If and when it is made official and Ben Cherington is named the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, it will serve to further the remarkable success of a pipeline that runs from Amherst College to major league front offices.
Although he had a two-month stint as a co-GM with the Red Sox over five years ago, Cherington is on the cusp of becoming the fourth man to go through the Amherst baseball program and gain the title of general manager at the major league level, an astounding fact given the sheer size of the liberal arts college which has a baseball team that toils in the Division III NESCAC.
“When you see this tree, it will blow your mind,” said current Amherst baseball coach Brian Hamm, who took the reins of “an instructional and teaching program” in 2010.
That list includes Harry Dalton (class of 1950), who served in the role with the Orioles, Angels and Brewers and stands as the solid base of “the tree” that continues to produce fruit for front offices league-wide. Dan Duquette (’80), who built the talent-laden Montreal teams of the early 1990s and served prominently as GM in Boston prior to Theo Epstein, was next.
An offshoot of the Duquette branch was Neal Huntington (’91), the current GM in Pittsburgh and the man who helped Cherington (’96) secure his first major league job with Cleveland back in 1998.
Now, those last two stand as symbols of a program that instructs and discusses as much as it hits and throws, fostering growth in the mental aspect of the game as well, or better, than any program in the country. Of the 29 GMs (Anaheim’s post is vacant), Amherst grads make up two. Stanford grads make up two. No other school has more than one.
In addition, more than a dozen more Lord Jeffs have spread out through other major posts in the pros, including former Red Sox bench coach Dave Jauss and current Boston player development staffers Duncan Webb and Jared Banner.
The common thread, other than their alma mater, is how quickly so many of them rose from college grad to high-powered executive, the path taken by the 37-year-old Cherington. That quick advancement is one of the many aspects of this amazing trend that brings a smile to the face of its architect, Bill Thurston, who coached baseball at Amherst from 1966-2009.
Thurston said Cherington was a quiet member of his team, but he became aware of the youngster’s leadership qualities when an injury altered the pitcher’s path. Cherington tore his labrum as a junior and was unable to throw his senior year. Thurston asked him to serve as a pitching coach, and then immediately saw something remarkable.
“[Cherington] took great pride in his work. A very quiet guy but self-confident,” Thurston said. “When he was working with our pitchers, they were all the same age, but everybody gravitated towards him.”
What stood out during those first few days as an instructor was not only this gravitational pull that Cherington had, but the fact that he never treated it as an excuse to talk down to anyone. That sort of demeanor would go against a good nature that has been one of Cherington’s calling cards during his successful climb up the Red Sox ranks.
According to Thurston, that ability to get along with others in a business loaded with egos will enable Cherington to find success running the baseball operations in Boston.
“He’s a real good evaluator of talent,” Thurston said of one of his many prized pupils. “Of course he knows the whole system because he’s been in charge of the system as player development director. I think he’s going the same road as Theo. I think there’s a lot of respect there.
“But I think [president and CEO Larry] Lucchino and he will really work well together because Lucchino is the kind of guy who plays the devil’s advocate all the time and questions things, and Ben will have good answers for him. He’s well thought-out. He’s not going to shoot from the hip with opinions. He’s going to make decisions based on information. Ben is a gatherer of information, a great listener, a great observer. He knows personnel. He will make decisions based on facts. A little bit of a Moneyball-type thing with the statistics and whatnot, but also he is able to evaluate talent like a scout.”
The complete game that Cherington possesses was engendered as a Lord Jeff, where rainy days are sometimes welcome, for a canceled practice turns into a tape room session where players might watch a major league game and debate pitching and hitting tactics pitch-by-pitch. NESCAC regulations limit the amount of actual on-field play (no fall programs, for instance). Players are forced to be thinkers from the start to make up for their relative lack of actual on-field work.
Playbooks several hundred pages long that Thurston and now Hamm constantly edit and use to instruct help to create clean play on the field, but also have fostered this passion for a full understanding of the game. And once that passion is in play, it’s often a natural progression for the brightest of the bunch to move into a front office capacity.
“We do as much in terms of talking about the game and learning about the game probably more so than other programs,” Hamm said. “As a result, it ends up that guys know the game incredibly well by the time they leave here.”
Duquette, fully aware of the mettle that is necessary to make it as far as he did, sees it as a way to allow the cream to rise to the crop.
“Amherst College does some pretty good pre-screening,” he said.
Thurston, who currently assists the Pirates draft process by doing video analysis of pitching prospects (Thurston is one of the nation’s experts in the biomechanics of the pitching motion), said that he never goes a week without hearing from a former player. It’s a cohesive network that led Huntington to Duquette and Cherington to Huntington and several others rising up the ladder alongside those GMs.
Soon, when Cherington checks in with his old coach, he’ll be doing so at the pinnacle of the profession, another product of the Amherst College pipeline, which has given the Red Sox two of their last three GMs.