Twenty-six years ago, a 34-year-old Stan Kasten made his entrance into the world of professional baseball as the president of the Braves. He eventually was a part of a leadership group along with Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz that put together an organization that produced a North American professional sports team record 14 consecutive division titles.
At the age of 27, he was the youngest general manager in the NBA. He is the only person in history to be president of three professional franchises at the same time, becoming president of the NBA's Hawks in April 1986, the NL's Atlanta Braves in November 1986 and then the expansion NHL Atlanta Thrashers in November 1999. Kasten is now the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers, having served in a similar position with the Washington Nationals in between Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Kasten took a break from his postseason schedule to have a conversation with MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby.
MLB.com: Remember the first time you saw Dodger Stadium?
Kasten: Absolutely. It was on my honeymoon. My wife and I visited all five parks in California. So I know exactly when it was. It was 36 years ago.
MLB.com: Something about you and ballparks. I seem to remember it was a ballpark tour that got you into sports to begin with.
Kasten: In the summer of 1976, I graduated from the Columbia Law School and treated myself to a tour of the Major League ballparks. I was in St. Louis to watch the Cardinals. They were playing the Braves and Ted Turner was the Braves new owner. I said hi and introduced myself. He invited me to write him, so I did. My plan was to be an anti-trust lawyer, but Ted offered me a job in the legal department of Turner Sports, which owned TBS, the Hawks and the Braves.
MLB.com: And now you are president of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Kasten: It all seems so unbelievable. … Once I saw the possibility of the situation with the Dodgers, I decided I was not going to get involved in anything else until I saw the [purchase effort] through. People would ask me, 'Why?' Simple. It was my dream gig. It's the Dodgers. I mean, the Dodgers. To me that explained it all. I was reading an article one day and it said, 'Dodgers President Stan Kasten.' I told my wife, read this. She started to read it and asked, 'How much do I have to read?' I told her, 'Just the first four words.'
MLB.com: There has to be special feelings about looking across the field and seeing the Braves, a franchise you were so instrumental in turning into one of the most successful in baseball.
Kasten: To be honest, no matter who we are playing, no matter who is in the lineup, I just want to win. I don't care who we are playing. My focus is on us, not who we are playing. I want to win three series in October. I could care less who is on the other side of the field. It's awkward with my friends who run up and down that whole organization, but I don't spend any time thinking about it. We are the Dodgers. We need to win. That's what I am focused on.
MLB.com: There has to be satisifaction with the way this team overcame the early-season problems and ran away with the NL West.
Kasten: It was a successful regular season, but everyone knows the postseason is what it is all about. I am proud of the sustained commitment and effort and accomplishement of the organization with the outstanding comeback as a good start.
MLB.com: And there are Washington ties for you, too.
Kasten: I feel happy for the people in those front offices. The strength of both franchises is their baseball operations in the front office. I know how hard it is to compete against 29 other teams. When you are able to succeed, especially like Atlanta for two decades, it is testimony to the hard work. Washington has the same potential for the future. Understand, though, it is not that I am spending time thinking about the Braves and Nationals. I am spending time building the best possible front office I can, and we've got a head start on Atlanta and Washington because of what's already in place.
MLB.com: Biggest challenge in taking over the Dodgers last season?
Kasten: We knew what the Dodgers mean to baseball and mean to the people in Los Angeles, and we had the challenge of returning the Dodgers to being the Dodgers. The best index was we had 17,000 season tickets, which was a historical low. We did not have great Minor League development. We were last in international signings. We had to correct that. Those things take time. Long-term plans takes time. We also focused on putting into place whatever we could as quickly as we did. It's why we made trades last summer and the trades we did this year. We are focused on a long-term plan. That's what our goal is, to return to what the Dodgers were.
MLB.com: There is a similarity to Atlanta in that the Dodgers added key veteran players for a quick fix, a lot like the Braves, back in 1991, signed free agents Terry Pendleton, Rafael Belliard and Sid Bream, and traded for Otis Nixon. The Braves, however, became focused after that on developing their own talent. Do you see the Dodgers making the transition, too?
Kasten: Our first big free agent in Atlanta was Greg Maddux and we had been to two World Series before that. The first year we filled in pieces defensively. We added Terry Pendleton, Rafael Belliard, Sid Bream and Otis Nixon. We didn't know Terry would win a batting title and the MVP. We wanted defense and character guys and all of a sudden our pitching got a lot better. Imagine that.
MLB.com: And in Los Angeles?
Kasten: The deals for Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez Josh Beckett, and Ricky Nolasco were a start for what we want to do. In this market, we couldn't come in and say to the fans, 'Wait for four or five years and we'll be OK.' Where we are fortunate is our ownership and fan base will allow us to do both, acquire proven players and develop a strong farm system. Our fans bought into this. They responded with a season ticket increase from 17,000 to 31,000.
MLB.com: But on a long-term basis?
Kasten: I have to be focused on the long term, and work on that daily. Every team that has had sustained success has done it through player development, and we are looking for sustained success. People can say it's the Atlanta blueprint or Tampa Bay or whoever, but truth of the matter is, it's the Dodgers way. It goes back to Branch Rickey. It's what this franchise has been noted for over time. The Dodgers created the farm systems and scouting systems. The Dodgers were the first organization to get into the international market. It's the Dodgers way.
MLB.com: You were, however, still active in making the deals for the players with big contracts.
Kasten: We took advantage of the manlfunction in the clubhouse in Boston.When you looked at the potential free-agent market a year ago, we got a top-of-the-rotation starter, an outstanding first baseman and a Gold Glove, All-Star outfielder. There's disappointment that in 2012 we did not quite finish the way we wanted, but we got a head start on 2013. Everything has a risk, but we felt it was the right move. We felt it would be good for the team and great for our fans. When you have both those things going at same time, it is the right thing to do. In Los Angeles, you need to be competitive now. You have to add star quality. We have a plan to become a scouting and player-development organization. That's our goal. In the short term, we needed to do some things. We do need to compete in the next two or three years, until we get everything in place. In the long term, we want to be more efficient in scouting and player development.
MLB.com: With Don Mattingly at the end of his contract, there do seem to be a lot of questions about the Dodgers managerial situation.
Kasten: Yes, and I don't answer them. During the year we are focused on our team. We've had a pretty good run with Don at the helm.
MLB.com: You have served as an executive in MLB, the NHL and the NBA. Does it seem that there is more second-guessing of managers than head coaches?
Kasten: Yes.The essence of any competition is the one-on-one, mano-a-mano confrontation. And no sport has that like baseball has on every single pitch. Everything flows from the pitcher-batter confrontation. Player selection, pitch selection, offensive and defensive execution. And we have discrete breaks in the action. Every pitch is a brand new situation, from which a thousand things could follow. So each game has literally 200-300 separate ones of these confrontations. Multiply that by all the variables of every situation, and all the possible outcomes. Makes for a lot of possibilities for second guessing.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.