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Long Island to San Diego, A.J. Preller was born to be a general manager

San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller ponders

San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller ponders a question during a news conference where he talked about the past season and the teams' plans going forward, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, in San Diego. Photo Credit: AP / Lenny Ignelzi

SAN DIEGO - Whatever A.J. Preller, the Padres' rookie general manager, is able to accomplish this week at baseball's winter meetings, the groundwork for that deal may have been discussed from a patch of lawn in Huntington Station.

Preller, 37, grew up on Long Island, a three-sport athlete at Whitman High, and was back most recently for Thanksgiving at his parents' place. But when you're a first-time GM less than five months into the job for a San Diego team coming off four straight losing seasons, holidays don't really exist.

Sure, there's turkey, football on TV, family and friends to see. But there also is an organization across the continent in need of repair.

"When A.J. comes home and we don't know where he is in the house, I immediately look in my backyard," said Preller's father, Art. "He's on the phone. I know he's doing business."

It happens so much that when a person asks where A.J. is, Art has a saying. "Walking and talking," his dad calls it.

The demands of being a GM tend to cut into family time, and A.J. doesn't make it back to Long Island very often, usually Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with maybe a birthday for one of his four nephews.

But for a baseball fan like Art, who sowed the seeds for A.J.'s career by teaching him how to keep a scorecard for Yankees games three decades ago, he also gets a glimpse inside the sport that few other dads are privy to. And A.J. tries to keep Art in the loop during their daily chats, the link to a home that can feel far away for someone who used to spend as many as 300 nights a year on the road scouting players in his previous position with the Rangers.

"He asks about different moves and what we're trying to do," A.J. said. "He likes to hear what's going on, what the impression of the team is for that day, and kind of go from there."

Really, just the typical father-son chat about work. But A.J.'s business is baseball, and it has been for a very long time, although he is the second-youngest GM in the sport -- older than only his good friend and Cornell roommate, Rangers GM and Queens native Jon Daniels.

A.J.'s passion for the game began as it does for countless other kids, on the living-room floor, glued to the TV, focused on every pitch. For A.J., the team was the Yankees, and his interest -- even during his elementary school years -- went deeper than the boxscore.

A.J. figures he watched roughly 150 Yankees games every summer. Asked about those viewing habits, his dad paused for a moment before answering.

"He watched a lot," Art said. "He'd get a piece of paper out, and a pad, and write down the lineups, that kind of stuff. If we wanted to watch something else, we'd have to go in a different room or something. He would just sit down, put the game on and just observe."

A.J. laughs about it now. Especially when the conversation turns to how he carried this childhood obsession with him to his Ivy League days, when he started to videotape Yankee games -- and began charting them, as a scout would.

"It was just something I liked doing," A.J. said. "It may sound strange, but I just felt like I was more into the game if I was keeping score and taking notes."

Considering where A.J. is these days, behind the GM's desk at Petco Park, that type of behavior isn't strange at all. It makes perfect sense. As Art says, everything A.J. has done in his life, practically from the age of 6, has prepared him for this moment. There's only 30 Major League Baseball GM jobs on the planet, and you don't get one by accident, or a lucky bounce.

A.J. tirelessly worked his way up the ladder, starting with a Phillies ticket-office internship during his junior year at Cornell to the Arizona Fall League to MLB headquarters in New York to baseball-ops for the Dodgers.

It was the Dodgers' job that became a springboard to the Rangers position that made his career -- or, perhaps more accurately, allowed A.J. to show what he could do.

In Texas, as an assistant GM to Daniels and the senior director of player personnel, A.J. circled the globe looking for talent -- something he foretold in a paper he wrote at Cornell that described the increasingly greater impact of international players in baseball. A.J. went from writing about it as a student -- he graduated summa cum laude -- to practicing it for the Rangers, a franchise that was rebuilt during the Preller/Daniels tenure and made back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010-11.

Preller sees some similarities with what he's now trying to establish in San Diego, and the Padres are betting on his resume to get it done.

"In today's baseball, it's all different market types, all different city sizes that have been in the postseason over the last 10 years or so and have won," Preller said. "I think when we first got to Texas, there was talk that it was a football town. The Rangers never really had success. And [Daniels] was able to build something there, to help them build something there that led to new success, maybe change some of the perception there.

"That's what we're hoping to do here. Hopefully better than that."

Preller doesn't have the Yankees' $200-million payroll or the Rangers' financial might. But the Padres did spend $90 million last season, and with a talented young pitching staff and an improved farm system, they look to be a few bats away from getting back into contention.

That would be good news for Preller's nephews -- Riley (6), Colby (5), Casey (3) and Rory (1) -- who just got their new shipment of Padres gear in the mail.

It's not easy growing up on Long Island as a Padres fan amid a sea of Yankees and Mets jerseys. But with Preller as their uncle, they may wind up running their own teams before long. As Art could tell you, baseball executives start young these days.

"I think of that, too," Art said. "If they ask him one day, Uncle A.J., how do you scout?"

Pretty soon, it might be time for the Prellers to get a bigger backyard.

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