Six years ago, Mike Hazen had the opportunity to pursue greener pastures.
With the introduction of his Red Sox colleague and good friend, Jed Hoyer, as general manager of the Padres after the 2009 season, Hazen had a chance to move up the ladder to a position of greater prestige and, presumably, more money, to join Hoyer as his assistant general manager. In imagining a right-hand man with whom to work, Hoyer saw in Hazen — then the Red Sox director of player development – someone who seemed to check all the boxes.
“He’s obviously bright, hard-working, he’s really loyal, and I think he’s exceptionally good at what he does,” Hoyer recalled by phone Thursday night. “When you’re starting something new, you want someone who is going to be a great teammate and great confidant. I thought Mike would be perfect in that role.”
The opportunity was tempting. Then-Sox GM Theo Epstein was candid: The Sox couldn’t make an apples-to-apples offer to keep Hazen, as they didn’t have an opening for the assistant GM role for which the Padres were wooing him. On paper, the superior opportunity was in San Diego.
But the title and the theoretical job description weren’t what guided Hazen’s decision. If given a chance to make a meaningful impact for the team for whom he’d rooted all his life, alongside a close-knit group of colleagues, the appeal was compelling enough to convince him to bypass the immediate opportunity for a promotion.
Substance and loyalty rather than a title were what motivated him.
“Obviously I was torn — working for [then-Sox GM Theo Epstein], working for Jed, that was sort of pulling me in both directions,” said Hazen Thursday night, hours after he’d been introduced as the 15th general manager of the Red Sox. “But probably more than anything else it was the Red Sox: Working for this team, it’s something that’s been in my blood. I feel a strong connection here and wanted to stay here.”
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The Red Sox always have been part of Hazen’s DNA. At his news conference, he recalled the dialogue that represented a staple of his upbringing in Abington.
“This organization is prestigious and successful, has history, history that I’m proud of personally, one that I grew up in,” said Hazen. “From the days when I used to wake up and argue with my dad over who was better between [Jim] Rice and [Dwight] Evans, that debate still rages on today, probably between Rice and Evans; coming here to Fenway Park and watching Wade Boggs and Marty Barrett, Bruce Hurst; going to Pawtucket my first game and seeing Oil Can Boyd pitch – [those are] memories that I take with me here in this job because that’s what leads me, leads us as a group every day, drives us to be successful, to want to make this organization one that we’re proud of and that the fan base is proud of and that the players are proud of as well.”
Yet Hazen’s baseball career outside of Boston is perhaps more illuminating in explaining why Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski appointed Hazen as his GM.
Scott Bradley first noticed Hazen during the future Sox GM’s junior year at Princeton. Bradley was an assistant coach with Rutgers, but he was in consideration to take over the Princeton program, so he paid close attention to the dynamics in play in the other dugout. And his attention immediately became focused on Hazen.
“You could just tell,” Bradley recalled by phone Thursday. “I love watching guys in the dugout interacting with players. You could immediately see, and after the game, the way that Mike was talking to other players, you could see he was the guy. And when I came over, when I was hired, from Day One, it was amazing.”
Once Bradley joined Princeton, the initial impressions were amplified. In fall scrimmages, if Bradley saw instances of a player not running out the ball or missing a cutoff, he’d start toward them to make sure that the mistake wasn’t repeated.
“Mike would literally put his hand up, ‘I got it, coach. I got it.’ He would immediately take care of everything without me having to do it,” said Bradley. “He had an amazing way in terms of reading people. There were some guys that he knew he could get tough with and call them out and other guys where, you wouldn’t even know it and he would grab them privately and say, ‘You and I are going to dinner tonight.’ Just amazing, amazing leadership.”
Hazen was a standout player for Bradley, but as a senior, received little scouting attention. There was, according to the coach, reluctance on the part of the scouting community at the time to believe an Ivy League player would be favorably inclined to play baseball for $850 a month when he could be making 10 times that amount out of college.
The coach was willing to politic for his player, but first he needed assurance.
“I sat Mike down and said, ‘Look, before I really go to bat here, you need to look me in the eye and tell me that this is what you want to do.’ He looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Coach, I won’t leave this game until somebody makes me. I will make my mark in this game. I want to play, but if not . . . ’ ”
Hazen made good on the promise. After the Padres took him in the 31st round, he posted a .307/.439/.480 line in short-season ball in 1998, but saw those marks tumble to .203/.328/.279 in Single A in 1999, at a time when he was struggling with shoulder issues.
When the Padres released him, Hazen wasted little time dwelling before calling Bradley with a simple message: What’s next? Bradley introduced Hazen to Peter Gammons, who hired him as an intern to scout the Cape League in the summer of 2000. In short order, Hazen made a sufficient impression that Bradley and Gammons contacted Princeton alum Mark Shapiro, then the Indians farm director, to get Hazen into a front office.
