Billy Eppler spent more than a decade working for Brian Cashman and the Yankees, a training ground that readied him for nearly anything baseball had to throw at him.
He was passed over by the Angels, Mariners and Padres after interviewing for their general manager jobs, but a second chance in Anaheim saw the San Diego native finally get his opportunity, as Eppler was hired as the Angels' GM in October 2015.
MLB.com sat down with Eppler in his office at Tempe Diablo Stadium in the final days of Spring Training to discuss his career, what he learned from Cashman and the secret to dealing with the media.
MLB.com: You pitched for UConn before a shoulder injury ended your playing career. Had you had aspirations of a professional career before the injury?
Eppler: Yeah, I did. I wrote this goal sheet when I was about 17 years old and it had a lot of things on it that I wanted to do in my life. They ended up making a movie of that called "The Bucket List," but I had that. It was something I kept in my high school bedroom and then in my dorm room at college. I had it up on the wall and on it was to be a professional baseball player. I did not get that opportunity and was not able to check that box.
Could I have been drafted had I stayed healthy? Who knows? Probably not. I probably would have been your typical senior sign, gotten a half-season or a season and a half out of it and then that would have been about it. I became a pretty good self-evaluator at about age 20. You jump into a bigger pond and that hits you in the face. I wanted to, but I didn't get that opportunity.
MLB.com: You interned with the Washington Redskins after graduating. Was there any thought to pursuing a career as a football executive?
Eppler: I kicked it around. My best friend's father, somebody that I grew up with, was Ernie Zampese, the offensive coordinator in the NFL. Just growing up around that environment, I knew I wanted a career in professional sports. As I was talking to Ernie, he said, "If you can get yourself in the door in baseball because you have more playing experience and institutional knowledge and general knowledge of the game, you might be able to do a little bit more." I had that conversation with him.
Watching as a very young child -- age 7, age 8, age 9 -- going to training camp and spending two weeks at training camp when he was the offensive coordinator of the Chargers, we'd be at UC San Diego, where they used to have their training camp. One of my best memories of my life was a two-hand-touch football game: Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow against me and Jon Zampese. We're playing, running around the fields in between the dorm rooms; those are great memories. Watching how intense, how involved and just the passion that Ernie had, I knew I wanted to do something in sports.
MLB.com: How did you land your first job in baseball?
Eppler: I landed it with the Colorado Rockies. Damon Oppenheimer, who my family has known for a long time -- our fathers ran Chevron gasoline stations together -- Damon and I got to know each other through his mom, Priscilla Oppenheimer, who worked for the San Diego Padres. Priscilla set up a meeting for Damon and I and we met; Damon said, "I have a friend of mine that just landed the scouting director job in Colorado and he might be looking for some guys."
I interviewed with Bill Schmidt with the Colorado Rockies, who was the scouting director, for a job as a Northeast-area scout. I did not get the job. Providence College, at that moment, had folded their baseball program, so he went with one of the coaches who was out of work -- at least from coaching -- and knew the area, knew the lay of the land way better than I did. I didn't know the Northeast that well, even though I went to school in the area. When Bill Schmidt called me and told me he was going in a different direction, I was really disappointed. Maybe he heard the disappointment in my voice, I'm not sure, but he said, "I do have something I might be able to give you: it would be $5,000 for the year. It would be as an associate scout" -- part-time scout technically is what the contract read -- "and you can scout Southern California, so on and so forth. It's an opportunity for you. I know it's not a lot of money, but you have energy, you have passion, so I'm throwing it your way."
I accepted right there on the phone and said, "I'm in, no matter what." I stayed in my mom's house in San Diego, was in the bedroom that I grew up in. I was 22, maybe just turned 23, and I was off and running. I was at games all the time. I ran with it and it turned itself into a full-time job about six months later. They hired me, so I didn't even really see the end of that $5,000, one-year contract, which, after taxes, was, like, $133 every two weeks. I had to get an extra job. Even living at home, I had no rent, but I had a car payment and car insurance and things like that. I could live fairly cheap, and that's exactly what I did.
MLB.com: While heading up the Yankees' pro scouting department, you helped recommend the signings of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones and Russell Martin, all under-the-radar signings who made significant contributions in New York. Is there something satisfying when you identify and single out a player that other people are overlooking or not looking at at all in some case and having it pay off the way those moves did?
Eppler: Absolutely. When you talk about moves that are made and you start talking about the high-value contracts, so on and so forth, do you play a part in those? Absolutely. But do you have a little bit more ownership in something that might be a non-roster invite or be coming in on a Minor League contract? Or a guy that's a small trade, a trade that our pro scouting group did for [Jerry] Hairston and [Eric] Hinske [in '09]; those are extremely satisfying from a morale and an organizational standpoint because you have the analytics department, the pro scouting department and the front office all intertwined in this process.
