Inside what makes Scott Harris an expert skier, elite leader and future of Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

When Scott Harris needs to think, he goes to the highest point of a mountain.

The lift can only take him so high, so he removes his skis and climbs. He’s searching for powder off the beaten path. One of his favorite things is the untouched snow that’s soft and deep. Skiing is an incredible sensation in itself, from the scenery to the constant thrills, but there’s nothing like skiing powder.

Take a deep breath, relax the body and drop in.

“That’s his time that he thinks and he’s creative,” his mother, Joanne Nino, told the Free Press. “That’s the time he figures things out. When he’s skiing and has a lot on his mind, it really helps him. He goes up for a day, and he skis like a maniac. It clears his head.”

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Away from the slopes, Harris is a brilliant baseball executive with a keen ability to think outside the box. A week ago, he became the Detroit Tigers‘ president of baseball operations. He owns the keys to the organization and is challenged with building a sustainable winner and snapping an eight-year postseason drought.

It’s not exactly fresh powder — former wunderkind-turned-veteran executive Dave Dombrowski built the franchise into a winner a decade ago — but the postseason has certainly been untouched territory for many in Detroit lately. The Tigers haven’t won the World Series since 1984.

His rise, especially for someone who quit playing baseball in middle school, has been meteoric. Just 14 years ago, Harris was getting his start as an unpaid intern for the Washington Nationals on the business side. He is known for being analytical, levelheaded and objective in his decision-making. He comes to Detroit from San Francisco by way of Chicago and has learned from some of the brightest minds in the industry.

“One of the things they taught me is, if you’re going to do the same thing as every other organization, you’re probably not going to do it as well as they are and you’re probably going to be chasing them all the time,” Harris said at his introductory news conference. “It’s important to differentiate yourself and your operation. That’s where that spirit of innovation comes from.”

‘I want to get into baseball’

Harris grew up in Redwood City, a half-hour from San Francisco, and has always been a baseball junkie. His mother, who has skiing in her blood, grew up a San Francisco Giants fan; his father, Rob, came up a Chicago Cubs fan. Scott and his younger sister, K.C., picked the Cubs as their favorite team, and Chris, their older brother, leaned into the Giants. They collected baseball cards in three-ring binders and learned the game while watching generations of Giants take the field at Candlestick Park and the Oracle.

A passion for baseball worked its way into long car rides from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe, where his family owns a home. They started going there for ski trips when Scott was 3 years old. Those 3½-hour excursions were consumed with baseball conversations, specifically “that insane baseball game,” as Joanne describes it.

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The rules certainly sound like something a future baseball exec would excel at: One brother would name a player and the other would have to respond with a player whose name began with the last letter of the previous name. (A modern-day example: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols.) Some were former players; some were current players; and some were players they had recently discovered in their latest batch of baseball cards. They’d go back and forth all the way to Lake Tahoe.

“I’d get so exasperated,” Joanne said. “I’d tell them to save their brain for their life choices. Baseball was their hobby, but they needed to save some of their brain power for other things in life. That was the funny part. He ended up in baseball.”

Both of Harris’ parents spent their lives in the medical field. His mother is a gynecologist; his father, a urologist. When his friends would ask for particulars, he would drop a line about his mother delivering babies before blurting out, “You don’t even want to know what my dad does.” He jokes that dinner conversations were a bit too graphic for his taste.

Harris, though, never took his eyes off baseball. He attended UCLA from 2005-09, and in 2007, he studied at the London School of Economics. Pre-med was his first choice coming out of high school, where he played soccer and lacrosse, but upon further review of the rigorous first-semester schedule, he changed his mind and decided to pursue economics. A couple years later, in England, his true passion forced him to change course again.

“I want to get into baseball,” Harris told his parents.

They told him to go for it.

His grandmother, Joan, secured him a meeting with Al Rosen, a former American League MVP and exec with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and, of course, the Giants. The relationship flourished as Harris soaked up the lessons, and one year later, in 2008, he landed an unpaid internship with the Nationals after sending letters to all 30 general managers. He also interned with the Cincinnati Reds, and after graduating from UCLA, joined Major League Baseball in New York, from 2010-12, as a coordinator of major league operations.

