Thursday, June 21, 2018
  • The Heater
  • Marc Topkin

How did Erik Neander end up running the Rays? Well, it’s interesting …

ST. PETERSBURG – The first major deal Erik Neander worked on after his October 2014 promotion to Rays vice president was the one that sent Wil Myers to the Padres and got Steven Souza Jr. and other pieces from the Nationals but flipped the most prized of the 11 involved players, multi-talented future star Trea Turner.

The first big trade Neander made after taking over this offseason as the Rays' top baseball official was shipping out the best player in franchise history, Evan Longoria. The move upset fans and —while providing long-term financial relief, — did little to cede ownership's orders to cut payroll for this season, forcing it to make additional cost-cutting moves with spring training opening this week.

Who thought being a general manager was going to be fun?

Actually, Neander did.

Many times on the unusual path that led the now 34-year-old to filling the first chair in the Rays' executive orchestra.

He didn't have any experience on the field — as a player or coach — past high school, which used to be a prerequisite. And he didn't have an Ivy League or similarly haughty education, which is the rage among the cool kids today.

No, Neander got there the old-fashioned way.

Wrote letters (yes, actual letters) to teams coming out of Virginia Tech in December 2005. Took an 8 bucks an hour gig logging game data off TV to stay involved until something better developed. Got hired, in his second try, as an intern by the Rays in January 2007, ostensibly to help build their data base, but in reality starting by driving team officials to and from the airport. And worked tirelessly to move up, impressing bosses, colleagues, coaches and players with his persistence, performance and presentation.

"I love Erik,'' said former Rays / now Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "He's a star. Erik Neander is a star. The thing that stands out to me about him was brilliance. Absolutely brilliant. He presents his work and he's never offended by your comeback, your retort. He's got a real good level-headedness about him. And a real strong belief in what he believes in, which I love. Because if he told you something, it was vetted. It got to that point, "If Erik is saying it, I'm in.'

"He's a great listener. And he doesn't act like he knows everything. But he knows everything. … He's going to be a GM for a long while. And a good
one.''

Neander's dream to make an impact as a player ended basically during his junior year at Oneonta High in upstate New York, not far from baseball's most hallowed grounds in Cooperstown, where he worked summers in Sal's Pizzeria. He hurt his right shoulder diving – for a basketball. Several surgeries couldn't get it right, and despite hitting .516 as a senior, a seemingly solid opportunity to play Division I college ball disappeared.

He went to Virginia Tech, anyway, and tried hard to shake the baseball bug he first got growing up in Silver Spring, Md., an Orioles fan and Cal Ripken fanatic.

"Once I couldn't play anymore, I tried to separate from it and get away from baseball, tried to find another direction,'' Neander said. "I wasn't able to match the passion or the interest I had for baseball in anything else.''

He started studying engineering, interested in aerospace and mechanical, but decided 1-1/2 years in it wasn't for him. He switched to more of a medical/health path – the family business with his dad a child psychiatrist and mom in the nursing industry – considering options from doctor, physician's assistant, athletic trainer to strength and conditioning coach.

He eventually graduated, on the 4-½-year plan, with a bachelor's in food, nutrition and exercise, perhaps the only GM in baseball history with such a degree.

Toward the end, he realized he'd lost the battle to move on and wanted back into baseball. He worked summer camps for the Tech staff, planning now to go into coaching, then realizing his lack of playing experience would limit that route. Curiosity led him to research the structure and opportunities in front offices at the pro level, and reaching out to learn more.

"Some of the intellectual challenges that I think come with being in a front office, combined with the simple fact of it being baseball, I had of a lightbulb moment of sorts,'' Neander said. "Like, wow, this is a great way to combine academically and educationally things that interest me with a profession and subject matter that I wasn't finding that passion and interest in anywhere else.''

Easier planned than executed, and with no bites from teams on his inquiries — though fortunately with the support of his parents and future wife Jessica — he found another way to get involved, and further educated, an intern job at Baseball Info Solutions.

That it meant moving to Bethlehem, Pa., living with co-workers (at one point in a walk-in closet that just fit his twin bed) and barely making meal money hardly mattered. He was getting paid to watch baseball, logging by hand pretty much everything that happened, learning about the game and, more importantly, how to organize, input and interpret the data, which the company, at the front of the analytics evolution, was selling to teams.

Neander was all in, plotting to push himself hard, testing his own resolve for the hard work, long hours and limited rewards it would take to make it with a team. He passed, and wanted more, such as teaching himself the programming language SQL.  "It only intensified my interest,'' he said.

"His passion and energy was unmatched,'' said Nate Birtwell, who
supervised the BIS interns and is now an Arizona scout. "He was a relentless worker. You couldn't kick him out. He couldn't get enough work. And he had this way of thinking of how to do things better.''

But he still had to find a job. Neander showed his resourcefulness, creativity and scouting acumen, researching bios to identify a contact with each team he hoped to better connect with given his limited playing and educational resume, figuring there was "nothing on paper that pops.''

So, with the Rays, that wasn't baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman, but Dan Feinstein, the director of operations who, similarly, didn't play at a high level, didn't get to an Ivy League school (UC-Davis) and didn't stick to sports, with a degree in medieval European history.

Feinstein, now Oakland's assistant GM, was impressed by Neander's approach — and what he had to offer, specifically the database work at BIS.

"Simply knowing who ruled the Roman Empire in the year 800 wasn't going to land him our internship,'' Feinstein said. (Charlemagne, right?)

Neander got passed over for their first opening but was told to apply again.  (And scrambled to "enroll" in a college class so he'd be eligible, finding something online at Kalamazoo Valley, Mich., Community College.)

After driving down and sweating through an interview at the December 2006 winter meetings at Disney, Neander had a job, eventually moving on from chauffeur service to assignments like identifying under-the-radar relievers (Clay Rapada? Oops). He impressed again with his attention to detail, determination "to return an improved and enhanced version of any project,'' and way of thinking, Feinstein said.

"I describe Erik's approach to baseball as obsessively curious, and he's helped many of us look at the game through a more complete lens. His passion and creativity touch every branch of the department, and he possesses a constant need to seek new and more information.  He's essentially self-taught, and has a detailed understanding of every role, from scout to analyst.''

Friedman also was quickly impressed, both with Neander's diligence — seeing him working late, asking his thoughts on the pending November 2007 trade for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett and getting back a "thoughtful and insightful" response that must have taken all night to compose — and his "genuine" way to connect with people.

That inclusive style and personality plays well in the clubhouse, too, where — much like Friedman — Neander has the rare ability to connect with the players and staff on more of a fraternal and casual level than as their boss. Even then, Longoria praised Neander for how well he handled communication leading up to the trade.

In moving Matt Silverman back to a team president role after the season to make Neander the top baseball executive, principal owner Stuart Sternberg cited his "confidence and trust" in Neander, noting energy, leadership and continued innovation.

The job never gets easier, as Neander tries to get the Rays back to a winning record for the first time since 2013, though probably not this season, and playoff contention.

The demands are so broad, the skill set ever expanding, Neander is constantly learning. Challenges abound, incorporating the most advanced analytics, staying abreast of the latest technology, running a staff that includes people who he used to work for, keeping up with colleagues and counterparts who communicate, and even negotiate, by texting images, videos and now Gifs, all while working in time away from work for Jessica and their sons, Penn and Corbin.

And Neander couldn't be more excited to be there.

 Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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