A veteran of eight big-league seasons who went on to work as both a scout and player development director, Jerry Dipoto has seen baseball from all angles.
But the most endearing quality he brings to his new job as Mariners general manager is a lifelong love for the game.
“I was attracted to baseball very early on,” Dipoto said Tuesday at Safeco Field, where he was introduced at a press conference as upbeat as infield practice during the first day of a spring-training fantasy camp. “When I was writing the essay on what you want to be when you grow up, I didn’t think there was another option besides being a baseball player.”
Recalling the laughter such a lofty ambition brought, Dipoto continued: “It’s been a great journey. I love the game, I love the history.”
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Growing up in New Jersey, Dipoto watched three teams on a daily basis during the summer. His heart belonged to the Mets, but also he tuned into Yankees and Phillies games because, well, because.
“It may sound hokey,” he said, “but I believe baseball is the fiber that binds America.”
A dirty little secret about ballplayers is that some of them don’t follow the sport in their free time. Games can be slow and seasons are long, and burnout is common.
Dipoto, on the other hand, always could relate to the Rogers Hornsby quotation about wintertime: “People ask me what I do when there is no baseball. Here’s what I do: I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Several years ago, Dipoto joined the Society of American Baseball Research. What made this notable is that he was the first — and quite likely the last — big leaguer in a club whose cutting-edge theories find critics stereotyping members as numbers crunchers who’ve never competed beyond T-ball.
Dipoto competed at the highest level there is, and his only regret is that he didn’t delve into numbers sooner.
“I fancy myself as a historian,” he said. “I think the game has evolved in ways we could not possibly have imagined. I wish I would have known to really focus more in the world of mathematics.”
Which brings us to statistical metrics and baseball’s version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud: Those who believe in gut hunches gleaned from experience versus those who believe numbers can be a manager’s best friend.
Dipoto, 47, belongs to the numbers camp, and he explains his dedication in a way that’s difficult to dispute.
“A very smart baseball person once told me that when making a decision on a baseball field, you have to consider what you see and what you don’t,” he said. “What we see is the player out there in front of us. What we don’t see is what he’s done.”
By exploring past performances, Dipoto went on, “you come up with some general understanding of what to do moving forward based on elements such as the age of the player and the health of the player. There’s so many elements.
“You’ve got to use the analysis that’s available to you.
Such a reliance on analysis suggests an impersonal executive who’s indifferent to the heartbeat of the game. Wrong. A self-described “baseball junkie,” Dipoto became hooked to the sport as a fan whose loyalties were as binding as any other fan.
Asked to identify his all-time favorite player, Dipoto needed all of a millisecond to answer “Tom Seaver, Tom Seaver. Prince Valiant.”
A few minutes later, Dipoto expounded on his admiration of the Hall-of-Fame pitcher who spent the brunt of his career with the Mets.
“Where I was from, if you were a Mets fan and a good Catholic boy from New Jersey, there was a picture of Jesus on the left of your bedroom and a picture of Tom Seaver on the right,” he said. “He was Elvis if you were a Mets guy.”
A Mets guy as a kid, Dipoto realized his dream of being an authentic Mets guy as an adult, pitching out of the bullpen in 1995 and 1996 — the same years that Seaver was part of the Mets’ TV broadcast crew.
“He was very good to me when I played for the Mets and very good to my son,” said Dipoto, who gave his son Jonah the middle name of Seaver. “When he was born, Tom was nice enough to send him a basket of goodies.”
Seaver also gave Dipoto’s son permission to wear No. 41 should he ever pitch for the Mets. The letter Seaver wrote is framed in Jonah’s bedroom, next to a framed photo of the 311-game winner.
“My son has had a picture of Tom Seaver over his bed since he was in a crib — and he never saw him play,” said Dipoto. “But I think he knows the importance of what Tom meant to me when I was my son’s age.
“A great guy, a great career. And now he makes a heck of a bottle of wine.”
I am not a numbers guy— any equation with a symbol more elaborate than a plus or minus dizzies me — but I appreciate the stat community’s passion for baseball, and cringe when those who delve into sophisticated analysis are put down as geeks and nerds.
Then again, words like that don’t mean a thing to Jerry Dipoto.
“Information is king,” he said. “If you’ve got information, you’ve got the key to the universe.”