That’s where Harris met Peter Woodfork, former Arizona Diamondbacks assistant general manager and Boston Red Sox director of baseball operations.

Harris learned the rulebook, provided player transaction support, helped administer the amateur draft and conducted industry studies. During the trade deadline, he focused on how the process worked from the perspective of the league and its clubs. He never turned down an assignment and pushed himself to step outside his comfort zones. His supervisors spoke highly of him from the very beginning, a sign of his work ethic, judgment and people skills.

“He defined all those things in his early time,” Woodfork told the Free Press. “How are you going to do those things with your club? You can never predict it perfectly, that’s for sure, but I think he was as good a bet as anyone to be successful.”

It didn’t take long for Woodfork to realize he was employing a future general manager. He said Harris knows how to evaluate talent and acquire players, despite not coming from a traditional scouting background, but his primary skill is leadership through strong relationships, trust within his front office and collaboration.

“A lot of people work in this game for a long time, and they’re very good at their jobs, and they never reach that top opportunity,” Woodfork said. “Some people get opportunities and move very quickly. There’s not a huge difference between them, but oftentimes, it’s that person that really, really is elite that gets to move quickly.”

A relationship with Woodfork put Harris in the mix for an opening with the Cubs. Two forward-thinking and established executives — Theo Epstein (who didn’t respond to Harris’ letter to all 30 GMs) and Jed Hoyer — were looking to hire a director of baseball operations, the same job Woodfork had under Epstein from 2003-05 with the Red Sox. A few people, including Harris, interviewed for the position with the Cubs in 2012.

“Peter, he’s like 25,” Hoyer said.

“Just trust me,” Woodfork said. “Just do it. Hire him.”

So, the Cubs hired Harris.

By 2018, he became an assistant general manager.

His parents were amazed.

“We were like, ‘He did go for it,'” Joanne said.

‘Eyes behind his head’

In his teenage years, Harris didn’t like to sit at a desk to study.

At times, his parents wondered if he was actually studying. They rarely allowed their children watch television while doing homework, but Harris would surf the web on the computer, watch TV and listen to music, all while completing his school work and turning in perfect report cards. He balanced his studies, athletics and social life.

“He just always had this gift,” Joanne said. “Tons of distraction yet he can focus.”

“I don’t know if there’s a single moment or epiphany, but Scott never really failed at anything,” his older brother, Chris, told the Free Press. “He’s been quite successful in a lot of different areas of his life, and he’s figured out how to get from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ in really any aspect.”

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The 2012 season marked the Cubs’ first year with Epstein as president of baseball operations and Hoyer as general manager. The Cubs began their rebuild and finished with 101 losses, but four years later, they snapped a 108-year World Series drought with a 2016 championship.

The Cubs won 66 games in 2013, the first full season with Harris as director of baseball operations, 73 games in 2014 and 97 games in 2015 to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2008. In 2016, the Cubs finished 103-58, the franchise’s most wins in a season since 1910, and beat Cleveland in the World Series in seven games.

“It was very clear very early on that he’s got a wonderful mind but also has a really special way about him,” Hoyer told the Free Press. “He makes people feel really great and has real leadership ability. He did a wonderful job of not just gravitating toward people with similar backgrounds but always reaching out and trying to learn from people that had different experiences in this game. To me, I think that shows a lot of confidence and a curiosity that serves him really well.”

Before joining the Cubs, Harris attended Columbia Business School while working for Woodfork at MLB. He never finished his MBA at Columbia — the Cubs came calling. Epstein and Hoyer viewed Harris as a developmental project with tremendous upside.

But Joanne wanted her son to finish school, so Harris transferred to Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and completed his MBA in 2015. During spring training, he would take red-eye flights from Arizona to Chicago for a full slate of Saturday classes, then he would catch another red-eye back to Arizona for work Sunday through Friday. He keeps a replica of an airport bench, a gift from his parents, on his desk as a reminder of what he did to finish school. The model motivates him.

His most important studies, however, were lessons learned from the Cubs’ famed braintrust.

