Mike Elias' path to the Orioles' general manager job began in earnest in John Stuper's Yale University dugout, at a time when an Ivy League dugout was just starting to be viewed as the cradle for baseball minds that they’ve ultimately become.
He had a feel for the game. He had the drive, and he had the brains. But surely, something must have caught Stuper at least a little by surprise in the dozen years of growth that led his one-time left-hander into the helm of the Orioles rebuild.
"Would you think I was a [crummy] interview if I said nothing?" Stuper said. "I'm not surprised by this at all. He has kept up with the times. Honestly, when he became a scout, his first year — I'm not going to tell you I'm Kreskin or something here, but I thought he would be a general manager. I just believed it, and it's come true."
Elias, 35, was announced as the Orioles' general manager and executive vice president Friday after an extensive search to replace executive vice president Dan Duquette after a club-record 115-loss season. He’ll be introduced at a news conference Monday morning.
Elias is not the first Ivy Leaguer to ascend to such a prominent baseball role, but he's also not the quant that his resume and or his previous job with the analytics-minded Houston Astros might indicate.
Instead, his rise through the scouting ranks and the requisite organizational and people skills that helped him thrive both on the ground and in supervisory roles created what those who have worked with Elias believe has tailored a modern executive, one with all the tools and experience mandatory for the holistic task of returning the Orioles to respectability on and off the field.
"A lot of my kids work in front offices and a lot of them still play, so I try to stay current," Stuper said. "I think it'll take awhile, I hope the fans in Baltimore will be patient, but it'll take awhile. Eventually — I grew up with the Orioles in the ’70s when they were dominant. I think they could possibly become the new Houston Astros."
Time to pivot
Just because he wore the Yale blue doesn’t mean Elias was immune to the epiphany that most college athletes eventually face: that his future might not be on a baseball field. But the timing was right for him to take a different path, so when he required shoulder surgery after his sophomore year in 2003, Elias took a year off from school to maximize his baseball eligibility. He spent it interning with the Philadelphia Phillies and then working with pitching guru Dr. Tom House in California.
Once he returned, Stuper noticed Elias was picking his brain a little more in the dugout or at practice. The manager had a World Series ring as a pitcher for the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals and decades in the game. Elias tried to draw as much from him as he could while there, though Stuper's wife, Pam, is Yale's field hockey coach and insists that Elias, her work-study student, learned his talent-evaluation skills in her office.
That this was right in the "Moneyball" era with analytics coming out from the game's shadows and into the spotlight. Fellow Yale alumnus Theo Epstein had just won the World Series with the 2004 Boston Red Sox, offering an avenue into the game for an Ivy Leaguer that might have been previously more scarce.
"I think if it was 10 years previous, they would have said, 'Hey, kid, go to Wall Street or go do [international business] in New York City. You don't belong in baseball,' " Stuper said.
"But I think he was very single-minded in what his plan for his future was, and he felt he had to start at the ground floor, which he did as a scout."
‘He was a star’
That entry came with the St. Louis Cardinals, and Elias made his initial contacts with some of their scouting staff by chance while working with House. Dan Kantrovitz, the assistant scouting director in St. Louis at the time, was making his first hire in that role when he came across Elias' application. He remembers over 500 applications, "a lot of people with more experience than Mike.”
"But the more I learned about him, from speaking with people like Coach Stuper and Tom House, and then meeting him in person, the more I became convinced that he was a star," Kantrovitz, now the assistant general manager for the Oakland Athletics, said. (Kantrovitz was an early part of the Orioles' executive search but did not interview).
"He was highly intelligent, passionate about baseball and had clear leadership qualities, even back then. I remember not everybody was on board with my decision to go with ceiling over experience, but he was such a quick study and gained people's respect so fast that I knew pretty much right away that he was going to be great, and that we all might be working for him someday."
Before long, the first-year scout's reports were being used examples for his colleagues. Stuper's outgoing advice was to sit beside the veteran scouts inside and outside his organization and pick their brains and "make sure they knew that I knew that I didn't know it all." Kantrovitz said he had an "air of gravitas" in the draft room that even the most veteran scouts respected.
"From a scouting perspective, it takes most people a couple years, at least, before they can write coherent reports and articulate coherent arguments in a draft room," Kantrovitz said. "But with Mike, it came so naturally."
Elias was elevated to a scouting manager role in 2010, when some of the communication skills and the beginnings of his strengths in an organizational role came out.
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Dirk Kinney was a first-year area scout when he signed on in 2010, and said he went to Elias "with almost everything," even questions simple enough to make him roll his eyes as he thinks back on them.
"You could just tell with the communication skills and the trust factor, and that he allowed you to be flexible," Kinney said. "At the end of the day, it was get the job done. You knew he was going to move up the chain of the scouting community and front office community at a rather fast pace. He's always got the pedal pushed, but he understands when he had to pull off it. He's a go-getter, and you saw that early. Obviously, he's continued to keep the success that it looked like he was going to have at an early age."
Luhnow brought him to Houston in 2012 first as a special assistant and later the director of amateur scouting, with Elias playing a significant role in the three consecutive No. 1 overall picks they made from 2012 to 2014. Elias was credited with steering the team toward 2015 American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa in 2012.
In his time there, the Astros were held up as a model of scouting and player development, even as the businesslike way the organization was run overall rankled some in the game. Those who worked with him said Elias remained an evaluator and a baseball man at his core, even as he absorbed all the baseball practices around him, both modern and traditional. The organization was viewed as one that was more numbers-oriented, but Elias' strength in scouting showed through, as did his ability to lead people and keep the success coming.
But he never let his ambition get in the way of his development, even if a role like this was always in his mind. Stuper believes it was the 2015 offseason, when the league experienced significant turnover at the general manager level, that he called Elias to see whether he was ready to make the next step.
Stuper said: "I called him and said, "Are you looking at any of those jobs, is anybody talking to you? He very matter-of-factly said, 'I'm not ready yet. I need to work some more still.' And I thought to myself, 'Wow.' What self-awareness, what humility, to realize, probably correctly, that he wasn't ready to head a major league team.
"Now, I think it's pretty clear he is ready. He's a huge part of the success in Houston, and I think even Jeff Luhnow would verify that. He's ready. I knew this was going to happen pretty soon. It's the next logical step. It's a big undertaking there, from what I understand, but I don't know if they could pick a better guy. I really don't."