The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

It is the best of worlds; it is the most insecure of worlds. They live in upscale splendour with seven-figure salaries, drive vehicles bigger than some people's living room, dine with the famed and defamed. They are revered and reviled, hailed as saviours and denounced as the Judas of a city's hopes and aspirations -- sometimes all in the same day.

Welcome to the world of the professional sports team general manager. Doug Melvin is 53 and general manager of baseball's Milwaukee Brewers. Spring training is done. Opening Day is here. The thrill is never gone.

A generation and a sport apart, Cliff Fletcher (who brought the Maple Leafs closer to a Stanley Cup parade than anyone in almost 40 years), now is 70 years of age and pondering a season gone wrong as vice-president of the Gretzky Coyotes.

Hope meets unrequited faith: Two men on either end of their profession's teeter-totter, they share a world of intrigue, denial, double talk, a voracious media and a passionate audience that would second-guess Einstein. It is a world of bloated egos, mercurial highs and public despair.

It is not a world for the faint of heart. In this business it is not a bad thing when the family's second car is a moving van.

"You know you're going to bounce around but I've made more money than I ever thought I'd make," Melvin said. "I've been married 28 years (and have) two kids in college. All that part of it is good. Like I tell my players, by the time your career is over we'll have a lot in common. We'll all be released, put on outright waivers or fired."

Melvin and Fletcher have experienced all three. And more. Melvin went from marginally interested student and basketball star in Chatham, Ont., to being entrusted by future U.S. President George W. Bush with running his major league franchise in Texas.

"Let's be honest. There's a notoriety to this job, the fans, the media," Melvin said. "Everyone has a certain amount of ego and as a GM you are proud to be in charge."

So, fans see the Jays' J.P. Ricciardi interviewed in spring training and, as lead hand of the Leafs, John Ferguson Jr.'s picture peers near daily from newspapers. Glory. That once was Fletcher.

"I felt it was easier to run a team in Toronto because the players were always under close scrutiny from the fans," Fletcher said. "You're far more accountable in Toronto. That, to me, is a positive, not a negative."

Tell that to Ferguson. He'll be that guy out on the ledge.

Fletcher understands. People yelled at him to jump, too.

"The job is harder than when I was a GM," he said. "The pressure to make the right decision is more severe because with the (salary) cap, if you make a mistake you can't spend money to correct it."

GMs have high profiles, but the real work begins when the camera lights dim: Too many airports, not enough hours, gelatinous hotel food and a continually interrupted family life.

"It's the price you pay. Your family has to understand that you're doing something you love," Melvin said. While fans see Opening Day as a beginning, for baseball GMs it is a culmination of a job already done through countless winter meetings and rubber-chicken dinners.

"You have to co-operate with the business side of the club," Melvin said. "If it is bringing in revenue it helps your payroll. You help by living in the city; like I live in Milwaukee. I do engagements. I speak at Rotary Clubs. Functions. That's part of the job. The same way players touch the fans to make them feel good, I have to make the suite holders and sponsors feel good."

There's draft analysis, trade deadlines and capology. Said Melvin: "We have six minor league teams, 21 amateur scouts, nine pro scouts, minor league managers and coaches, we've got 30 to 35 instructors to keep up with."

Sometimes dinner gets colder than a lady's stare on a forgotten anniversary.

"Like I tell my friend who has a fantasy team," Melvin said, "it's just like that, except I've got $60 million on the line."

Not to mention his job.

"The golden rule of building a franchise is that there is no rule," Fletcher said. "You have to assess each individual situation." He should know. He has bent if not broken most of those rules. It took 19 years and a move to Calgary to turn the expansion Flames into a Stanley Cup champion. In Toronto, he was gone after six seasons. "There's pressure but I loved that feeling. GMs in any sport love that adrenalin ... that period leading up to the trade deadline or draft. It's what sets this business apart."

Neither has shied from controversy. Fletcher brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto. Much applause. He dealt Wendel Clark to Quebec. Cue ridicule. Recalls Fletcher: "Being second-guessed is the nature of the beast. There's such a passion from fans. They're all playing the role of GM."

POPULARITY

Melvin has felt the same backside of popularity's hand. He won three divisional titles with Texas, was named executive of the year, signed Alex Rodriguez to the largest contract in baseball history. But no World Series. Goodbye Doug!

Fletcher, before taking his current job as vice-president, completely revamped the Coyotes, trading 29 players and draft picks within six months. Similarly, Melvin has overhauled the Brewers.

"This year, we think we can be competitive," Melvin said.

Sometimes, he knows, being close isn't good enough.

"You have to have a thick skin," he said. "Feel confident that you're making the right decision. And you have to understand that all your decisions aren't going to be good ... 10% of the players make it so 90% of the players you sign fail. The success rate in sports isn't the same as in other businesses. You can't look back."

Of course, that's exactly what team owners, fans and the media do. So Ferguson squirms, Melvin tries not to think of Lyle Overbay and Fletcher knows the NHL rumour mill is just being primed.

"You have 30 teams and 14 don't make the playoffs. Another eight are gone after the first round, so generally speaking you have 22 franchises at the end of each season that aren't very happy," Fletcher said.

Last GM to the moving van gets to go to the Penguins Gulag or the Tampa Bay Double A's. Ulcers optional.

As a couple of fuzzy-cheeked minor leaguers cavort under the Phoenix sun, Melvin pondered living on that rumour mill.

"I love it when a minor leaguer comes up and succeeds," he said. "I get satisfaction building teams and no matter how many losses you have, you always think the next win is the one that's going to turn your club around."

It's that kind of thinking that keeps GMs sane. It's what makes the price of victory always worth the cost of defeat.


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