“He’s watching everything,” Joanne said. “He doesn’t miss anything, even though he seems so low-key, he’s watching. It’s almost like he has eyes behind his head. He’s able to absorb so many things, and he’s always wanted to be innovated. He’s always looking at it like, ‘Wouldn’t this be better if we did this?’ Outside-of-the-box thinking.”

In Chicago, Epstein and Hoyer treated Harris like a younger brother. They worked hard, played hard and cemented lifelong friendships. Harris assisted in potential player acquisitions, contract and trade negotiations and player evaluations. He supervised the research and development and high-performance departments.

Harris explored new avenues in technology.

“He’s got a great mind, but he’s also very convicted when he wants to do something,” Hoyer said. “Once he sets that plan and knows the course, he’s going to stick to it. No one’s going to work harder and no one’s more passionate about what they’re doing than he is. That will serve him really well.”

‘He knows where he came from’

On Tuesday, Harris entered the Tiger Club at Comerica Park alongside CEO and chairman Christopher Ilitch. He wore a sleek navy blue suit, accented with a light blue tie and an Old English “D” lapel pin as he revealed his vision for the future. His main goal: building a culture of development.

His family members — Joanne, Rob and fiancée Elle — sat in the first row during the news conference. Bouquets of flowers were placed on their laps. For all the pageantry, Harris is here to put his head down and work.

Nearly three years ago, a similar introduction took place in San Francisco when Harris took over as the Giants’ general manager under newly hired president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. In 2021, the Giants won a franchise-record 107 games. Chris Harris said the family always knew there would be a next step.

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“He’s such a low-key guy, but he’s very focused,” Joanne said. “This is what he wanted. He wanted to run a team. He didn’t say to himself, ‘Oh, I gotta do this now.’ Things just fell into place. I don’t think he knew he was going to rise so quickly.”

Harris spent countless hours on the phone with Epstein and Hoyer throughout the process of becoming the Tigers’ president of baseball operations. He leaned on his confidants, a testament to his interpersonal skills polished long ago, as he realized can build a winning franchise in Detroit.

“The relationship, it’s funny, as high as he’s moved and as well as he’s done, he’s always been very similar,” Woodfork said. “He’s the same person with the same personality and attitude. He’s stayed grounded the whole way through. That’s a positive.”

Chris agrees. Every step of the way, his younger brother could have altered his persona.

Success can change people.

But that’s not Scott Harris. He is the co-founder of the Careers As Sports Executives study program for “high school sophomores and juniors who are interested in sports” but might not have the access and resources to pursue entry-level jobs. The mentorship program was founded by Epstein.

“I think it’s quite easy for a lot of people to have huge heads in the position he’s in, and he really does not have that,” Chris said. “That’s something I admire about Scott, and I think that’s really what the people in Detroit will find to be pretty evident about him. … He knows where he came from.”

But what truly matters in these jobs is winning. Harris has not provided a timeline for when he expects the Tigers to compete.

He could use the upcoming offseason and 2023 season to mold the infrastructure of the organization — including the amateur and international scouting and player development departments — to align with his long-term plan before making a stronger push at the big-league level heading into 2024 through splashier trades and free-agent signings.

“I view it as an opportunity to build processes and make smart baseball decisions,” Harris said. “I don’t think labels are all that instructive. Labels aren’t even a guarantee that what you intend to do will happen. We treat this as an opportunity to get better this winter. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to make a lot of moves.”

Harris won’t formally take over day-to-day MLB operations until Oct. 6, the day after the regular season ends. Before then, he will evaluate and assess staff, players and the organization as a whole in preparation for his first offseason. He also needs to hire a general manager of his own.

Surely, he has a lot of thinking to do.

With the Giants, Harris would sometimes take day trips to Half Moon Bay and Napa Valley. Going for hikes — when he’s not skiing at Lake Tahoe — helps him come up with some of his best ideas. Now that he’s a Tiger, Harris looks forward to discovering hiking trails in Michigan this fall and winter, a time in his life where he needs to set the foundation for the future of his organization.

Maybe he’ll find some powder along the way.

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