Detroit — Both of his parents were in the medical profession. Scott Harris, when he arrived at UCLA, was considering a couple of different fields, all of them fulfilling, distinguished and lucrative.
But Harris quickly got hooked on the idea for a different path, a much tougher path, one with far fewer guarantees. He just needed — or, at least, wanted — his father’s blessing.
“I think it was his second semester of his sophomore year at UCLA, and he sent me an email,” Rob Harris said of the correspondence some 17 years ago. “And he said, ‘You know, Dad, I could easily go into business or law and do well and have a very comfortable life, but what I really want to do is run a baseball team. I know it’s a difficult profession to get into, but what do you think?’
“As a dad, it was the world’s easiest email to answer. I said, ‘I think you should follow your heart.'”
Scott Harris’ heart has led him away from his hometown of San Francisco, and to Detroit, where on Tuesday afternoon at Comerica Park he was introduced as the Tigers’ president of baseball operations.
Harris is the first front-office chief Christopher Ilitch has hired as CEO of the Tigers — and second overall, having hired Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings’ GM who was heavily involved in the recruitment and interview process of Harris — and it’s one that has sent big shockwaves throughout Major League Baseball, given the success and reputation of the Giants, the near-decade of struggles of the Tigers, and Harris’ reputation as one of the top rising stars in all the game.
Harris replaces Al Avila, who was fired last month after seven lackluster years as GM. Harris is 35, so he was a teen when the Tigers broke through in 2006, and a 20-something during their run of success in the early 2010s; Avila is 64, and Dave Dombrowski was 59 when he was fired in 2015. Terms of Harris’ contract weren’t disclosed, though the industry standard is four or five years.
Harris, who was GM of the Giants for three years before agreeing last week to take on the Tigers’ challenge, was short on specifics and timetables in regard to his plans in Detroit. But Harris, a disciple of the Theo Epstein Tree, wasn’t short on enthusiasm or optimism.
“I would say to the fans, this is an exceptional opportunity and responsibility, but this isn’t my team, this isn’t the front office’s team, this isn’t the players’ team, this is Detroit’s team,” Harris said Tuesday, wearing a light-blue tie and a sparkling Olde English D lapel pin. “These players and AJ (Hinch) and his coaches will be in living rooms more often than most family members every night when the TV is on.
“This team means more to the fans and the city than I’ll ever know.
“We’re going to be mindful of that with every decision we’re going to make.”
Harris, joined on the dais by Ilitch and Chris McGowan, president and CEO of Ilitch Sports & Entertainment, and in the front row by fiancee Elle, father Rob and mother Joanne Nino, was asked about every aspect of the organization, and laid back on specifics, such as whether the team will be a big free-agent spend this offseason, or what the future holds for the aging Miguel Cabrera, or the struggling Javier Báez.
But he did leave the impression that there will be changes, and risks will be taken. And he did lay out a three-prong plan, the same that sold Ilitch in an instant.
One: Acquire or develop young players, and retain them. Two, get the most out of said talent. And three — and most fascinating, as Harris gave a mesmerizing dissertation on the subject — is focusing on the strike zone, and working inside-out from there.
“The strike zone disproportionately influences everything,” he said, noting it’s huge for pitching (pitch counts, pitcher usage, pitcher’s health), the quality of the defense, and, of course, the quality of the offense, which this season in Detroit has been a maddening parade of free-swinging, soft contact and shutouts galore.
“It touches essentially every part of the game, so we’re going to start there.
“We want to dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball.”
And, Harris said, he’ll mostly be seeking players — in the draft, in free agency, and through trades — that best fall into that philosophy.
The hire of Harris as club president is a different look for the Tigers. Dombrowski was president and general manager, while Avila was vice president and general manager while Ilitch was president. For much of the team’s history, they’ve had a president and GM, though often the president role was filled by the owner. Harris said he will hire a general manager, though he has no timetable there. Current execs Sam Menzin and Jay Sartori could emerge as GM candidates, and Harris plans to spend time getting to know them in the coming days, weeks and months.
That, by the way, is one of Harris’ best skills — if not his best skill. He’s a people person, and an exceptional listener. His vision is clear, but also flexible, and often shaped by the opinions of others, said Gabe Kapler, his manager with the Giants.
“I don’t think he’s interested in achieving his vision alone,” Kapler told The News early Tuesday afternoon, about an hour before Harris’ presser. “That’s one of the things that’s a separator with Scott.”
There were a lot of names that emerged as likely candidates for the Tigers’ top front-office post after Ilitch parted ways with Avila, and many of them had more experience than Harris, at least in terms of years in baseball. But few can match Harris’ meteoric rise.
Before his three years as GM of the Giants (who won 107 games and the National Least West last year, but have slipped this year), he spent seven seasons with the Cubs, rising to assistant general manager and, eventually, Epstein’s right-hand man. He helped put together the roster that won the 2016 World Series. Prior to arriving in Chicago, Harris spent three years in Major League Baseball’s front office, and before that, he interned for the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds.
He’s got a bachelor’s from UCLA, a master’s from Northwestern, and also attended Columbia.
He’s smart, to be sure. But it’s one thing to read a book, and another to write one.
“He had a very, very clear vision and plan,” Ilitch said. “Throughout the interview process, he not only laid out the vision and the plan, but how he would execute that plan in tremendous detail. His approach is aggressive and forward-looking in how to win in today’s league.
“He has a tremendous drive to innovate and that’s something you don’t always see with folks in the industry, and I was very impressed by his commitment to innovation.
“I could go on. There were a lot of things that I really liked throughout the interview process … the most important one is, he’s very competitive and he’s driven to win a World Series.
“As simple as that may seem, not everybody is as aggressive in their thinking and commitment to want to be the best to win a World Series championships. Scott and I were very aligned in that respect.”
Ilitch led the search for the Tigers’ new front-office chief, but singled out McGowan, Hinch and Ryan Gustafson, senior vice president of business operations strategy for Ilitch Sports and Entertainment, for their contributions, as well as Ryan Garko, Tigers’ vice president for player development, and Scott Bream, vice president for player personnel. Yzerman, Menzin, Sartori and Keith Bradford, president for Olympia Development, also played some role in the process. Ilitch said the process included “hundreds” of conversations with people outside the Tigers’ organization.
Ultimately, the Giants’ front office and ownership gave its blessing for Harris to pursue the new job, and that’s not always a guarantee. Nor was it always a guarantee that Harris was going to accept. Harris grew up in Redwood City, about a half-hour outside of San Francisco, and attended Giants’ games as a kid. (Harris called the interview/recruitment process “anxiety-inducing.”)
In the end, Detroit — despite no winning record since 2016, and no playoff appearance since 2014 — proved too attractive an opportunity to pass up, given there are some good, young pieces in place; the payroll (25th in 2021, 18th in 2022) doesn’t figure to be a problem; and Ilitch is no meddling owner. Harris now follows in the footsteps of three of his mentors — Farhan Zaidi with the Giants, and Epstein and Jed Hoyer with the Cubs — as a team president.
“One of the things that they taught me very clearly is if you’re going to do the same thing as every other organization, you’re probably not going to do it as well, and you’re probably going to be chasing them the whole time,” Harris said. “They taught me that it’s important to differentiate yourself and your operation.”
Harris has been doing just that as long as his dad can remember.
“I’m very proud of all my kids,” Rob Harris said of Scott’s two siblings, brother Chris and sister KC. “We told them growing up, find your own passion; make sure you can always support yourself, because I don’t really want anyone dependent on someone else; and make a difference in the world.
“And all my kids drank the Kool-Aid.”
We’re running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.