Jon Daniels didn't begin his career working in baseball, but once he decided to embark on that path, it didn't take long for him to succeed.
Hired by the Rangers as general manager in October 2005, the 28-year-old Daniels became the youngest person to hold that job for a Major League team. He's been with Texas since, and he was promoted to president of baseball operations in 2013.
MLB.com sat down with Daniels in his office at Surprise Stadium in Arizona during the final days of Spring Training to discuss his career, learning from good and bad trades and why he'll never be considered the most famous recent graduate from his high school.
MLB.com: You didn't go into baseball after graduating from Cornell, going to work in business development for Allied Domecq, the parent company for Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts. What made you ultimately decide to pursue a career in baseball?
Daniels: I was living in Boston, working there in Randolph, Mass. I spent more time on the phone talking to a friend of mine that was working at Major League Baseball at the time than I did focused on my own job. That was A.J. Preller. A.J. had worked for Frank Robinson at the [Arizona] Fall League, and then Frank was hired as the czar of discipline and A.J. went over with him. We would sit on the phone and talk about what he was working on, bounce ideas off each other.
I went with him to the Winter Meetings in '99 in Anaheim, and I started a dialogue with a bunch of different baseball people. That was the first time it kind of dawned on me that maybe I could get in here. I had a couple interviews for internships; I had one with the Red Sox -- Ben Cherington interviewed me and he ultimately hired Jed Hoyer; talk about a small world. Then I made an introduction with some people in the Rockies' organization, and Josh Byrnes interviewed me and hired me that following spring. That's how I got in.
MLB.com: When you were hired as the Rangers' GM, you were 28, the youngest in the history of the game. Were you surprised to get that job at that age?
Daniels: Yeah, totally. I'm still surprised. Very green at the time; admittedly not ready for it. But what are you going to do, turn it down? "A contract to be the GM for a Major League team? No, sir, I'm not ready." In 2005, we finished around .500 and I was the assistant GM with John [Hart] at the time. We had an end-of-season meeting at Tom Hicks' offices in Dallas. John, in these kinds of settings, would defer to me a lot and kind of throw things my way; give me opportunities to speak or present in front of a little more of an intimidating setting. In this meeting, I remember thinking, "He's doing that a lot; he's really throwing this to me more than usual."
At the end of the meeting, I drove back to the Ballpark in Arlington and had some things to do. The next morning, I was supposed to fly down to the Dominican with A.J. and Dom Chiti; we were opening a new academy that fall and still had some things to do. I had an e-mail from Tom Hicks that said, "Call me when you get back to the office." I called John Hart first and said, "What's going on?" He said, "Listen J.D., I just stepped down as GM. I recommended you to take the job. You're going to interview tomorrow to be the GM. I can't talk right now; good luck."
So I called Tom back and he said, "J.D., I'd like you to come in tomorrow. I know you have the trip to the Dominican; I'd like you to cancel your trip and come in in the morning." I said, "Is there anything you'd like me to prepare? What are we going to talk about?" He said, "We're going to talk about the future of the franchise." I called my wife, called my dad and I think I called A.J. and spent quite a bit of time on the phone with him. He was at the Dodgers at the time. I started preparing some different things, spreadsheets, and I realized I'm not that person to walk in with a binder. That's not how I usually present things, and from what I had seen, I didn't think that's what Tom Hicks wanted.
I familiarized myself with different things, went home and didn't sleep much. I went in the next day, and within an hour, the questions stopped being interview questions and were more like, "All right, what are we going to do?" It was more like planning. He offered me the job on the spot.
MLB.com: Your first major deal was trading Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals. He posted a 40-40 season.
Daniels: I like where this interview is headed.
MLB.com: There are some good ones in here, too. Did you second-guess yourself? Your first time in this role, your first huge deal and he ends up doing what he does. Was it a lesson on how to handle the good and the bad?
Daniels: It's a great question. The mistake we made there was not in moving Soriano; we weren't going to sign him, we weren't good enough at the time and he wasn't the finishing piece of the team. Washington handled it great, put him in the outfield -- which was a little messy at the time -- and ultimately got great production by moving him off second base.
The mistake we made was not in trading him, but when we made the deal for [Brad] Wilkerson, [Armando] Galarraga and [Terrmel] Sledge, no sooner had we made the deal and agreed to it at the Winter Meetings did we have 15 clubs calling on Wilkerson. I probably got a little stubborn there and really didn't see that out. Had we engaged clubs on Brad Wilkerson at that point, we could have done pretty well. For one year of Soriano, that would have ultimately been a great return.
Looking back on it, that's one of the things that I learned from it; you make a deal and you have the new player, the bright shiny object, and you fall in love and don't want to be open-minded to at least considering other things. That was the mistake we made.
MLB.com: There have been plenty of deals that have gone the right way, as well. In 2006 at the Deadline, you acquired Carlos Lee and a Minor Leaguer named Nelson Cruz along with him. Is it more satisfying to make a deal like that or more frustrating to make a deal that you ultimately regret?
Daniels: Both. I spend more time on the deals that I regret, just because you want to learn from them -- and it hurts. You see Adrian Gonzalez's name scroll across the bottom of the screen for six years after you traded him and he could have been doing that for you. That's a challenge. At the end of it, if the deal works for your club and you're winning at the big league level, ultimately that's all of our goals. That's what we're all charged with, so if you're able to accomplish that, that takes the sting out of the ones that didn't go your way.
