ARLINGTON, Texas — When Brian Sabean showed up at St. Petersburg's Eckerd College in the late 1970s, two things were readily apparent.
First, that he wasn't going to get very far playing second base. "He was a coach in the making early on," said Joe Lefebvre, a high school teammate in New Hampshire and at Eckerd.
Second, that once he stopped playing, there was no limit to how far he would go. "Absolutely no question — from the first time I met him, you could see how focused he was, how driven he was," said Bill Mathews, a teammate then and the Eckerd head coach now. "We learned by trial and error in college, but he didn't do that. He had that great intuition and that great sense. He never made bad decisions.
"He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it."
Thirty-some years later — after stints as a student coach at Eckerd, an assistant at Saint Leo, then as an assistant and head coach for two years at the University of Tampa before going into pro baseball in scouting and player development for the Yankees — Sabean is still doing things his way.
And given the champagne dripping off his gray hair late Monday in the visiting clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark, he's apparently doing them right as the general manager of the World Series champion Giants.
"What Brian's done is nothing short of exceptional — not just this year, but over a period of time," Giants president Larry Baer said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a better job done by anybody in putting together a baseball team and keeping it together and doing it in a way that weighs and balances everything."
Sabean, true to his New England upbringing, deflects the praise and insists their success is the product of a team effort. The closest he got to taking any credit during the celebration was to say, "I'm just happy for a lot of people behind the scenes."
But his leadership, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, is considered a primary reason.
"He's a great guy to work for because he allows you to do your job," said Lefebvre, who has been with the Giants as a coach or executive during Sabean's full tenure. "He takes all of our opinions, we talk about it, and he's going to make the final call."
"It's like a family, and he makes you feel that way," said Steve Balboni, another New Englander and former Eckerd teammate who works for the Giants as a pro scout.
Sabean — the longest-tenured GM in the game, having just completed his 14th season, with a .535 winning percentage — describes his management style as pretty simple: "Hire good people, trust them and delegate." Also, keep a low profile, remember the people in uniform are most important, maintain good relationships with the staff. "And use your people," he said. "Use their knowledge. Get everyone in on it and then make the tough decision based on a lot of information."
What further distinguishes Sabean, 54, is a reputation for operating old-school — based more on what he and his people see and hear than what their research and data folks come up with. Also, hitting coach Hensley Meulens said, "He works a lot with his gut feeling."
It hasn't always worked out, and Sabean has heard plenty of criticism, starting when his first trade in November 1996 was to ship out fan favorite Matt Williams, and growing louder when they went six seasons (2004-09) without making the playoffs and several of his big-ticket deals (Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand) didn't work out. Just this spring, SI.com ranked him 27th of the game's 30 GMs (with Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman first). Sabean memorably responded once to fans by referring to the "lunatic fringe" but mostly just learned to take it. "Turn the other cheek," he said. "I've been good at doing that."
Sabean's biggest successes this season were composites: Refusing to trade any of his young starting pitching to bolster the offense, then making a series of small in-season acquisitions that made a big difference — Cody Ross, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Jose Guillen and, yes, Pat Burrell.
The decisions are tough, the stakes high, the results high visibility.
And Sabean is clearly the right man for the job.
"He always had that intangible," Lefebvre said. "He didn't play much, but he was always a leader on our team. He was just one of those guys, and he had that early on.
"I didn't know GM or what, but I always knew he'd be successful. That's part of his pedigree."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.