“Mark said, ‘We have an intern position but you’ve got to guarantee me that it’s someone with passion, that this is someone who, this is something they want to do.’ I said, ‘No doubt, we’ve got the guy.’ Peter backed it up,” said Bradley. “Mark hired him with the Indians and about a month into the job, Mark called me up and said, ‘This kid’s special. This kid is really special. He’s going to do some amazing things in this game.’”
Hazen joined the Indians’ advance scouting efforts before moving to pro scouting and to Cleveland’s player development department, where he worked closely with the Indians’ director of player development, then-assistant GM John Farrell.
Farrell recalled Hazen as “smart, very quick on his feet, clear ability to interact with people of all types and personalities but it was his enthusiasm and positivity that made his personality stand out.”
It stood out not just to the Indians but to other organizations as well, including the Red Sox. The Sox hired him as assistant farm director under Ben Cherington in 2006, joining a front-office group that had formed almost entirely in 2002-03. Although he was forming new working relationships, Hazen’s fit proved immediate.
“Mike was one of the only guys that kind of joined that group a little bit later,” said Hoyer. “He came in right away and it was almost like he’d been a part of that group the entire time. It took a special personality to be able to do that.”
Hazen rapidly forged a rapport with front-office colleagues while also showing a facility in navigating an entire organization. As had been the case at Princeton, he showed the ability to assert leadership traits regardless of his title or role, while showing the ability to relate to a broad cross-section of people.
In many ways, as much as the arrival of Dombrowski with the Red Sox represented a time of uncertainty for Hazen and others in the organization who were left to wonder whether they would be retained, for those who knew him, it seemed natural and almost inevitable that Dombrowski would see in Hazen the perfect complement to help him navigate and lead a new organization.
“For someone like Dave Dombrowski, look at the areas Mike has been involved with,” said Bradley. “He’s done some scouting. He ran the minor league organization. He really turned that minor league organization around in terms of developing all those players. He’s not just an Ivy League, Princeton-educated young man. He was good enough to play minor league baseball for a while. When he wants to talk to a scout, when he wants to talk to a coach, not only is he an extremely bright, intelligent guy, he could really handle himself on the baseball field and he lived that life for a while. I think that really helps in terms of being able to communicate with every part of the entire organization.”
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Of course, the idea of Hazen staying in Boston represented a bidirectional proposition. Dombrowski had to want him as GM. Hazen had to want to be a GM in a place where that title might mean less than it would elsewhere, given that Dombrowski makes no secret that he will have ultimate authority over all baseball operations decisions.
Once again, Hazen faced choices, staring down the possibility of parting ways with the Red Sox.
“It’s hard. It’s hard,” acknowledged Hazen. “You have to explore opportunities as the game goes. But I was hopeful that this had a chance to work out but didn’t really know. With that uncertainty, I was trying to explore other opportunities.”
Hazen declined to discuss those specific opportunities. But according to a major league source, the Angels and Brewers both sought permission to interview Hazen for vacancies in recent weeks. Milwaukee elected to hire David Stearns as GM. The Angels’ process remains ongoing, and Hazen still appeared to be under consideration. Meanwhile, other opportunities dot the game’s landscape, with GM searches underway in Seattle, Philadelphia, and potentially Miami.
Yet in the end, Dombrowski needed to consider just two candidates — Hazen and Astros director of player development Quinton McCracken — to determine that the person he wanted to help him lead the Sox was already in place. And for the members of the organization who wondered whether they were bracing for a period of stark and unsettling uncertainty about their futures, the promotion of Hazen in many ways reversed the ripples that resulted from Dombrowski’s hiring.
“I think it’s great to be part of an organization where there’s so many good people involved,” said Dombrowski. “I’ve been in a spot to get to know people over this time period, and it’s a very fortunate situation that you can walk into a spot where you can keep continuity with good people involved. You add a tweak here and a tweak there when you’re in my spot, but having the same people onboard is very helpful. Now, you want them to be good people and quality people or you wouldn’t keep the continuity, but I think that exists in the organization, and it’s a very fortunate situation that we have.”
That doesn’t mean that the Red Sox are unchanged. Dombrowski did represent a shift in the organization’s baseball operations, something that Hazen understands.
“Even when we went from change from Theo to Ben, it was the same organization but they were two drastically different personalities, as everybody knows. And so we’re all left to adjust. That’s our job,” said Hazen. “I talked to Dave about that, that it’s not Dave’s job to adjust to us and our culture, it’s our job to adjust our culture to Dave. And that’s something we’re used to, I’m used to, we’re use to as a group because that’s the way I think we’ll put Dave in the best position to make decisions moving forward and so that’s the way we’ll approach every day we come to work.”
That is a task at which Hazen has proven adept throughout his baseball life, in a way that ultimately not only brought him home but kept him there as part of the same organization that has been part of his identity since the days of Rice and Evans.