Q&A with Gerry Hunsicker
A chat with the Rays' senior VP of baseball operations
Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker spoke with Phil Wallace of the Devil Rays at the end of the season for an interview in the organization's newsletter. Hunsicker talked about everything from racing thoroughbreds to his days as general manager of the Astros.
Wallace: So, we've learned that you own a few racing horses. Who are some of your top thoroughbreds? When will we see you in the Winner's Circle at the Kentucky Derby?
Hunsicker: First of all, I'm in the Minor Leagues of horse racing. So you probably won't see me at Churchill Downs any time soon. This has been a passion of mine for some time. I have somewhere between 10 and 12 horses from time to time. I race some. I breed some and raise the babies. And then I get involved in buying and selling horses. So I've just embraced the industry and tried to get involved in all aspects of it.
I race both in the Texas and Louisiana area, because that's where I live. And I also race in Toronto, Canada, because that's where one of my trainers races.
My best horses at the moment are probably a horse called Extra Bases. She has placed in a few stake races, and won almost $200,000 in the few years that she's been racing. I also have another horse called Cross Checker, which, of course, is another baseball name, and he's won three or four races for me after coming back from a very serious injury and having about a year off from racing.
My first horse that I purchased about five years ago has also turned out to be one of my best horses. That horse's name is Cozzene'saffair. She became a stakes winner. I retired her and kept her as a brood mare. And now have her first two babies that are just beginning their racing career. So that's been extra special for me, having raced the mother and now will be racing her babies.
Wallace: What is so interesting to you about horse racing?
Hunsicker: The thing that fascinates me about the horse business is that it's got so many similarities to the baseball business. Obviously, it's a sport, so the competition is there. But it's all the other aspects as well.
The only difference is that in horses, you're training four-legged athletes, and in baseball they're two-legged athletes. From the way you train them, to the way you treat injuries, the psychological aspects of training -- believe it or not -- horses have their own personalities like human athletes. Some have their own idiosyncrasies, psychologically speaking, that you have to deal with, just like you do with players. It's just very fascinating to me, and one of the things that attracted me to the business.
|"The artificial surface, the seating bowl seems a little cozier than in the Astrodome. The Astrodome seemed like a much bigger place to me. But I think there is some attraction to the comfort of an enclosed facility, and there certainly are some similarities."|
|-- On similarities between the Astrodome and Tropicana Field|
Hunsicker: I'd have to say pitching, probably because I had more success there. And also when you're on the mound, you feel like you're in control of the game. Nothing happens until the pitcher throws the ball. You impact literally every pitch of the game. But I also just love to play the game.
Back in those days, especially if you were at a smaller school, you had the luxury of being able to pitch and also play another position. I don't think I would have adapted very well by today's standards if I was only a pitcher and had to watch four days out of five.
Wallace: Did you ever look into playing professionally?
Hunsicker: Yeah, that was my dream, like most kids whose life centered around sports. I was playing in semi-pro leagues at 16 years old, basically playing as much baseball as I could. I had a chance to sign professionally out of high school, but chose to go to college on a baseball scholarship. At the end of my college career, that was the end of my playing career. But my Plan B, when my playing career ended, was to stay in sports as a teacher and coach, and that's ultimately what happened.
The first year was at the high school level in Pennsylvania. I coached football and baseball and taught history. And then I went to St. Joe's as a pitching coach, and then on to Florida International.
I would just say with regard to my playing career ... sports was my life growing up. And I played three sports in high school. Back in those days, growing up in the North, with the climate changes, it was just a natural progression to go from football to basketball to baseball. You didn't have spring football practice in those days. There was no conflict. I had some success at all three, and was captain of each of those teams. Arguably, football was my best sport. I was an All-County running back in football, a point guard in basketball -- and I was our leading scorer, averaging about 22 points a game. I threw a perfect game in baseball.
Wallace: You were once the assistant athletic director at Florida International, and the pitching coach. Why did you decide to leave college sports?
Hunsicker: I went down there originally as a baseball graduate assistant and received my master's degree. And after that, I was hired to the full-time position of assistant athletic director and assistant baseball coach.
I guess the drive as a kid to want to be a professional baseball player, and the allure of being involved in professional baseball, was what drove me. I think back in those days -- I was coaching, so I was in shape to throw batting practice, and so forth -- and I think the hook was -- my wife and I were flown to Houston. I went from being on the campus of Florida International to all of a sudden in the Astrodome in a uniform throwing batting practice to Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson. The magic of the moment took me hook, line and sinker.
Wallace: Do you see any similarities between the old Astrodome and Tropicana Field? Do you think this could have the same home-field advantage?
Hunsicker: Well, there are some similarities. Obviously it's a domed stadium, so the climate is controlled. The artificial surface, the seating bowl seems a little cozier than in the Astrodome. The Astrodome seemed like a much bigger place to me. But I think there is some attraction to the comfort of an enclosed facility, and there certainly are some similarities.
|"I think successful general managers today need to at least have a clear understanding of how the business side and the baseball side interact, and be not only conscious of that, but know how to work within a business environment."|
|-- On the responsibilities of today general managers|
Wallace: A lot of people don't realize that like Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman, and Andrew Friedman, you also worked in finance as a vice president at Paine Webber. Why do you go to Paine Webber and then ultimately come back to baseball?
Hunsicker: I left baseball after my first introduction to the dark side of the game. Namely, I had worked for the Astros for a few years, and then in 1980 we came one game away from getting to the World Series. A new owner came in and made a general manager change. It just had a profound affect on me. I was kind of shocked that something like that could happen just because of an ownership change, after we had been so successful.
