8/15/2014 1:11 P.M. ET
Preller's long road trip led to Padres' GM office
Ex-scout loved searching for talent in Latin America; now set for new challenge
By Corey Brock / MLB.com
SAN DIEGO -- Contrary to what you may have heard, tales of new Padres general manager A.J. Preller's itinerant past have been romanticized and overstated to some degree.
While it's true that the former Rangers assistant GM has spent as many as 300 nights per year on the road -- immersing himself in Latin American culture, scouring the countryside for players, building a reputation as a gifted talent evaluator -- he didn't live the past decade out of a suitcase.
Preller actually owns furniture.
"A couple of years ago, I got a high-back couch and Tempur-Pedic bed," Preller told MLB.com last week from his Petco Park office, sitting amid unpacked boxes.
These purchases weren't creature comforts, but part of the healing process after cervical fusion surgery of his neck, the result of bad posture on frequent flights, falling asleep in an awkward position, all while likely dreaming of his next trip to a remote outpost, running down the "next big thing."
"I guess I'll need some new stuff," said Preller, who is single, sounding like someone ready to move on from his nomadic past.
When San Diego took a chance on Preller -- an outside-the-box pick, to be sure -- the franchise didn't ask him to drop his passport or stopwatch at the front desk, though this job won't resemble the one that he left with Texas.
Instead, Preller is simply trading one challenge for another. It's a big one, too.
Preller is the team's fourth general manager since 2009. He has been charged with getting the club back into the postseason for the first time since 2006, which would certainly go a long ways in helping win back a tepid, skeptical and often exasperated fan base.
"I love the scouting aspect of my former job, the competition element and the recruiting element," Preller said. "But I think this job presented a challenge on a number of different levels. I'm looking forward to bringing my experiences together and helping set a direction and tone for the organization."
There are a few things that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels thinks you should know about Preller, who Daniels has known since they met during their freshman year at Cornell. Preller, a Long Island native, was a diehard Yankees fan who was born too late to revel in one dynasty and too early for another.
"He doesn't sleep," Daniels said.
There's something else, Daniels added.
"He's one of these guys who when he builds relationships, it's real. The people who know him, they swear by him," Daniels said.
It's quite a list, starting with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who Preller worked with during an unpaid gig in the Arizona Fall League. Robinson was impressed, bringing Preller to New York with him to the office of on-field operations for Major League Baseball.
|"I think one of the reasons [A.J. Preller and I] got along so well was because we shared ideas and decisions. We talked to each other like equals. He had his own thoughts. He wasn't a 'yes' man. And he'd come to me with fresh ideas, things I hadn't thought about."|
|-- Frank Robinson|
"I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because we shared ideas and decisions," Robinson said. "We talked to each other like equals. He had his own thoughts. He wasn't a 'yes' man. And he'd come to me with fresh ideas, things I hadn't thought about."
In Robinson, Preller found something much more than a mentor.
"He really reached out and wanted my opinion and thoughts. He took the time to make me feel a part of something," said Preller, who last played organized baseball in high school. "I want to make people feel a part of that involvement. I take that from Frank every day.
"I feel that's how you usually get your best ideas … from multiple people who are talented, throwing opinions and thoughts out there and maybe finding something you hadn't thought of."
Spend five minutes with Preller in a meeting and it becomes evident how much he appreciates the input of others. He'll ultimately make the call on what direction the baseball side of the organization takes moving forward, but how Preller will arrive at those decisions figures to be a collective effort.
Preller doesn't just ask for opinions for the sake of asking. He covets them, values them, needs them.
"I think one of his greatest strengths is his ability to challenge people," said Rangers director of professional scouting Josh Boyd. "You know that you have to be on top of your game working for him. You have to get that next piece of information and be prepared. It's a thirst of knowledge with him.
"As a scout, all that you can ask is your voice will be heard. And with him, you know it always will be."
Challenge people? Preller has certainly come a long way from his early days in professional baseball, like in 2001, when he was hired by the Dodgers to work in their baseball operations department.
That was the year Preller first met then-manager Jim Tracy, who distinctly remembers Preller and early impressions from meetings, especially those that took place at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., during Spring Training.
"There was a period early on when I wondered if he would ever speak enough," Tracy said. "I can still see him walking around with a yellow legal pad tucked under his arm and a Ticonderoga pencil behind his ear. He was an observer."
Tracy found a way to get Preller out of his shell. Sitting in Tracy's dorm-like suite one night, the manager turned to Preller and gave him a homework assignment.
"We needed a backup catcher, so I looked at Preller and told him I needed a list of every backup catcher that was available," Tracy said. "The next day, I ask A.J. if he's got the list. Now, I'm just trying to loosen him up.
"So he hands me the list, I look at it and I say, 'Are you kidding me? I'd better be calling Walter Matthau to see if we could get ["Bad News Bears" portly catcher] Engelberg.' Three or four guys in the room start busting up."
