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Harris had wild first year in his dream job as Giants GM

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Jed Hoyer knew the call was coming one day.

Eight years ago, Hoyer, the longtime Chicago Cubs general manager who recently was promoted to replace Theo Epstein, interviewed a fresh-faced coordinator from the league office on the recommendation of one of his close friends. Hoyer figured out pretty early on that Scott Harris would one day be a GM himself, so he cringed when Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi called shortly after the 2019 season ended. He quickly breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Zaidi was calling to ask if the Giants could interview Cubs coach Will Venable to be their manager. 

"I got off the phone and I was like, 'Ahh, good. He didn't ask about Scott,' " Hoyer said earlier this year. "And then he called me about two weeks later and I saw his name and I kinda knew what the phone call was about."

This time, Zaidi asked for permission to interview the Cubs' assistant general manager, and Epstein and Hoyer knew they had just lost a valuable asset. They were confident that once Harris got in the room with Zaidi, he would win the job. But they were also thrilled. 

"This is a dream come true for him," Hoyer said.

In many ways, it has been. But it has also been a homecoming Harris never could have imagined. 

As he climbed the front office ranks, Harris often used Cubs games as a way to reconnect. The days in baseball operations are long when you're trying to end the most famous drought in sports, but Harris would find a few innings to meet with family members and friends when they visited Wrigley Field, knowing he wouldn't have time otherwise. 

 

The Redwood City native imagined the ticket requests would only increase once he returned to help run his hometown team. Instead, he found himself sitting between cutouts every night at Oracle Park. He sees his parents often, but they haven't been able to attend a game since their son was named general manager of the Giants 13 months ago. Harris lives in a normally bustling part of the City, but the sports bars nearby have been shut down for most of his first year back.

"It's been very weird. It's not the San Francisco I grew up knowing," he said on Monday. "I wish I could have interacted with the fans more this year. I wish the restaurants and bars were open so I could experience everything that San Francisco has to offer. But it's been fun being around my family, it's been fun seeing all the Giants fans around the city, seeing how passionate all the fans are on Twitter.

"I also found it very refreshing to see how much fun everyone had watching the 2020 season. Despite the most turbulent times, people found a way."

Harris was right in the middle of the rockiest day. By far the most visible moment of year one for the hometown GM came when Alex Dickerson received a false positive on a COVID-19 test. Harris, who traveled with the team most of the season, was the one to get the call from the MLB office. He stood just off the field at Petco Park a few minutes before first pitch, trying to decide the best and most discreet course of action.

With manager Gabe Kapler and trainer L.J. Petra, who ran the team's COVID protocols, already in the dugout and out of touch, Harris slipped onto the field and found Petra, informing him that Dickerson needed to be moved from warmups to the quarantine room in a way that protected his privacy. As he did that, a moment of silence was held in remembrance of 9/11, followed by the anthem. Harris didn't have time to get off the field, so he stood on the foul line in jeans and a hooded jacket before finding Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford and continuing the process of informing players the game had been postponed.

During the strangest hour of the season Harris was shown repeatedly on the television broadcast, informing stunned players and coaches of what had just happened and what was to come. 

"That was the ultimate 2020 moment for me," Harris said. "Heading into this game I never thought I would be forced to become an amateur epidemiologist and determine what is the best course of action when there's a potential outbreak on a major league team."

 

Harris is the ninth GM in Giants history but just the third since 1996. The previous eight dealt with their highs, lows and surprises, but none ever had to inform a player with a pregnant wife that he had tested positive for a deadly virus. The job threw Harris right into the deep end in his first year, but all the unexpected events also helped to validate a tough decision he made a year ago.

It's not hard to connect the dots and see that Harris likely would have been the current GM of the Cubs had he stayed in Chicago one more season. He was Hoyer's right-hand man, and when Epstein stepped away earlier this offseason, a succession plan was executed, albeit without the young assistant GM who had been groomed for the next step for seven years. Hoyer is now president of baseball operations, but he hasn't named a GM yet. 

It will take years to know if Harris made the right baseball decision, although it appears he won't have regrets. The Cubs, champions of the NL Central, look poised for at least a partial rebuild, while in San Francisco the Giants now boast financial flexibility and a top 10 farm system -- one Harris saw in person in Arizona this fall and talks about often -- and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Those prospects are the future, but what stood out in Harris' first year was how the current big leaguers showed growth. The new staff helped push several veterans to career years and others to unexpected bounce back seasons. 

"I think veterans and younger players alike really took control of their development and made adjustments during the season and outperformed many publicly available projection systems," Harris said. "I found that remarkable, especially during turbulent times. I think that takes real character to achieve."

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That growth put Harris in another spot that looked far different than he might have envisioned growing up on the peninsula. In their second season under a new front office, the Giants were one win shy of a surprise playoff spot. It was validation for a lot of the work the front office did last offseason, but validation wasn't enough.

The Giants felt they would have been a tough matchup for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round, but they lost their final three games, falling short in heartbreaking fashion. After watching the last loss to the San Diego Padres, Harris waded through smiling cutouts on his way back to the clubhouse. The sting of that moment remains. 

"I'm not over that. I don't think I will be over that," he said. "What a cruel ending. I remember watching the bottom of the ninth with Craw and Bart and Slater up and I remember feeling that we were just going to find a way to scratch across a run, thinking about all the times we fought our way back into games, especially in the second half."

 
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The effort came up short, and now Zaidi and Harris have to figure out how to put together a roster that can make a similar push over 162 games. They have slightly upgraded their bench and their bullpen, and they were thrilled to get Kevin Gausman back, not just because of what that does for the rotation, but for what that decision represented. 

Gausman passing up a chance at multi-year offers elsewhere for another one-year deal in San Francisco was a sign the Giants are building something attractive to players, and that has been reinforced in free agency. Harris' days and nights are filled with phone calls and texts to agents, and he has sensed a shift in attitudes. The Giants are more appealing on the field than they were a year ago. Off of it, they are waiting like everyone else, digesting updates on the pandemic and hoping for normalcy next season. 

For Harris, that would mean finally inviting those close to him to Oracle Park and seeing the restaurants and bars near his new place filled with fans watching a team he has helped put together. Hopefully that's coming in 2021. In the meantime, his focus is on making sure that 2020 ending isn't repeated.

"I think all of us are too competitive to just sit around and lick our wounds," Harris said. "We immediately started performing an autopsy on the season and identifying targets that can help us avoid such a cruel ending in 2021 and beyond."