For the first time in my life, the glamour of baseball wore off, and the reality set in that there was no stability or security in the game. I was starting a family at the time. So for the first time in my life, I started thinking about possibly doing something else. I asked myself if I was going to get out of sports, what could I see myself doing that I had the drive and passion to really put forth the effort to be successful. I had always been interested in and fascinated by the stock market and investing. So I chose to give that a try.
For five years I did that. I was rather successful. I rose to become a vice president in a short period of time. But I think unless you've been in sports, and grown up in sports, you don't realize the magnetism that sports can have on you. I knew then that I could do something other than be in sports. And there's thousands of stockbrokers in the country ... I could always be one of those. But there's only a small number of baseball teams, and I had an opportunity to get back into baseball with a good organization and a significant position, and being out of the game for five years made me realize how much I missed it. And also being out of baseball gave me the confidence that I could do something else if I wasn't in sports.
Wallace: Do you think your experience on Wall Street helped you in the baseball world?
Hunsicker: I think as an executive today, you have to be a much more rounded person than you did maybe 20 years ago. Back then, a former player many times rose to be a general manager, and it was a much simpler job, and the focus was much narrower on baseball talent and evaluation of talent. As the dollars in baseball grew and the franchises gained significantly in value, baseball became more and more of a business, and I believe that the role of the general manager was expanded.
I think successful general managers today need to at least have a clear understanding of how the business side and the baseball side interact, and be not only conscious of that, but know how to work within a business environment. So from an executive standpoint, that experience certainly gave me a much greater perspective of what an executive in a business sense should be.
Wallace: What's it like to work with Andrew Friedman on a daily basis?
Hunsicker: Well, it's been very interesting, to say the least. It's a much different situation than I've ever been in before. It's been really stimulating and rewarding for me, in the sense that, from an age standpoint, Andrew could very well be my son. And I am reporting to him in the business sense.
I think our personalities have allowed this relationship to get off on a good start. I came in here clearly understanding my role, and therefore I have been very respectful of Andrew being in the No. 1 chair and being here to lend my support, and helping in the thought process as we move forward.
Consequently, I think he's been respectful of my background and experience to engage me in all aspects of the operation. It's been a lot of fun for me. Certainly, we have some great challenges ahead, and I think we have created a very unique partnership here.
Wallace: What makes being a Major League general manager such a high-stress, 24 hour-a-day job?
Hunsicker: Well, I think it starts with the fact that we're in a public business. You pick up the paper every day, and everybody in the world reads about how you're running your business, and what's happening. You've got a business that the majority of people are not only interested in, but think they know how to do things better than you do. It's just the nature of sports. Sports is a fun thing. It's an outlet for people. And they live and die with their team. Therefore, I think as a general manger, you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to the community to put a winning product on the field.
Couple that with the fact that the assets in our business happen to be human beings, and human beings are unpredictable, so there are a great many things that are out of your control over the course of a baseball season -- mainly injuries, inconsistent performance, and the way the ball bounces, quite frankly from day to day -- that make it very stressful and frustrating at times, because you feel helpless most of the year as a general manager. You do your best to put the best team on the field, the best product on the field that you can. But at the end of the day, when the umpire yells "Play ball," there's nothing you can do as a general manager.
|"I wouldn't have traded that experience for the world. There was no experience that I could have had that prepared me to become a general manager like my experience in New York. You were literally under the microscope every day. It creates both challenges and opportunities."|
|-- On his time with the Mets|
Hunsicker: I'm most proud of the consistency that we showed over a long period of time. This is a very difficult business, and in any given year, the stars can line up for a particular team -- they can have a Cinderella season.
We got into the postseason five out of nine years, and we came in second three of those years. So eight out of the nine years, we were either first or second in our division. I feel like consistency is the mark of success in this business.
Wallace: You worked with the Mets for eight years. What's it like to work for a New York sports team, with the tabloids and constant media attention?
Hunsicker: I wouldn't have traded that experience for the world. There was no experience that I could have had that prepared me to become a general manager like my experience in New York. You were literally under the microscope every day. It creates both challenges and opportunities.
It gets a lot more personal press-wise, because there are so many members of the media. They're all looking for stories, and it seems like nothing is sacred up there. They get into your personal life, etc. It's a very demanding and very challenging job from that standpoint, but there's no place like it if you're successful. People in New York are rabid fans, very knowledgeable fans. It's just unbelievable. You can't go anywhere in New York where people aren't talking sports. It's just a much different culture than in any place I've ever been.
We had a lot of challenges while I was there, with some very difficult situations to manage, and while it was demanding, and it wasn't very pleasant at the time, it really gave me incredible experience moving forward.
Wallace: How would you assess the way the Rays have played this year?
Hunsicker: I think we're all disappointed this year. We all felt like we were going to continue making progress, but I will say that one of the challenges this year was that we had to try to identify players that were not going to be part of our future and make a transition of sorts without them.
That created some short-term pain, because some of the players that we traded were among our better players this year. And we just weren't able to overcome that. But in the long term, I'm confident that those trades have not only brought some young talent to the organization that will be part of our future. But we've given more opportunities to some of our young people that will be forming the nucleus of a team, where we can get onto that consistent path where year-in and year-out, we can put a competitive team on the field.
Wallace: What do you think is the main reason for the team's large disparity in its record at home vs. on the road?
Hunsicker: I wish I knew. I've looked at this over the years with other teams, some that I was associated with, and some that I wasn't. Not only can I not put my finger on it, but I haven't found anybody else that can either. Once in a while, you come up with a special situation like the old Astrodome teams that had such a great home record. You can find reasons for that -- the Colorado teams that hit so well at home, but not on the road because of climate conditions. But in this situation, I have no idea. It's something that I wish I had an answer for.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.