One of the biggest surprises that comes with talking with baseball players is how many are not fans of the sport.
Some might watch an inning or two of another game in passing. A small percentage are often oblivious to the trades and other transactions that go on around the major leagues.
Of course, there are valid arguments for major leaguers wanting to take a respite. Their life is consumed by the sport from the time spring training begins in mid-February and can last until the first few days of November for the two teams that reach the World Series.
However, Jerry Dipoto was a huge baseball fan while growing up in Toms River, N.J., and that never changed throughout an eight-year career in the major leagues from 1993-2000 as a relief pitcher with the Cleveland Indians (1993-94), New York Mets (1995-96) and Colorado Rockies (1997-2000).
That love of the game continues today as Dipoto is in his second offseason as the Seattle Mariners’ general manager. He is one of just three former major league players to head a baseball operations department along with the Chicago White Sox’s Ken Williams and the Oakland Athletics’ Billy Beane.
“It truly is a labor of love,” Dipoto of being a GM. “It’s an all-consuming job but I really enjoy it. It’s such a great challenge.”
At one point, former players populated the GM ranks.
However, the advent of free agency in 1975 turned the sport into a much bigger business and teams began looking for candidates with business backgrounds. Owners got further away from hiring ex-players when many teams — led by Beane’s Athletics — began to take sabermetrics into account while making player acquisitions.
Dipoto doesn’t see that trend changing. After all, being a GM isn’t a typical part-time retirement job.
“It doesn’t make sense for most ex-players to get into it because most guys have made enough money that they don’t need a job that is 364 days a year,” said Dipoto, who does shut his phone and laptop off on Christmas. “It’s really something you have to love to do, especially if you have made a decent amount of money in your career, because the players’ salaries and the (front office) salaries aren’t close to being comparable.”
Dipoto made $7.5 million in his career, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Brett Cecil, also a set-up reliever, will average nearly that much a season with the four-year, $30.5-million contract he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals last week.
Being an ex-player should seemingly give Dipoto a bit of an edge over the competition as he knows first-hand what it is like to play the sport at the highest level. However, he downplays that advantage.
“Maybe a little bit but not as much as you might think,” Dipoto said. “There are a lot other GM that have different backgrounds but they have advantage over me, too, in other areas. I’d say it’s a wash.”
While Dipoto has had a keen interest in baseball going back to childhood, he did not become interested in becoming a front-office executive until suffering a neck injury that eventually ended his career at 32.
Dipoto began learning the ropes from then-Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd and the baseball operations staff.
“The more of the different facets of the operations I was exposed to, the more interested I became in that side of the game,” Dipoto said.
After two seasons as a special assistant to O’Dowd and two years as a scout with the Boston Red Sox, Dipoto got his first management job in 2005 when he returned to the Rockies as their pro scouting director.
Dipoto eventually moved to the Arizona Diamondbacks and was their vice president of scouting and player development before serving as interim GM for most of the second half of the 2010 season after Josh Byrnes was fired and Kevin Towers was hired.
The Los Angeles Angels hired Dipoto as GM following the 2011 season, but he had a rocky 3.5-year stint. He clashed with manager Mike Scioscia over the use of analytics, and resigned during the 2015 season.
However, Dipoto wasn’t out of work long as the Mariners hired him as GM on Oct. 28, 2015, one month after firing Jack Zduriencik.
The Mariners stayed in contention for a wild card spot until the final days of the season this year, finishing 86-76 and second place in the AL West, nine games behind the Texas Rangers.
The Mariners have not been to the postseason since 2001, the longest current drought in the major leagues. However, Dipoto has reshaped the roster in a little more than a year.
Second baseman Robinson Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager are the lone regulars remaining since Dipoto took over as he has opted to build a lineup better served to playing in spacious Safeco Field.
“Our fans have waited a long time to see another playoff game at Safeco Field,” Dipoto said. “We’d like to end that streak. That’s the goal.”