The Rays-Dodgers World Series is less impersonal than you think – Press Enterprise

The Rays-Dodgers World Series is less impersonal than you think – Press Enterprise

When Stuart Sternberg retired from the investment firm Goldman Sachs in 2002, he cast his eye toward buying a Major League Baseball franchise. A Brooklyn native, Sternberg was born too late to watch a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field, but he named one of his sons after his favorite pitcher, Sandy Koufax. Koufax’s number 32 wound its way into his email address. Unsurprisingly, Sternberg looked into buying the Dodgers before the franchise was sold to Frank McCourt in 2004.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were at least Sternberg’s third choice before his group purchased a large share – reportedly 48 percent – of the woebegone club in 2004. Now, 16 years later, the threads that bind the Rays and Dodgers are thick as the teams prepare for their first World Series meeting.

Those threads are often re-woven into a simple caricature. It must tie together Wall Street, and “Moneyball,” and analytics, and the ruthless pursuit of efficiency in constructing a roster. It is mandatory to cite the influence of Dodgers executive Andrew Friedman, Sternberg’s first hand-picked general manager in Tampa Bay and himself a Wall Street expatriate.

For all its truth, this caricature misses the mark in a critical area. It ignores the common trait most frequently mentioned by players on the two teams Monday, the Zoom-sponsored “media day” before the World Series. One man after another from both organizations picked up the thread of Rays-Dodgers connections and wove a uniquely human tale.

Rays shortstop Willy Adames summed it up best: “The way that they treat the guys, the way that they treat everybody here, makes you feel comfortable.”

That’s an easy thought to lose in the noise. Repeat it often enough, and it becomes hard to miss.

Consider the career trajectory of Dodgers catcher Will Smith. Two years ago, Smith was in the clubhouse for a World Series run. He didn’t play an inning. He didn’t make a single postseason roster. He traveled with the Dodgers in October 2018 to learn from teammates, to listen, to observe, to acclimate, months before his actual big-league debut.

“It made my transition better, getting called up last year,” Smith said. “It made it a little smoother, more comfortable for myself.”

Smith has never played for another organization. Neither has shortstop Corey Seager, the Most Valuable Player of the NLCS. Seager at least enjoyed some cups of coffee in spring training with the Dodgers before Friedman was hired in November 2014. How has the clubhouse culture changed since his first exposure as a teenager?

“It’s become very open,” Seager said. “There’s nothing hidden, nothing that people are going to get upset about. We want people to feel comfortable. It’s just all about showing up, doing your job, going home and moving on. It’s never nitpicking at people for how they get ready for games. It’s never nitpicking on how people work. It’s all about the product that night, and how do we get the best product out of everybody that night?

“We’re free to figure out how people want to do it, give our advice. For the most part, we want it to be comfortable. Comfortable is a good word.”

The notion of human comfort as a tenet of sabermetrics, analytics, data-driven decisions – call it what you will – is not part of the caricature. It’s almost too easy to dismiss as some fancy new age mumbo jumbo. Does winning breed comfort, or does comfort breed winning? The Rays didn’t enjoy a winning season in Friedman’s first two years, or in 2014, his last. The Dodgers were already a winning team when Friedman replaced Ned Colletti.

Friedman might have taken his culture-building ideas from Tampa Bay to Los Angeles, but he does not take credit for their origin. They were with Sternberg from the beginning, he said, as strong as any tenet that guided the Rays’ rebuild.

“So much of my growth professionally was with Stu as a mentor,” Friedman said. “He has done an immeasurable amount for me and my family. And a lot of what I’ve learned, in a lot of respects, has come from him.”

Sternberg became the Rays’ managing general partner in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. His influence explains why the current Rays whom Friedman did not draft, develop, or acquire echo the same thought about culture today.

“Coming over here when I got traded, I didn’t know what to expect,” said outfielder Austin Meadows, whom the Rays acquired from the Pirates in 2018. “How low-key everything is, how you can be yourself, that took a lot of weight off my shoulders personally. That contributed to me playing on the field, playing really well. That starts with the guys up top.”

If Sternberg brought his vision for team culture from Wall Street to St. Pete, and Friedman became the public face of that vision, the man left to see it through is Rays manager Kevin Cash. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the team’s longest-tenured player, said Cash inherited the same approach from his predecessor, Joe Maddon.