It's a very feel-good moment for the organization just as a Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain or an Ian Kennedy, as guys like Brett Gardner and David Robertson evolve through a system, that's a very good feeling for your domestic amateur group, your player development group as well as your front office. Everybody that plays a part in that, your pro scouts evaluating your players as they're coming up the system, so you have a number of departments all working together. Those are the most rewarding times; they absolutely are.
MLB.com: The Yankees are a big-market team, the Angels are a big-market team, but is it necessary to find guys like the ones I mentioned -- Colon, Garcia, Chavez -- to balance out some of the big contracts you also have?
Eppler: Absolutely. Not everybody around the field can be the $20 million player. You're going to run thin at some point. Having those players -- whether they're grown organically and come through your farm system or whether they're guys that you grab on a Minor League deal and they make the club and they're making $850,000 or even if they're making $3.5 million -- having those pieces is very important for the health. It allows maneuverability on other things, so if you have more players playing at pre-free-agent prices, it just allows you to maybe play on a bigger free agent when that opportunity comes or multiple free agents when that opportunity comes.
MLB.com: You worked for Brian Cashman for a decade. What did you learn most from him?
Eppler: The value of time and the value of patience -- and how to use those in your decision-making. Be pragmatic in your decision-making; not make a decision within 24 hours if you can wait that long. Clearly some things, DLs, in-season transactions, they happen quick and you have to move quick, but just to allow time to go by. Watching Brian do that in that kind of environment and the expectations and the pressure that comes with that environment, if he can do that there, we clearly can do that in other places. That was one of my biggest takeaways.
His interaction with the media, his interaction with agents, his interaction with the clubhouse and the players, I've really tried to model a lot of myself in that in my conversations. Be direct, be honest. That's exactly what I want to do.
MLB.com: Funny you mention the media; that leads me to my next question. When you were the assistant GM, the Yankees made the decision to allow you to speak to the media. In one of your first interviews, you got into a little hot water with the whole Chamberlain starter/reliever controversy.
Eppler: I don't recall that at all. (Laughs.) I bet you six months doesn't go by without me thinking about it.
MLB.com: Is dealing with the media something that you need to learn how to do?
Eppler: I think you're just learning people. That's generally it. You're aware of the message that you're trying to convey and you're aware that the media has a job to do -- and a tough job to do. We're always very respectful. What I've modeled or taken away from that time in New York is respectful of the time, respectful of the job. Get to know people, because these are relationships. These are relationships just like with a scout or a coach; they're important relationships and they're people that have a job to do and a family.
It has been something that I've embraced and something I know is part of the job, part of the role. Part of those learning moments was the takeaway from Stick [Gene Michael]; "Stick" said this to Cash a long, long time ago, then Cash said it to me and Stick said it to me, as well: Never underestimate the power of "No comment." You do not have to answer every single question, but never lie. That's kind of my takeaway.
MLB.com: Do you think Statcast™ is making fans look at the game differently?
Eppler: I would imagine it is. Clearly, if you have an interest in those things, those resources are there and you have another way to look at the game. If you don't, you don't have to. It almost offers another item on the menu for the fans, and that's a good thing.
MLB.com: Last year, Mike Trout said of you, "He comes around the clubhouse every day, talks to us. You can joke around with him and tell him anything. That's how GMs should be: Interact with the players, come in and act like part of the team." Is that important to you?
Eppler: I don't know any other way. It doesn't feel like it's part of me to not go in and say, "What's up?" to the guys, be around. I do go into the clubhouse on a daily basis. I go in approximately, maybe 2:30 to 3:30; might grab a workout in there, might not, but I'll definitely go down and check in with the coaches, say hello to those guys. Then I swing through after every game, win or loss. It's what I watched Brian do, so I model it after Cash.
I don't go into the player locker room area; I leave that for them. If I see them in the lounge, training room or weight room, I like that interaction with the guys. I told the group last year when I got here that I would be accessible and I would be visible; come good or bad, whatever our outcome, you will always see me. I thought that was important for me, and like I said, I really don't know another way.
MLB.com: During your time in New York, you got to watch some pretty legendary players on a daily basis; Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, etc. What is it like watching Trout every day?
Eppler: It's similar. When you see guys, whether it was Jeter, Rod, Mo, Andy [Pettitte] or Sado [Jorge Posada], when you see guys that can slow the game down, when you see a situation like Mike Trout sliding head first -- which always makes GMs and coaches and field people hold their breath -- and sliding in, maneuvering himself around tags, the game just moves slower for some individuals. Maybe it wasn't moving slow for Derek, but it sure looked like it was. Maybe it wasn't moving slow for Mo, but it looked like it was. It's the same thing with Mike; it looks like the game moves slow for him. He's fun to watch."
MLB.com: How do you assess the state of the American League West?
Eppler: It is going to be a very competitive division. I had a GM friend of mine tell me -- who is not in this division -- "I think you could make a case that four clubs could win that division." We'll see what ultimately comes out, but it's going to be a tough division and it's going to come down to the end.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.