Daniels, then 24, made a few connections and wound up with an internship with the Rockies in 2002. Four years later, he became the youngest general manager in Major League history, assuming the job with the Rangers for the '06 season.
Now the franchise's president of baseball operations and general manager, Daniels has overseen both of the Rangers' World Series appearances (2010-11) since its inception as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961.
Daniels talked about his life in baseball in this week's Q&A.
MLB.com: What was your original career path?
Daniels: Right after school, I moved to Boston. I followed a job and a girlfriend up there, and when I got up there, they were both gone. I ended up taking a job with a parent company of a Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin Robbins, working on my business development stuff for them. I didn't really know how realistic it was for me to get in the game, not having played. It turns out that these kind of front-office internships that probably the last 20 years have been created and guys have come through -- that was an avenue I didn't realize was open to me at the time. Obviously, it worked out well.
MLB.com: Having not played baseball, what was the attraction?
Daniels: I loved the game. I just grew up in New York, in Queens. I loved all four of the major sports, but baseball was really just a passion. I'm a little bit of a sports dork, sports nerd, whatever you want to say. I just loved, just followed everything about it. I thought in college, if there was an opportunity to get into professional sports, it might be more likely on the NFL side, with the salary cap. You heard the term "capologist" and all that sort of deal, but my passion was much more baseball. Once I saw this opportunity, that's when I pursued it.
MLB.com: So at 28, you become the youngest GM in baseball?
Daniels: The season ended on a Sunday. On Monday, we had a meeting at (owner) Tom Hicks' office to review the season. John Hart was GM at the time, kept deferring to me on some of the questions about how we were going to handle X, Y and Z. After the meeting, I headed back to the ballpark. I had a flight to go to the Dominican the next day. We were working on a new complex down in the Dominican, so A.J. Preller, myself and I think Dom Chiti were going down to the Dominican to work on it. I got a message from Tom Hicks that said, "Hey, I want you to scratch your trip to the Dominican. Come meet me in my office." I called John Hart, my boss, and said, "John, what's going on?"
He said, "JD, I just stepped down as GM; I recommended you as the successor. I've got to go. You're interviewing for the GM spot tomorrow. I'll talk to you later."
MLB.com: And …
Daniels: Here I went from planning out a Dominican trip, went in the next day and interviewed with Tom, was wildly unprepared and Tom offered me the job. I told him, "Hey, as the assistant GM, I feel it's my responsibility to recommend you interview a few other people first."
He said, "No, I'm good."
That afternoon I had a press conference. Listen, I'm unbelievably grateful for the opportunity. I was not prepared for it at the time. I think I had the self-awareness both then and now to say I would have been -- in a perfect world -- better off with a little more experience. You know, you're not going to turn down a general manager's job.
MLB.com: And there were some rocky moments?
Daniels: I think more than the opportunity to do the job, Tom gave me the opportunity to fail. Our first year, we made some poor decisions, some good ones, some bad ones, but he gave me the opportunity to fail and grow from there. I was better off for it.
Isn't that how we usually succeed, we have enough failure to realize what a failure is and what not to do again, right?
MLB.com: You always quickly learn that suddenly everything you say is a story.
Daniels: That's the whole different piece. It's kind of like when guys get called up to the big leagues. I'm not comparing myself to a big league player, but you talk about, "It's the same game, it's the same deal." It's not.
Michael Young has got a great analogy. He said, "Can you walk on a two-by-four if I lay it out on the floor?"
I said, "Yeah, I could walk on a two-by-four."
"All right, if I hold it up five feet in the air?"
"I hope so."
"What if I hold it up 20 feet in in the air?"
"I'd probably be pretty nervous."
"What if I hold it up 20 feet in the air in a stadium full of 50,000 people and you're on live TV in front of 10 million people? Can you walk on that two-by-four right now?"
People don't appreciate what the performance anxiety piece of it is. Not that there's a performance anxiety with making decisions, but it's different when you're sitting in the decision-maker's chair versus one chair to your left, the scrutiny that comes with it, the second guessing.
How many opinions is the right number of opinions? Paralysis by analysis kind of stuff, so I definitely went through all of that.
I think the scrutiny that your family has to go through -- I remember Dan O'Dowd talking to me about that in Colorado. Back when I think he got the paper delivered -- when that was more the way we got our news -- he had to stop, because he didn't want [his family] to have to read some of the negatives. That's a big piece of it. You have to get used to that.
MLB.com: The back-to-back World Series appearances made you an expert?
Daniels: I think so. Listen, it's a performance-oriented, results-oriented industry. When there's a process in place and a plan in place -- from the outside looking in, you can kind of see what's going on, but until it's carried through to fruition ... We haven't gotten over that last hurdle, we haven't won the whole thing, but you can look back now at the last five, six, seven years and see we've produced to a certain level. We haven't finished the job. I think organizationally it's given us a little more credibility.