MLB front offices dotted with Western Pa. natives
Every December, Major League Baseball holds its winter meetings, four days of high-pressure wheeling and dealing. The elaborate event often is held at a distant, warm-weather spot, such as Orlando, Las Vegas or San Diego. The industry’s power brokers — owners, executives, scouts and agents — gather to swap players, size up the competition and pass out resumes.
A week or two later, at a restaurant on Pittsburgh’s cold and snowy South Side, another confab is held. It’s a one-night affair that’s purely social; the only things that get traded are old stories. The guest list consists of a couple of dozen baseball lifers with roots in Western Pennsylvania.
President Frank Coonelly and other members of the Pirates front office have stopped by. Other regulars at the table are execs John Mirabelli of the Cleveland Indians, Tim Conroy of the Kansas City Royals, Jack Bowen of the Pirates and Tony LaCava of the Toronto Blue Jays; former general manager Dave Littlefield; minor league owner Chuck Greenberg; and Joe Emanuele, a former baseball coach at Central Catholic High School who scouted for the Royals and Atlanta Braves.
“It’s a great time for guys to get together,” said LaCava, who lives in Oakmont and commutes to Toronto on weekdays for his job as assistant GM. “It’s the holiday season, so everyone’s in a festive mood. We shoot the breeze about the old days and catch up on what’s gone on this year, different jobs and things like that. It’s a lot of fun.”
The group has gotten together every year at Christmastime since the early 1990s. The number of attendees fluctuates. Elmer Gray, a legendary scout who signed Ken Griffey Sr. and Barry Bonds, was a fixture until poor health finally forced him to miss last year’s gathering. This year, some of the guys joked that Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik, a New Castle native, might not have the cash to fly in this winter after the Mariners spent $240 million to sign free agent Robinson Cano.
The person who handles the invites each year is Miami Marlins vice president/assistant GM Mike Berger. LaCava calls him “the connector” because Berger sends out all the emails from the massive contact list on his smartphone.
“It’s open to anyone in the area with even a loose affiliation to major league baseball,” Berger said. “It’s neat to see the different guys who roll in, from part-time scouts to team officials, young guys just getting their start, interns. You’d be surprised how many of us call Pittsburgh home.”
Long before the Pirates drafted him in 1980 as a first baseman out of Central Catholic, Berger was a batboy at Three Rivers Stadium. After a brief stint as a minor league manager, he was hired in 1996 as an area scout for the Montreal Expos. One of the Expos’ interns that year was Neal Huntington, who later became the Pirates GM.
Berger, 51, later worked for the Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies, Blue Jays and Arizona Diamondbacks. He joined the Marlins in November, and many industry insiders expect him to eventually move into a general manager’s office.
Although his 34-year career has taken him all over the country, Berger has never strayed from his hometown for long. Like LaCava, his close friend and teammate at Central Catholic, Berger still lives in Oakmont even though his job is hundreds of miles away.
There’s something special about Pittsburgh, Berger said, that draws people close and makes them stay.
“The roots do run deep,” Berger said. “Any and all of us who are employed in baseball, there’s a satisfaction in saying, ‘I’m from Pittsburgh and I still call it home.’ There’s a lot of pride for where we were raised.”