He has all the job security of the chief of state of a Central American Republic. He's often denounced by fans, reviled in the press and criticized by his own employees. The rewards in his line of work are limited and go to only a few, and yet innumerable grown men, some of sound mind, aspire to be managers of major league baseball teams.
Managers are, as the bromide has it, hired to be fired. And, most likely, hired again by someone else. The 1981 season will be no different; 10 managers will be starting their first full season in a new office. Don Zimmer, canned by the Red Sox, has been signed on by the Texas Rangers, who dropped Pat Corrales after last season. Ralph Houk, formerly of the Yankees and Tigers, jeopardizes his remarkable record of never having been fired by coming out of retirement to replace Zimmer in Boston. Gene Michael, who was general manager of the Yankees last year, is the manager this year, succeeding Dick Howser, who was let go for having lost to Kansas City in the American League playoffs. Maury Wills, who replaced the fired Darrell Johnson during the 1980 season, will be Seattle's skipper from the start in 1981. Wills is the major league's third black manager. The first, Frank Robinson, was dismissed four years ago by Cleveland, but he's back this year with San Francisco, which fired Dave Bristol in December. Big Frank Howard moves from the Milwaukee coaching staff to the San Diego manager's job, replacing Jerry Coleman. Whitey Herzog, sent packing by the Royals in 1979, took over as manager of the Cardinals last year after Ken Boyer was discharged in midseason. And Joe Amalfitano opens with the Cubs, who hired him after firing Preston Gomez last July.
George Bamberger in Milwaukee and Gene Mauch in Minnesota beat the system by simply quitting last year, Bamberger for retirement, Mauch for the golf course; Mauch subsequently took a front-office job with the Angels. But not many are nimble enough to escape the chopping block. Of the 26 managers who began the 1979 season, only eight are still with the same teams, although three others—Herzog, Zimmer and Dave Garcia, late of California and currently of Cleveland—are with other clubs.
And then there are the managers who never seem to win much, but still keep materializing. Those in the revolving-door crowd—Bristol (four teams) and Gomez (three) spring to mind—get fired every time they're hired, but they continue to get hired anyway. This would lend some support to the theory of Montreal's reserve first baseman. Tommy Hutton, who says, "The best way to become a major league manager is to get fired first." The truth is that many owners and general managers are loath to gamble on untested "talent." "The game is run by oldtime baseball people," says Angel Relief Pitcher Dave LaRoche. "So the people they keep hiring are oldtime baseball people. It's their last claim to yesteryear. It's a very little fraternity. I guess it's more like the Supreme Court. It's tough to get in, but once you're there, you've got a job for life...somewhere."
April 13, 1981
"Different teams are looking for different capabilities in a manager," says Cleveland President Gabe Paul. "One might be looking for a disciplinarian, for instance. That same man might have been fired by another team for being too tough. Some manager might be fired for reasons that have nothing to do with his qualities as a manager. Some are fired because they're outspoken."
Workaday folk cringe at the thought of being fired, but managers accept it as a condition of employment. But why? California scout Bill Rigney, like so many of his hooked confreres, has never lost his enthusiasm for managing, which he did at various times for the Giants, Angels and Twins. "To give a club something it never had before is the manager's gift," he says. "The manager is the most important cog in a multimillion-dollar machine."
In this era of baseball labor strife, if there is one thing owners and players are likely to agree upon, it's that Rigney is wrong. Owners tend to regard the manager as a necessary encumbrance, someone who may have public-relations value and who can serve as a convenient scapegoat in hard times. The players seem to feel the manager should graciously step aside and let them play ball. "The ideal manager," in the opinion of Montreal Pitcher Bill Lee, "is the manager who doesn't manage."
"The manager is overrated," says Cub Infielder Mike Tyson. "He puts nine men out there and makes three or four major moves a game. The rest is luck. He makes a move and if it works, he looks like a king. If it doesn't, he looks like a bum." There are even managers who downgrade managing. "I have always thought managers are the most overrated things in baseball," says Detroit skipper Sparky Anderson, onetime peerless leader of the world champion Reds. "The game is basically very simple. If you get good players, you win. I've never seen a manager win a pennant. Players win pennants."
"Good players are not the most important thing," says Twins owner Calvin Griffith, paraphrasing someone else. "They're the only thing."
It's said that a good manager may get his team between five and 10 more wins a year than a middling skipper would, and a bad manager may cost his team even more games than that. If these numbers seem lower than you would expect, it may be that when it comes to tactics there are no managerial secrets, only managerial styles. While the ability to "build" a team, to "motivate," to make the best use of one's roster may be most important in determining a manager's long-term success, his "moves" often do affect his club's short-term fortunes. The good manager will make the right substitution, inserting a pinch hitter, reliever or defensive specialist at just the right juncture, or will employ the appropriate tactic—sacrifice, steal, intentional walk, whatever—at the most opportune moment. The bad manager will find that he wasted his best pinch hitter in the third inning or overworked his best reliever the night before. He might also use the right tactic at the wrong time or ignore it entirely.
