By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"No way, I didn't want to go," Daniels says. "It was in Manhattan, in a different school, away from my neighborhood and my friends. But Dad told me, 'I won't make a lot of decisions for you, but this is one of them.' He said I could thank him later. And eventually I did."
After two years riding what he jokingly calls "the short bus," Jon was left to endure his own daily commute from the family's upper-middle-class apartment in Queens to the heart of New York City. The one-hour, 20-minute trip included a bus jaunt and treks on three subways, including the infamous No. 7 train.
He was 13.
"It makes you grow up, whether you're ready or not," he says. "Some of the things you see in the city and how you have to navigate problems, it makes you aware of your surroundings and turns you into a very analytical observer."
Twice Daniels was mugged, including once when a gang of six teens followed him and his buddy into a deli, pulled a knife and stole their combined $20 while the shop owner looked the other way.
"There were some moments, but the good thing was it got me out of my comfort zone," Daniels says. "While some of my friends had never left Queens, I was getting to interact with kids from all five boroughs, getting introduced to all sorts of cultures."
Death tiptoed a little closer during the fierce Nor'easter of '98. Traveling from a job interview in Boston back to his home at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Daniels' light blue '86 Camry came upon a massive pileup. As he sat pondering a route around the wreckage, a group of people frantically waved at him from the embankment. Scrambling through the snowdrifts to safety, Jon watched his car get totaled by an 18-wheeler careening out of control on the icy road just 60 seconds later.
"At the time I wasn't a deep enough thinker to assess what it all meant," Daniels says. "I just knew I needed a ride home."
A couple drove Jon to a nearby Denny's, where his buddies picked him up. He eventually upgraded to an '87 silver Sentra hatchback his friends mockingly referred to as "the DeLorean," graduated from Cornell with an applied economics and management degree only geeks and geniuses can appreciate, got the job in Boston, met a girl and, you guessed it, lived happily ever after.
"He was always a workaholic, but a lot of his time was spent on his second job, his fantasy baseball team," Robyn says. "I never thought 'what a dork,' but it didn't take me long to realize he was downplaying how into sports he was."
Oh yeah. Baseball.
While Daniels yawned away his days at Allied Domecq, then the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, his Cornell roommate A.J. Preller landed an internship with the Philadelphia Phillies. Relying on a unique perspective gleaned alongside Daniels in Cornell classes like Arbitration in Sport, Preller immediately impressed the Phillies, even winning the organization's fantasy league. All the while he was prodding his buddy's inherent interest in baseball.
"We always talked about his job," Daniels remembers. "Never mine."
Daniels began tagging along to weekend Major League games and owners' meetings with Preller, who quickly advanced to a job in baseball's front office.Jon met Colorado Rockies assistant GM Josh Byrnes, who offered him an internship. Leaving a $40,000 job for a six-month gig paying $275 a week was never easier. Or smarter. Because the temporary gig led to a job offer with the Rangers as then-GM John Hart's baseball operations assistant. On New Year's Day 2002, Daniels lugged his thin résumé and thick head of hair to Texas intent on transforming old dogs with his new tricks.
"Looking back we knew Texas was the beginning of something," Robyn says. "We just never dreamed it would come to this point so quickly."
Three years later—at 28 and without having ever orchestrated a draft or engineered a trade—Daniels replaced Hart, becoming the least experienced executive in baseball history.
His rocket rise began at the '01 winter meetings when Daniels first bumped into Hart. The Rangers' GM, inspired by the league's vogue trend of hiring young, creative, stats-oriented geeks, sought to infuse his organization with fresh perspective. And Daniels knocked his socks off.
"When I met him I immediately thought, 'This is exactly what I'm looking for,'" Hart said upon hiring Daniels. "I didn't interview anyone else. He had the right combination with his intelligence, work ethic and ability to relate to people. Jon is a very cool customer. He's not a headstrong guy. He's not a guy who thinks he invented the game."
Daniels soared up the flow chart, through operations assistant to director of baseball operations and assistant to the general manager until Hart, frustrated by the team's 311-337 record during a four-year tenure besieged by big contracts on old veterans and the albatross signing of Chan Ho Park, resigned.
Without hesitation, Hicks had his replacement. And without a real game plan or motivational lifelong dream, Daniels, the kid who carefully navigated one of the world's nastiest cities before puberty, had a GM job before 30.