It used to be that calling a group of bright, successful and ambitious guys "the smartest guys in the room" was a compliment. But sometime in the last 20 years or so, the phrase took on a more sinister meaning, like the next generation of Tom Wolfe's "Masters of the Universe." Indeed, The Smartest Guys in the Room was the title of the 2003 book and later documentary on the fraudulent rise and scandalous fall of Enron -- perhaps the most graphic example of the best and brightest young American men (yes, mostly men) abandoning moral principles for the sake of rich financial rewards.
Today, I'm launching a campaign to take back the phrase, re-invent it, and apply it in a much more positive light.
To me, the smartest guys in the room are the highly-educated and -talented men (and women) who didn't follow the well-worn path to Wall Street riches but, instead, followed their hearts to baseball.
This came to me while watching last week's press conference in which Chicago Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts introduced Theo Epstein as the Cubs' new President of Baseball Operations. After all the zaniness about whether Theo was or wasn't hiding out in a Starbucks near Wrigley and whether the Red Sox would or wouldn't let Theo out of his contract, there he was, calmly and confidently laying out a vision for rebuilding the Cubs and answering the questions with substance and, in some cases, humor.
Later that same day, it was Ben Cherington's turn, when he was introduced as the new general manager of the Red Sox. He, too, sat before the bright lights and calmly took the reins handed to him, describing the steps the Red Sox must take to get back on the right track. He acknowledged the existence of troubling issues that surfaced after the season, took responsibility for addressing the problems, and then answered questions with substance and sincerity.
And it's not just Theo and Ben. There's Jed Hoyer, now the general manager of the Cubs. There's Andrew Friedman, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. There's Neil Huntington with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chris Antonetti with the Cleveland Indians and Josh Byrnes with the San Diego Padres and Kim Ng, formerly with the Los Angeles Dodgers and now a league executive. All are graduates of top universities. All are supremely talented. All could have pursued any career they wanted.
During Theo's press conference, I tweeted something like: "Theo, Ben, Jed -- what a talented bunch of guys. I'm glad they're running baseball teams and not hedge funds." The response was immediate and positive. I knew I was on to something.
What is that something? I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps after years and years of financial and political scandals, it's noteworthy when leaders of any kind take responsibility, speak substantively and with purpose, and demand accountability.
No, this isn't some naive polemic against Wall Street greed. Baseball is business. Big business. The Theos and Bens of the world are trusted to manage baseball assets worth millions and millions of dollars. And they are well-compensated for their efforts.
But baseball is more than just making money for the sake of making money. (Yes, Frank McCourt, I'm looking at you).
Baseball is our treasured history, knitting one generation to the next. Baseball is a game of quietude, of sudden eruption, of unbridled joy, and of maddening sorrow. A game played on open fields, allowing -- indeed, demanding -- a shared experience. Baseball is the game I love. The game you love. It's part of who we are.
That's why we're grateful that "the smartest guys in the room" seem to love baseball as much as we do.