Smith's move to top a long time coming

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2007 - 11:41 PM

Bill Smith’s decision to attend the 1979 winter meetings started him down a lifelong career in baseball. That career reached its peak when he was named to take over as GM for a team he has been with for 22 years.

When Terry Ryan stepped down as Twins general manager Thursday, he answered questions about his successor as if he were delivering one more scouting report.

Ryan described Bill Smith as a perfect GM candidate whose talents have gone somewhat unnoticed nationally.

"Bill was ready [to become a GM] 10 years ago," Ryan said. "There isn't a thing he hasn't done. ... If some of these owners had come in and talked to Bill, he'd have blown them away."

Baltimore Orioles President Andy MacPhail, who was Twins GM when they hired Smith in 1986, called Smith "an extraordinary talent" and "one of those under-the-radar executives" who help make successful teams thrive.

"He's one of the people I admire the most in this sport," MacPhail said.

Smith, 49, grew up in North Hampton, N.H., and played two years of NCAA Division III baseball at Hamilton College in New York, where he majored in French. In 1979, he began chasing a dream and turned into a baseball lifer.

Now, after 22 years with the Twins, including the past 13 as assistant GM, Smith has moved out of Ryan's shadow and into a job he never lobbied to have.

"I think every person who gets into baseball aspires to be a general manager," Smith said. "But over the years, I loved my job. I loved working for Terry. ... It wasn't that I didn't aspire to it, it was just never to the point that I had any interest in leaving this organization."

Smith has a different background than Ryan's, with more administrative skills than scouting skills. But those who know them both suspect the Twins will go through this transition and come out largely the same as they've been since the MacPhail era.

"The biggest difference is I've got a full head of hair and about 80 more pounds [than Ryan]," Smith said. "But there are huge shoes to fill. The best news is, he's not far away when I need help."

• • •

MacPhail loves the story about how Smith landed his job with the Twins.

After taking over as GM, MacPhail had Jim Rantz as minor league director and Ryan as a scouting director, and he wanted someone who could work closely with both departments.

Smith was the GM of the Appleton (Wis.) Foxes, a Class A affiliate for the Chicago White Sox.

Smith placed a call one morning to Rantz, who explained that the hire had to be made within a week. The problem was, most of the Twins' days were booked.

"How about this afternoon?" Smith said.

When Rantz told him it was a nearly 300-mile drive from Appleton to Minneapolis, Smith said, "I think I can be there in six hours."

He hopped in the car with his wife, Becky, and interviewed that afternoon.

It was February 1986, and Smith recalls it being "about 50 below." But when the Twins offered him the job, he jumped at it, even though it was a significant pay cut from his job in the minors.

"That's the kind of guy he is," MacPhail said.

Smith smiled at the memory, saying, "Best drive I ever made."

Even then, Smith had gained considerable experience.

The story really begins at Hamilton College in 1979, when Smith skipped the final week of class to attend baseball's annual winter meetings.

"Every year before that, [the winter meetings were] in the south -- Hawaii, Texas and Florida, and I was going to school in upstate New York. That year, they were in Toronto. I took the bus up there. I was trying to convince my professors why I was missing class to go to a baseball trade show."

It wasn't a wasted trip. Smith learned of a new initiative called the Major League Baseball Executive Development Program.

"Frank Cashen started the program with the idea that we have to bring new blood into the game," Smith said. "Too often the positions were filled by friends, family and former players, and here came the son of a Coast Guard officer, a French major, all that stuff, a little off the wall.

"And somehow I survived all the cuts."

After nine months of wide-ranging apprenticeship in the commissioner's office, Smith got hired by the White Sox, where he spent two years in the baseball operations department. He moved on to spend three years as Appleton's GM before current Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski gave him a tip that the Twins were looking to hire.

Smith worked under Dombrowski and Roland Hemond with the White Sox.

MacPhail liked Smith right away. They worked together to help design the team's new spring training complex in Fort Myers, Fla.

MacPhail noted that Smith learned a third language after taking charge of the Twins' academies in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

"He was a French major in college, and then picked up Spanish," MacPhail said, marveling.

• • •

Smith said everything he knows about player evaluation he learned from Ryan.

They complemented each other well. Ryan made baseball decisions, and Smith helped him finish the paperwork and follow the commissioner's office guidelines. And Smith branched out into many different areas.

"You want to talk about international scouting, he's done it," Ryan said. "You want to talk about minor leagues, he's on the Minor League Baseball Board of Trustees. You want to talk about major league contracts, he's done contracts. You want to talk about rules, he's done rules."

Ryan was deep into his scouting report.

"If you think I've got a great work ethic, you should see his. It puts mine to shame," he said. "Bill's religious about coming in early, and staying late. There's no task that's too trivial for him to take on. He's trilingual. ... We'll have to slow him down."

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