MLB.com: You traded for Cliff Lee at the Trade Deadline in 2010. Did you feel that was the last piece the Rangers needed to get to the next level?
Daniels: Yeah. I hadn't personally experienced that before, where you have a good team, you could see a road to the payoffs. I had to be pushed a little bit by our group to say, "Yes, we're giving up young players. Yes, there's risk. Yes, he's a rental. But this could really transform us and be the leap that we're looking to make." It played out exactly that way. He basically pitched us through two rounds of the playoffs and was outstanding. That was another moment internally and externally that took us to another level, expectation-wise. Our players believed we could win and we would win.
I was hesitant. We were a little bit of a split camp on Justin Smoak. We balked initially at putting him in, then Cliff was almost traded to the Yankees. If the David Adams injury doesn't come about, that season plays out totally differently. When that window was reopened, we had felt what it was like to not get him. That gave us enough desire or guts, whatever you want to call it, to say, "Let's push some chips in the middle; we have a team that can win and this could be a key missing piece for us."
MLB.com: After the 2010 season, your name was attached to the Mets' vacant GM job. You grew up in Queens as a Mets fan. How much did that job intrigue you at the time?
Daniels: It intrigued my parents. It intrigued my mom a lot. I never spent any time thinking about it. I got asked about it in the media, especially because we were playing the Yankees, and I did some interviews and got asked about it a little bit. Growing up there, I thought I would always live in New York. My world was small; like so many of us, where you grow up, that's all you can imagine. I still have family there, my parents and a lot of friends.
The longer that I've been away, especially now, married with three kids -- and I didn't have three kids at the time, we had two -- it had gotten to a point where I didn't really see myself going back and raising my family there, at least at that point in time. I was so locked into what we were doing; we had a ton of young players coming up and here we were, on the verge of we thought close to winning a World Series. Obviously we didn't get it, but we were having so much fun and things were going so well that I really didn't spend any time thinking about that.
MLB.com: You let Josh Hamilton leave as a free agent and traded both Mark Teixeira and Michael Young, all three very popular players. Is it difficult -- yet necessary -- in your job to not let emotion get in the way of making what you feel is the right baseball move?
Daniels: Absolutely. Anybody would agree with that; every team would have to agree with that. It is hard, man, especially when you've had success as a group and you want to keep the team together. John Hart always used to say, "Don't let a star fall on you." The most dangerous thing that can happen in the game from an organization standpoint long-term is you get old and you get expensive. You lose the flexibility to do the things that you want to accomplish. You make some of those tough calls.
Sometimes you let it play out like with Josh. We weren't going to trade Josh, because every year we felt we had a chance to win that year. His value was to play for us. Teixeira, the team wasn't ready yet, so we traded him. Nellie Cruz was a unique situation coming off the whole Biogenesis deal; we missed on that. He's been a better player the last four years.
Sometimes they work out, sometimes not. As much as you love these guys and have all these great, shared experiences, the risk of signing everybody is we're all human, we all get older and our bodies break down. The club can't win that way.
MLB.com: You mentioned being from New York City. You're a graduate of Hunter College High School, which happens to be where I went to school as well. Have you accepted the fact yet that neither of us will ever be as famous as Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Daniels: We've got a Supreme Court justice, we've got the biggest star on Broadway.
MLB.com: Max Kellerman, shouting on ESPN.
Daniels: Max Kellerman. Isn't there like an MC Lyte?
MLB.com: Young MC.
Daniels: Young MC. That's embarrassing; I just dropped an "MC Lyte." That's a bad job on my part. Yeah, we're down the line a little bit.
MLB.com: You received the distinguished alumni award from Hunter in 2013, which I presented to you.
Daniels: And did it well.
MLB.com: Bigger career highlight: World Series or getting that award from me?
Daniels: I'm going to go World Series. But it's close.
MLB.com: Do you think Statcast™ is making fans look at the game differently?
Daniels: Not just fans. I think players, too. Younger players, it used to be that we didn't want to give the players too much information, because what are they going to be able to use, paralysis by analysis, that kind of mentality. Now, if we don't give it to them, they're going to look for it elsewhere. It's available over the counter. It's on every broadcast, so if we don't present some of this information to them, they're going to get it anyway. They're looking for it, so aren't we better off presenting it in the way in which we want it to be utilized?
MLB.com: Adrian Beltre may be having one of the quietest great careers we've seen in a long time. Is he a Hall of Famer in your mind?
Daniels: I think it's hands down. If he retired two years ago, he was a Hall of Famer. Now he's whatever number of hits and home runs away from some real special milestones. I don't think he needs them, in my opinion. An elite, elite defender, an elite offensive player -- and he's done it for a freakishly long time and won a lot. He checks a lot of the boxes.
MLB.com: If he gets in, do you think Elvis [Andrus] will introduce him?
Daniels: I hope not. That would be a long speech.
MLB.com: How do you assess the state of the American League West?
Daniels: Extremely competitive. If you wanted to make a case that the division could end in any order, I think you could make a pretty educated case. I don't think you could say that about any other division. Now, do some teams need more to break right than others? Yeah, but that's the name of the game. I think every team has a legitimate case to be made that if A, B and C go a certain way that they could be in the playoffs. It's been interesting to see different teams building it different ways. But I think it's going to be very competitive from Day 1.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.