They met as freshmen on the Hill—a couple of baseball nuts on opposite sides of New York fandom. Daniels collected baseball cards, played stickball at Cunningham Park in Queens, and occasionally snuck into Shea Stadium to watch his beloved Mets. A couple dozen miles east in Long Island's Huntington Station, Preller lived and died with the Yankees. "At that time," he says, "it was mostly dying." Whether playing with a Wiffle ball or in a Babe Ruth League or on a summer traveling team, it was, he says, "all baseball all the time."
The two met through mutual friends and pledged Delta Chi together. They lived in the fraternity house for two years and then shared a Collegetown residence that is now condemned. ("Should have been when we lived there," Daniels says.) When Preller attended lectures for an ILR course called Arbitration in Sports, Daniels occasionally tagged along. Even when reading the sports pages as a kid, he was interested in the action behind the scenes, often turning to the transactions section first; he was fascinated by the roster-building side of the game. But Daniels didn't sense a future for himself in sports, so he took his degree in applied economics and management to Boston, working for wine-and-foods conglomerate Allied Domecq.
'My mission is the same as that of the twenty-nine other general managers. It's first and foremost to win.'Preller, on the other hand, was making inroads into baseball. He earned twelve credits by landing a semester-long internship with the Philadelphia Phillies, even winning the organization's fantasy league (yes, there is fantasy baseball amid reality baseball). After graduation, he took an unpaid position with the Arizona Fall League, where he worked under legendary slugger-turned-executive Frank Robinson, who was later hired as vice president of on-field operations for Major League Baseball. The MLB offices are in New York City, and Robinson brought his protégé with him. For three years Preller soaked up an education—in Robinson's office, over dinner, at games—from an all-time-great who became a mentor and friend. At the same time, he was tapping his ILR training to moonlight in the labor relations department of the MLB commissioner's office. "You couldn't ask for a better background, a better foundation to get started," he says.
Daniels, who was spending his days overseeing Dunkin' Donuts franchises, found himself living vicariously through his college pal. "I was more focused on his job than I was on my own," he says. He began accompanying Preller to baseball's winter meetings; there, he met the assistant general manager of the Colorado Rockies, who offered him an internship paying $275 a week. "I felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance," he says. The following year, in 2002, he joined the Rangers as an operations assistant. Owner Tom Hicks noted his "brilliant baseball mind," and he rose through the ranks with unprecedented speed—director of operations in 2003 and assistant general manager in 2004, when Preller arrived in Texas after three years with the L. A. Dodgers. When longtime GM John Hart resigned following the 2005 season, Hicks tapped Daniels to replace him.
The guy who came late to the game was now in charge; his office was right next to Preller's. The two executives were younger than about half of the Texas players, and some stumbles during their first years on the job did little to inspire confidence. After a few questionable trades and ill-fated free agent signings, the weekly Dallas Observer labeled Daniels "BOY BLUNDER."
When the 2010 season began, the team's prospects seemed especially dim. Just before Opening Day, a media report revealed that Rangers manager Ron Washington had tested positive for cocaine the previous July. Washington had appealed to his bosses for leniency even before the test results came in, arguing that he'd made a single bad decision. "Ultimately, we believed in Ron as a manager and as a man," says Daniels. "We believed in giving second chances, and we still felt he was the right guy to manage our club." Washington expressed his gratitude to an ESPN reporter, saying of Daniels, "He didn't judge me. He supported me. And I could never say enough about that support."
The Washington decision was one of several high-profile calls the team executives made over the next few years. They included some daring moves—like trading their best pitching prospect for a twenty-six-year-old recovering addict. Once highly touted, center fielder Josh Hamilton saw his career derailed by drugs. But by 2007, he was clean, sober, and still supremely talented. After consulting nearly a dozen staffers, some of whom balked at the idea, Daniels pulled the trigger on the deal with the Cincinnati Reds. Last year, Hamilton led the majors with a .359 batting average and was named MVP of both the American League and its championship series. In celebration, his teammates eschewed the usual champagne, dousing him with ginger ale.
Earlier in 2007, Daniels made another trade that fit into his grand plan, which revolved around a cost-efficient commitment to developing young players—a significant change of direction for a team that once signed free agent Alex Rodriguez for $252 million. Daniels began laying the foundation for the Texas turnaround in July 2007, when he traded All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves for five prospects under age twenty-four. Two of them were shortstop Elvis Andrus and relief pitcher Neftali Feliz. Andrus was an All-Star on last year's pennant-winning team; Feliz saved forty games, struck out Rodriguez to end the pennant-clinching game, and was named A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Daniels also built his World Series team through free agency. Eight-time All-Star Vladimir Guerrero was once among the top hitters in baseball, but by age thirty-five he was on the downside of his career. In 2009, with the L. A. Angels, he played in only 100 games, recording 15 home runs and 50 RBIs, less than half his career average. Still, Daniels felt he was a risk worth taking. "He was in good shape, and I think he knew that people maybe doubted him a little bit," he says. "That's a pretty powerful motivator." Daniels bet on Guerrero's comeback with a one-year, $6.5 million offer—barely a third of the slugger's previous salary. Guerrero (who's now with the Baltimore Orioles) responded by batting .300 with 29 homers and 115 RBIs, earning the Silver Slugger Award as the league's top designated hitter. In the American League championship series against the Yankees, he clinched the pennant with the hit that won Game 6.