeks, and was able to make the contacts that would eventually help him get his chance in baseball.

When reminded that he could be living a slightly different lifestyle had he chosen to remain in Connecticut, Smith chuckles.

“I know all about that. My college roommate works at Google.”

After pausing for a second he adds, “I don’t regret for a second that I didn’t do that.”

Now Smith and Noffsinger, both still in the first few chapters of their baseball odysseys, hope to follow in the footsteps of DePodesta, Epstein, and Shapiro as Ivy League graduates running a team.

Hill, meanwhile, worked his way into baseball operations after playing for three years in the minor leagues. He now stands just a step away from joining DePodesta as Harvard alums as general managers.

“The toughest part is getting the opportunity,” says Hill of his experiences in baseball. “Then you have to make the most of it.”

* * *

It hasn’t gotten to the point yet where representatives from the Red Sox are joining recruiters from J.P Morgan at career fairs, and it is similarly unlikely that the ongoing curricular review will create a concentration of “professional baseball studies.”

But for those consumed by the game—those of us who cringe at the thought of baseball drifting away—the door to a new reality is now open.

—Staff writer David H. Stearns can be reached at stearns@fas.harvard.edu.

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