It was during Preller's time with the Dodgers that he formed a strong bond with Don Welke, a well-respected scout who has also spent time with the Reds, Royals, Jays and Orioles. He took a liking to Preller, who was 35 years his junior.
"Strong bond" might be selling it short.
"He's like a son to me," said Welke, 71, now a senior special assistant for the Rangers.
The two would meet at the Pantry Café in downtown Los Angeles, a 24-hour diner, talking baseball long into the night, or at Jerry's Famous Deli in Marina Del Ray, Calif., near Venice Beach.
At Jerry's, Welke said, tables would be filled with would-be screenwriters, hoping to become the "next big thing." But the "next big thing" was sitting across from Welke the entire time, even if Preller had no idea.
Welke saw it early on, though.
"He loved baseball and loved to talk baseball, was a baseball rat," Welke said. "We'd sit there until what seemed like 4 or 5 in the morning. He hungered for knowledge. We'd talk about different facets of the game. For a young guy getting his start, he had a great feel for what was going on."
By this time, Preller had already started thinking about the scouting and player evaluation. But late-night talks with Welke only served to increase his passion for that end of the game exponentially.
"[Welke] was someone who I wanted to be around," Preller said. "When you share a passion for any topic with someone, that's someone you gravitate to.
"Don is pretty close to the vest in a lot of cases. But for whatever reason, he opened that door up to me. Looking back, I got a real baseball education in those times."
For reasons he can't even explain, Preller has long had a fascination with baseball in Latin America. As an intern with the Phillies, Preller wrote a three-credit paper on baseball in Latin America and the academy system.
"I was intrigued about what the Astros were doing in Venezuela and what the Dodgers and the Blue Jays had done in the 1980s in the Dominican Republic. And when different scouts would come in to play the Phillies, if they had scouting personnel with the team, I would talk to them," Preller said.
Preller took his first trip to Latin America while working with Robinson. He then took another while working in Los Angeles. Shortly after his first trip with the Dodgers, he phoned Boyd.
"I could just tell that it was something that was made for him -- or that he was made for it," Boyd said. "Just from talking with him, it was clearly something he made a connection with."
It was all true. Preller was hooked.
"When I finally got a chance to see it for myself firsthand, it was everything I thought it would be," Preller said. "It was a country that loved the game, it was grassroots. It was out in the middle of nowhere, and you are there trying to see if you can find the next Vlady Guerrero or Miguel Tejada. I knew I wanted to make a career out of this."
When Preller joined Texas' front office in 2003, the Rangers facilitated his interest in Latin America, turning him loose to visit as often as need be and to go after the players that he wanted. This was before the international bonus pool. And with Preller spearheading the team's Dominican Republic academy, the club flourished.
"At the time, the rules were different, and I think A.J. identified it was an area where you could make hay … and then he took it to another level," Daniels said. "He taught himself Spanish, spent 200 nights every year there. It wasn't just a trial deal, it was immersion.
"It wasn't any magic formula. He saw that there was an opportunity to beat some people. He just flat outworked people. He got people here in the mindset that we're going to do things differently. At the time, 2004-05, there weren't many teams there. He created the model teams are now going with."
Preller did so by digging deep on players -- family members, friends, neighbors, any associates. Yes, talent rules the roost, but character and makeup are important pieces to the puzzle, which is something Welke told him over and over again at Jerry's.
"One thing that we've always talked about, especially with Latin American players is, 'How much does he love the game? How much does he want to be a Major League player, or is he just looking for a way to get out and get to the U.S.?'" Welke said.
There were bumps in the road.
There was a reported three-month suspension by Major League Baseball that was later reduced to one month for an incident in the Dominican Republic for, as FoxSports.com reported, negotiating with a player who had been suspended for age/ID discrepancy.
The Padres did several background checks on Preller -- as they did with all of their candidates -- and checked with Major League Baseball and came away confident in what they learned.
"It was a situation where Major League Baseball and the Rangers viewed a situation in a different light," Preller said. "Ultimately, Major League Baseball came in and looked at it and made a decision. But since then, it's been a non-issue. They've cleared my name and cleared the Rangers' name. I'm very proud of what the Rangers did and what I was a part of in every aspect and every situation in Latin America. It was first-class. We're going to look to do even better here."
San Diego has made the international market a priority. There's a strong sentiment internally that the club will target Mexico, where signings don't count toward the international pool allotment.
To be sure, there's a lot of work to be done for Preller.
There are boxes to be unpacked, roots to be settled, opinions to be weighed, furniture to be purchased. The process is well underway. The future is uncertain, but Tracy feels the Padres did themselves right by this hire.
"The Padres have hired themselves an absolute jewel. No one will outwork him. It's impossible to do. I find it hard to believe that he will be outsmarted," Tracy said.
"In my opinion, the Padres have won the derby with this hire."