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Singing A GM's Praises

Veteran Roland Hemond is still everyone's favorite baseball executive

By Charlie Vascellaro

After six decades in the big leagues, Roland Hemond, who served as the Orioles’ general manager from 1988-95, remains one of baseball's most visible and well-respected executives.

These days, Hemond, 81, works as a special assistant to the president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, his second stint with the club since helping the franchise take flight in 1998.

During the early part of baseball's calendar year, fans might find Hemond sitting in the seats at a Caribbean World Series game in Central America, at a Cactus League spring training game in Arizona, or an international exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico. When the regular season begins, he reports daily to his office at Chase Field in Phoenix.

Throughout the season, he's called on to accept and present awards. He was on hand in Baltimore last year for Harold Baines’ induction to the Orioles Hall of Fame, and can be spotted annually at the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

Recently, Hemond's career was celebrated in song by a band called The Thrill Building on its CD "The Greatest Game in the World."

In the vein of "Orioles Magic" or "Willie, Mickey and the Duke," the little ditty simply titled "Roland Hemond" is a campy, kitschy but sincere homage to everyone's favorite baseball executive. The song's lyrics basically repeat what baseball people have been saying about Hemond throughout his six decades in the industry:

You can search through baseball history for the finest man this game has seen,
The answer is no mystery it's Roland Hemond, Roland Hemond.

 Hemond's name is repeated about a hundred times as the chorus of the song.
The song was written by Fran Kowalski, who co-founded a company creating computer systems for use with video boards and public-address systems at sports venues.

"The first time I met Roland was at baseball's winter baseball meetings," said Kowalski. "He's one of the few guys that always walks the floor, goes around meeting everyone and is always looking out for somebody else. He'll be in the middle of a conversation with (Major League Baseball commissioner) Bud Selig and turn around and talk to a junior in college who's looking for an internship.

"When I started thinking about subjects for the baseball album, I ruled out current players because the game is greater than any one player and I didn't want to be called by any agents. Then I thought there's got to be a song about Roland Hemond. If anybody needed a song, it was Roland.

"He's one of the greatest people I've met. He embodies what everybody ought to be like -- professional, knowledgeable, friendly and selfless. He's been in the game 54 years and there's not a jaded bone in his body. When somebody with that kind of spirit touches people it has a lasting effect."

"[The song is] a little embarrassing," Hemond said in his customarily humble and self-effacing manner. "The only place you should listen to it is in the shower." 

Hemond should be accustomed to being showered with accolades by now. He is a three-time recipient of the Sporting News Major League Baseball's Executive of the Year award, twice with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 and 1983 and once with the Orioles in 1989. At least four other annual awards are named in Hemond's honor.       

"It's humbling that they feel I played a role in helping others during my six decades in the game, but it's an honor for me to be able to present these awards," said Hemond, who has worked for five major league organizations since his first job for the old Boston Braves' minor league system in 1951. "It's a deep pleasure because often it is longtime friends who are the recipients, and it's very gratifying to see them get their due recognition."

Hemond worked for 10 years in Boston and Milwaukee before accepting a position as director of scouting and minor league operations for the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961. In 1970, he moved into his first general manager position with the Chicago White Sox, where he remained until 1985, working under his greatest mentor, White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

"[Veeck's] remarks left a lasting impression on me," said Hemond. "He used to say, 'You can be serious about your job, but don't take yourself seriously.' His wisdom was priceless."           

After departing Chicago, Hemond worked as an advisor to MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth during the 1986 and 1987 seasons and was hired as Orioles GM in 1988.

"It was quite a challenge that first year when we lost our first 21 games," said Hemond. 

Amazingly, the 1988 Orioles experienced a complete turnaround in 1989, garnering Hemond his third Executive of the Year award.

"We improved by 32.5 games that year,” Hemond said. “Frank Robinson did one of the best managerial jobs I ever witnessed.”

When the Orioles didn't renew his contract after the 1995 season, Hemond was immediately recruited by the National League-expansion Diamondbacks, who would not take the field until 1998. Hemond was hired as special assistant to general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., and worked with current Orioles skipper Buck Showalter, the Diamondbacks' first manager.         

"He was a jack-of-all-trades," Showalter said of Hemond. "He had respect for Joe's job and mine, as well as the scouting director and the farm director. He had done them all."

Among the first tasks Hemond and Showalter worked on together was the expansion draft to form the Diamondbacks’ first team. Although the expansion team struggled that first season, finishing 65-97, the team won 100 games and the NL West division the next season. Arizona captured a World Series title two years later in 2001, defeating the New York Yankees in a dramatic seven-game series.

"You could feel that he was always steering toward the end game, the end game being to win a championship," said Showalter who, like Hemond, left the Diamondbacks after the 2000 season, just prior to the team's World Series victory. "A lot of players who were later part of the championship team were players we acquired in trades through the expansion draft.

"We drafted players that other teams coveted. We spent a lot of time finding out what players other teams liked that we could acquire during the expansion draft, and we turned over 28 of the 35 picks in the first year and a half. But look what we got back for it."

Despite no longer being with the club, Hemond was still awarded a World Series ring by Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo.

"When [Colangelo] called to tell me, I was so overcome with emotion I couldn't even talk. I had to hand the phone to my wife, Margo," said Hemond, who had since returned to work for the Chicago White Sox, where he acquired another World Series ring in 2005.

The 2005 World Series ring was Hemond's third and most recent, the first being obtained with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957. It's fair to consider Hemond as a candidate for baseball's Hall of Fame, but despite relative success throughout his career, the longtime executive doubts he has a winning record as a general manager and has never taken the time to calculate his career winning percentage.

Baseball writer Bill Madden, this year's recipient of the Hall of Fame's J.G. Spink Award for journalists, acknowledged Hemond's presence at his own induction ceremony in Cooperstown and was recently asked to consider Hemond's candidacy.

"He certainly has a record worthy of Hall of Fame consideration," said Madden. "One problem is he has never won or reached the World Series as a GM. Another problem is he was forever taking on impossible tasks. Look at the White Sox. He worked with limited resources the two times he was in Chicago. It's to his credit and baseball acumen that he turned them into perennial contenders. His secret to success was that he always relied on his scouts. He was a master of the under-the-radar trades.

"In Arizona, Colangelo wanted him to work with Garagiola, who was really more of an attorney; same thing in Baltimore, where they had that three-pronged GM thing. He's never been stingy about sharing his knowledge. Two of the most astute GMs in baseball, Doug Melvin and Dave Dombrosky, learned at the knee of Roland. That's been his strength over the last 20 years. He's always been a humble guy, content to stay in the background."

Another available avenue for Hemond to Cooperstown just might be the Hall of Fame's recently-created Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is presented not more than once every three years to honor an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball's positive impact on society, broadened the game's appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by Negro League legend O'Neil, the first recipient of the Award in 2008. No one has received the award since.

"Roland has touched so many people and been such an ambassador, he would be a perfect recipient of the O'Neil Award,” said Madden. “He epitomizes all of the criteria of the award's definition."

Displaying his boundless enthusiasm for the sport, Hemond shows no signs of slowing and is as effervescent as ever.

"I still enjoy what I'm doing and being part of this great game," said Hemond. "To part with that would be very difficult to me, and I hope to continue to be able to make contributions. … I still enjoy the game. I'm enjoying the growth of the game and the technology that would have been beyond comprehension 30 years ago. When you think you've seen it all, you haven't. I still want to hang around and see it all."

It's the kind of stuff they write songs about.

Issue 154: October 2010