If you go by looks, Gene Mauch is your baseball manager. See him there behind the batting cage, a trim, tanned, silver-haired man of medium height and middle years (he's 55), gazing at the activity before him—batting practice—with such uncommon solemnity you can almost hear him think. This man Mauch, as it's so often said of him, is all baseball. "There's electricity out there," he says, pointing a bat like a classroom pointer toward the diamond before him. "A thousand things are going on between the mound and the plate. It's an interesting game."
It certainly is, and Mauch, now managing his fourth major league team, the California Angels, is one reason for it. He's reputed to be one of the game's most astute field leaders, rated in an informal SPORTS ILLUSTRATED poll of baseball writers last year as belonging in the top rank of current skippers. Yet his record would seem a direct contradiction of that rating. In 22 seasons, Mauch has managed neither a pennant-nor even a division-winning team. By leading the Angels out of the running this year, he has established a major league record for non-winning, breaking the old substandard for failing to win a title of any sort—21 seasons—he jointly held with Jimmy Dykes (Mauch also holds the National League mark of 16 non-winning seasons). Mauch's 1961 Phillies lost 23 games in succession, a modern record approached only by his '69 Montreal Expos, who dropped 20 in a row. For the season the '61 Phillies lost 107 games, the '69 Expos 110. More than half of Mauch's 22 teams have failed to win half their games. He has had only one second-place finisher, the '64 Phillies, and even their relatively modest achievement is tarnished. The Phils that year were 6½ games ahead of the pack with only 12 games remaining. They promptly lost 10 in a row and handed the pennant to the Cardinals, some critics say because Mauch elected to stay with two weary starters, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, down the stretch while ignoring ace reliever Jack Baldschun.
Only Connie Mack (career record: 3,776-4,025), John McGraw (2,840-1,984), Bucky Harris (2,159-2,219) and Casey Stengel (1,926-1,867) have lost more games than Mauch, but all of them are in the Hall of Fame and together they won 32 pennants and 17 World Series. At week's end Mauch's record was 1,550-1,736 and come October his seat will be in the stands.
Nevertheless, hardly anyone in the know thinks of him as a loser. When Mauch took command of the Phillies in 1960 they had finished last the previous two seasons and in the second division four straight years. Within four seasons under Mauch the Phillies had become contenders. The Expos were an expansion team that Mauch had in fourth place before he departed for Minnesota. Upon arriving in the Twin Cities, he vowed never to manage a loser again, and his blue eyes fairly sparkled when he filled out a lineup card with the names of such stalwart young hitters as Rod Carew, Dan Ford, Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock. Alas, Calvin Griffith, a penurious owner confronted with the new free-agent salary structure, let them all get away, and Mauch was saddled once more with mediocrity. Last Aug. 24 he simply quit, repairing to his home near Palm Springs to play some golf. "I'd had enough of building bad clubs," he muttered.
October 4, 1981
But on Feb. 12, Mauch's old pal Buzzie Bavasi offered him a new sort of challenge. Bavasi, the Angels' executive vice-president, told Mauch he wanted someone to take an active hand in the baseball end of California's operation so that he might devote more time to generating the income needed to meet the Angels' enormous payroll. Mauch accepted the job of director of player personnel with the understanding that in time he might even succeed the 66-year-old Bavasi as the Angels' top executive. He undertook his new responsibilities with enthusiasm, engineering a trade with Houston that brought the Angels their 1981 pitching star, Ken Forsch (11-7).
Angel-watchers were suspicious, however. A newspaperman asked Bavasi how Manager Jim Fregosi's whiplash injury was. "What whiplash?" inquired Bavasi. "The one he got from looking over his shoulder at Mauch," came the reply. Both Bavasi and Mauch were quick to counter such cynicism. Asked if Mauch had been hired as Fregosi's successor, Bavasi sputtered, "Absolutely not. I already have three ex-managers on the payroll—Bill Rigney, Preston Gomez and-Herman Franks [who has since become the Cubs' general manager]. I enjoy having those people around me. If you don't take the opportunity to hire them, you're stupid."
"Not for one instant was I thinking of managing the Angels when I took that job," says Mauch. "I had no designs on Jimmy's job."
But the talent-loaded, if perpetually jinxed, Angels got off to a languid start under Fregosi, and when on May 28 they had fallen 7½ games behind the A's in the AL West, owner Gene Autry called Mauch in and informed him the team was going to make a managerial change. Was he interested? "I'd turned down four managing jobs already," Mauch says. "And one as a general manager. I was enjoying what I was doing, but by then I'd had nine months out of uniform and I asked Mr. Autry if he was 100% sure he wanted to make the change. He said yes, so I said let's go." And what of his own feelings? "Well, when you put your whole life into the game, it's like having malaria. It will go away for a while, but it will come back. It did."
Not all of the Angels were enthusiastic about the change, although most expected it. Fregosi, who was only 39 and in the fourth year of his first managing job, had been popular with the players, even though his inexperience often made them uncertain of his leadership. Ford, recalling his days with Mauch in Minnesota, was openly apprehensive. "We hadn't always seen eye to eye," Ford says. "He likes to have a different lineup every day. In Minnesota he kept moving me up and down the batting order, depending on who was pitching. That's a discredit to the hitter. I'm much more comfortable hitting in the same spot. But I said to myself, 'We'll just have to wait and see what happens.' " Under Mauch, Ford has usually batted third.
Mauch got off to a good start with the Angels, winning nine of 13 games. "I don't think I've ever been more pleased or excited in baseball than I was by June 11," he says. "This team was playing quality baseball. It was all fun again." But on June 12 the Angels and players everywhere went on strike. When they returned to action on Aug. 10, California's momentum was gone. "I think I'll spend the rest of my life being bitter about that strike," says Mauch. "We never got that feeling back."
And then came the injuries that have been so much a part of the Angels' valetudinary history. Centerfielder Fred Lynn went out with a bad left knee, Carew with a sore right shoulder and the righthanded Forsch with an infected boil on his pitching elbow—almost $3 million worth of talent in the infirmary. Under Fregosi the Angels had been 22-25; through last Sunday under Mauch they were 26-31, including one stretch, Sept. 5-20, when they lost 14 of 15. At week's end, California's 17-27 record for the second half of the split season was the worst in the league.
But, as usual, no one is blaming Mauch. "I have tremendous respect for Gene," says Carew. "I can't think of anyone who has ever played for him who can say he hasn't learned from him."
"He's three batters ahead of everybody else," says pitcher Mike Witt. "He makes you want to think more."
"He's one of the few managers I know who's a good judge of talent," says Bavasi, "and he has common sense."
Yet, another losing season is ending for this paragon. How long can he extend his record of futility? "I think you'll see Gene around until he wins this thing," says Bavasi. Mauch smiled—not a common occurrence—when he heard of that prognosis. "My first priority is to do a good job," he said in measured tones. "But"—and he held a hand to his fiat midsection—"it still burns in here. After all these years, I still burn to win."