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From Webb to the World Series: Alumni Spotlight with Jeff Luhnow ’84

Jessica Rice ’12
Jeff Luhnow '84 grew up rooting for the Dodgers. He listened to legendary broadcaster Vin Scully on the radio as an honor committeeman in Appleby Dorm and regularly went to Dodger games with renowned teacher Rick Whyte '57.

"I bled Dodger blue back then!" Luhnow recently wrote to Head of Schools Taylor Stockdale.

This November the 51-year-old stood on the field at Dodger Stadium with his son Henry in his arms, moments after the Houston Astros clinched their first-ever World Series title. General Manager Luhnow said the feeling of walking onto the field was amazing and surreal.

"It's a goal that we've been working towards since I got here," he said.

Luhnow joined the Astros as general manager in December 2011. At that point, the "Astros were the worst team in baseball, with one of the worst farm systems in baseball," he acknowledged.

Some five years later, the Astros finished the 2017 regular season 101-61, and went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and finally the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch the historic title.

Many have credited the team's success to Luhnow—someone who never thought he would work in baseball.

I "figured that to work in baseball you have to be either a former player or coach or know somebody," he said.

Growing up, Luhnow played baseball and collected baseball cards in Mexico City, where he was born and raised. He was an infielder who "had trouble hitting a good fastball," but did not play at The Webb Schools because it was the same season as tennis, he noted.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with dual bachelor's degrees in engineering and economics, Luhnow wrote a letter to a fellow U Penn graduate in the O'Malley family, who owned the Dodgers at the time, to see if there were any opportunities to work with the team.

"It was a long shot but I figured it was worth a letter!" he said. Although he did not get a response, his love and interest in baseball followed him into adulthood. He completed a project on the Chicago Cubs while earning his MBA from Northwestern and played fantasy baseball for years.

Luhnow worked as an engineer, a management consultant and a technology entrepreneur before he found his way to baseball. He said his career experience helped him develop skills he needs as a baseball executive and believes it is one of two things that differentiate him as a general manager. The other is his bicultural background and ability to speak both English and Spanish fluently.

"This is a very international game, and the largest population outside of Americans are players from Latin America whose first language is Spanish," Luhnow said. "So being able to communicate with them and understand where they come from is a tremendous advantage for a general manager."

In 2003, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals started looking for someone with a technology and business background to help in the front office. Luhnow said a former colleague recommended him and he got a call "out of the blue."

He was working for the team three months later.
 
"The Cardinals gave me a chance to work on scouting and player development, which are really the lifebloods of the baseball operations organization," Luhnow said. "The experience I had in those areas allowed me to have the credibility and the experience to essentially take over a club in 2011, because I wasn't someone that spent my life or my career in the industry. I had to catch up very quickly, and the Cardinals experience definitely allowed me to do that."

Luhnow experienced World Series success with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011, but not as general manager, or the person putting together the baseball operations, organization and the team, he noted. When he started seeing his contributions succeed, he began thinking about how fun and challenging it would be to run baseball operations himself. He was drawn to the Astros because of the challenge, and the potential to "really make people happy" in Houston, he said.

"When you actually do turn a franchise around and help a team win and help people smile and be happy, it’s very satisfying," Luhnow said.

Joy over the Stros' success could not have come at a better time. After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, players wore patches on their jerseys emblazoned with the word "strong."

"We wanted a reminder to ourselves and to our fans about what happened in August, but it was also about the resilience of the people of Houston and Texas in general to rebuild after Harvey," he revealed.

Given the timing, Luhnow said he feels "privileged to have been a part of" the Astros win.

"We were able to give some joy and some happiness to people who suffered incredible devastation," he said. "To be able to give them a distraction, something to think about, something to hope for, and then ultimately something to really cheer about and be proud of," every person affiliated with the team was proud to do that for the city, he said.

Several publications have called Luhnow the architect behind Houston's win, some citing key acquisitions, draft picks and data-informed decision making as part of his strategy.

"Because it was a tough situation in 2011, we (owner Jim Crane and I) were able to do things the way we really felt they needed to be done," Luhnow said. "Not the way teams had done it in the past, not the way the media felt we should do it, but really the way we believed was the right way to get the team to bounce back."

While Luhnow is flattered by the recognition he has received, he is quick to credit the rest of the Astros organization for the team's success.

"Behind every architect, there are a lot of people … doing the drawings that support the initiative," he said. "It's a team effort. There's no question about it, just like it is on the field."

He is already thinking about next season.

"No team has repeated as world champions in decades," Luhnow said. "And now that we have the first, we'd like to be the first team to repeat in a long time, and certainly want to win another one."
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