Some observers believe that a third of the games a team wins in a season will be won regardless of anything the manager does, and a third will be lost regardless. A third will be up for grabs, and these are the ones the manager can win or lose. Robinson doesn't subscribe to this view. "A manager is much more important than any numbers," he says. "A manager has some influence on every game played. First of all, he's responsible for preparing his team to play. He makes out the lineup card, which determines who will play. He makes important decisions throughout the game, not just in the eighth or ninth innings."
Says Dodger skipper Tommy Lasorda, "A manager probably makes more decisions in the course of one game than a businessman makes in an entire week."
"The three things you need to be a good manager," says the Cardinals' Herzog, "are players, a sense of humor and, most important, a good bullpen. If I've got those three things, I assure you I'll get along with the press and I guarantee you I'll make the Hall of Fame. A manager doesn't necessarily win games, but he can lose a lot of games. If you make all the right moves and your bullpen isn't worth a damn, you're not any good anyway. If the bullpen is good, you're a genius." Herzog felt the lack of an outstanding reliever was one of the main reasons his Royals lost three straight Championship Series to the Yankees. If he reaches the playoffs with the Cardinals, he'll have Bruce Sutter, an off-season acquisition from the Cubs. A reliever of Sutter's caliber can make any manager a genius—if the manager uses him correctly.
Philadelphia's Dallas Green proved himself to be an excellent handler of pitchers last year, and that probably had more to do with the Phillies' winning the division, pennant and World Series than his prodigious ranting and raving. A former pitcher, Green was particularly adept at giving his relievers the proper balance of rest and work. "Dallas did a great job for a rookie manager. It was comparable to what Gil Hodges did when I was with the Mets," says Reliever Tug McGraw. "And I've always felt that Gil handled a pitching staff as well as any manager I've ever seen."
The manager's responsibilities fall roughly into five categories: 1) picking the players. 2) motivating the players, 3) game strategy. 4) public relations, and 5) "relating" to his team. Player selection isn't limited to the starting lineup. It involves judicious use of all 25 men on the roster, an aspect of the job in which today's finest managers—Earl Weaver of the Orioles, Billy Martin of the A's, Chuck Tanner of the Pirates, Dick Williams of the Expos—excel. "Earl's best quality isn't so much knowing the game of baseball and making the right moves," says Baltimore Third Baseman Doug DeCinces, "but the fact that he knows his personnel and knows how to get the best out of 25 men. He knows how to put the best 25 men together."
Mauch, who tied a record by not winning any kind of championship in 21 years of managing, was often criticized for his obsessive platooning. Weaver and Williams don't always platoon in the classic Mauchian lefty-righty sense, but each makes more extensive use of his bench than Mauch did his. Both keep voluminous statistics, which tell them who should play against whom.
"I don't believe in the 'book,' " says Williams. "I've got my own book. These statistics tell me everything I want to know: how often a player has sacrificed or failed to sacrifice, how many times with a man on second and none out he has failed to advance the runner, how many times he has missed a sign. I've got charts that show the direction of every ball hit by every player we've played, so you know how to shift the defense."
Weaver, the dean of big league skippers, with 12½ years service for the same team, is a tactician who, while opposing overmanaging, says, "I'd rather lose by doing something. I'm not a genius. I push buttons. I just have to make sure I've got the right 25 buttons to push when the season starts." Weaver's push-button style is illustrated by two key statistics from last year. Because he likes to go for runs in bunches, the Orioles were near the bottom, 12th, in sacrifice hits and near the top, third, in pinch-hit attempts. Reserves like Gary Roenicke (.500 pinch-hitting average), John Lowenstein (.417) and Lee May (.411) helped make Baltimore the most successful pinch-hitting team in the league, with a .295 average.
In contrast to Weaver, Boston's Zimmer doesn't push many buttons. Last year the Red Sox ranked last or next to last in pinch-hit attempts, stolen-base attempts and sacrifice hits. His tactical moves largely ended when he posted the day's lineup card.
Many managers now delegate considerable authority to their pitching coaches, so much so in some instances that these once lowly subordinates have achieved the status of assistant managers. Some managers still regard themselves as pitching experts, however. Cincinnati's John McNamara, a former catcher, says, "I'm not one to judge myself, but I'd like to think handling the pitching staff is one of the things I do best." Indeed, under his stewardship the once embattled Red mound corps has gained respectability.
The designated hitter rule somewhat simplifies the tricky business of removing pitchers from a game. American League managers may leave their starters in until the poor fellows either lose their effectiveness or drop from exhaustion. In the National League, a pitcher going well in a close game may get the hook if, in the manager's view, a pinch hitter might perk up the offense. This tactical challenge makes managing in the National League more attractive.
In his peregrinations across the baseball map, Martin has always had the same pitching coach, Art Fowler, who in a sense has been Martin's Sancho Panza in his tilts with authority. But Fowler is also a good judge of talent, and last year he and his boss remolded a battered and forlorn A's pitching staff. Recognizing that they were functioning with a weak bullpen, they flew in the face of convention and let their young pitchers go the distance. At a time when complete games are increasingly rare, the A's staff set a modern record of 94. And yet, because Martin used a five-man rotation, none of his starters pitched as many as 300 innings.
Martin also introduced Billy Ball to an unsuspecting public last year. When he was a skipper in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas and New York, his teams played slightly more orthodox ball. But Martin, like Weaver, is skilled at adapting his tactics to his talent. Billy Ball involves squeeze plays, double steals and swipes of home that are more dependent on guile than raw speed.
Tanner motivates the Pirates through sheer effervescence. Tanner teams, it's said, "never die in August," the dog days, because he keeps them enthused. Nevertheless, most players would prefer that a skipper spend more time "relating" to them than motivating them. "A manager has to know a player's personality," says the Phillies' Pete Rose. "You don't treat Pete Rose like you treat Larry Bowa. The manager has to have one set of rules, but everybody's an individual and should be treated accordingly. With some guys you've got to be a disciplinarian. With other guys you blow smoke."
These pleas from the clubhouse for understanding would undoubtedly have fallen on deaf ears had they been addressed to such bluff disciplinarians of baseball's antiquity as John McGraw (see box), Joe McCarthy or Bill McKechnie. The fact is, some of the respected managers of the current generation, including Rose's own, give relating and communicating a rather low priority.
"I disagree with relating to 25 guys," says Green. "I think you've got to 'handle' 25 guys. 'Relate' to me means a lot of one-on-one give and take." Indeed, Green remained an unpopular figure in the Phillies' clubhouse right up to the moment the champagne was poured. But in the process he justified his midseason declaration that, "These players need a guy who'll stay on them, who won't back down."
Williams, who won two World Series with the A's and brought Montreal home second in the NL East the last two years, is also an avowed non-relater. "I am an arrogant son of a bitch," he has said of himself. "My personality is basically horsebleep. I don't want to be their [the players'] friend. All good managers were like that 30 years ago."
There are, to be sure, some entrenched ideas about managers, and some are even true. It is true, at least right now, that most good managers were bad players. Of the 26 current managers, only six—Robinson, Howard, Martin, Joe Torre, Bill Virdon and Jim Fregosi—might be called first-rate major league players. It is not necessarily true, however, that superstars make terrible managers, a theory that Robinson will once again put to the test. And it's no longer true, if it ever was, that the best managers are catchers. There are only four former catchers managing—Torre, McNamara, Houk and Buck Rodgers of Milwaukee. Twelve are former infielders, and eight were outfielders. Green and Lasorda are the only ex-pitchers, lending credence to Jim Palmer's theory that most pitchers are too smart to manage.
Last season SPORTS ILLUSTRATED baseball correspondents were invited to nominate their choices for best and worst skippers. Those generally regarded as outstanding were Weaver, Martin, Tanner and Williams. K.C.'s Jim Frey, Virdon and Green were cited for exceptional one-year performances. Herzog, Anderson and McNamara were in the middle range. Lasorda received mixed reviews, both as a showman and a tactician. One of his former pitchers says that Lasorda is most visible during Dodger games that are nationally televised: "He'd make maybe eight trips to the mound, using whatever excuse to get out there in camera range." The managers who fared worst among the correspondents included four men who were eventually fired: Boston's Zimmer, who was censured for being unaggressive on the field; Texas' Corrales, who was cited for being controlled by "the book"; San Diego's Coleman, who was criticized for his all-around unsuitability; and San Francisco's Bristol, who ranked poorly in player relations. Another "worst" manager was Jim Fregosi of the Angels, who was faulted for fiddling too much with his lineup but being reluctant to make more than one pitching change per inning.
The top managers have what appear to be the top traits: alertness, adaptability, authority, organization and the ability to anticipate situations before they occur. Most important, all are winners. Martin is the most adept at getting himself fired, but with the A's under new ownership, he has a "long-term" contract and more responsibility over the movement of personnel than he has ever had in his stormy past. He has, in short, the opportunity to dispel his "self-destructive" image or preserve it forever.
How can a manager's true worth be accurately determined?
"The only way to tell who the best manager is is to use a system like duplicate bridge." says Herzog. "Give the managers the same teams and have them play 30 games against the same players."
Short of that, a skipper's performance under more conventional circumstances can serve as a clear gauge of class. Last year Martin performed miracles with the A's. And Virdon got the Astros into the playoffs without J.R. Richard. At one time or another Frey's Royals lost most of their offense to injury and illness and still made it into the World Series. And Green won it all with an aging and antipathetic team that fought him as hard as it did the rest of the National League.
There will be Managers of the Year for 1981. but their glory won't last long. Managers don't win games. Players do. Just ask a manager—the fellow over there in the unemployment line.