We just feel it'stime for a change."
This is an article from the June 6, 1988 issue
Larry Bowa hasheard those fateful words, and as of Saturday, he was no longer manager of theSan Diego Padres. Chuck Tanner got the word on the evening of May 22, and nowhe is no longer managing the Atlanta Braves. A similar firing line was given toMike Keenan of the NHL Philadelphia Flyers on May 11, Jacques Martin of the St.Louis Blues on May 17 and John Wetzel of the NBA Phoenix Suns on May 3. Inaddition, Jean Perron of the Montreal Canadiens resigned under pressure on May16, and K.C. Jones confirmed on May 22 that he would not coach the BostonCeltics next season.
Those changesturned the merry month of May into a sort of Canned Festival for skippers. Wereall of those Mayday distress calls necessary? Not on your life or on thedisrupted lives of the men who got the ax. While it is certainly theprerogative of the clubs in question to fire and hire whomever they choose,they should have better reasons than "We just feel it's time for achange."
But then timeshave changed. This is the era of the One-Minute Manager and the One-MinuteCoach. So far in this decade, major league baseball has had 95 managerialchanges, more than VA per club. (The New York Yankees alone have had 13 newskippers since 1975—all right, so five of them were Billy Martin.) Hockey iseven more pink-slippery than baseball: NHL teams have changed coaches 98times—or better than 4½ times per team—since 1979-80. The NBA has had 66coaching changes in the '80s, an average of almost three per team. One of thisseason's casualties was Hall of Famer Bill Russell, trotted out with greatfanfare as the savior of the Sacramento Kings in October, slam-dunked, with a17-41 record, in March. The NFL is a little more stable, but its 28 teams stillhave provided head coaching jobs for 61 different men in the decade. It's safeto assume that every headman who got fired was told, "We just feel it'stime for a change," or words to that effect.
They probablydidn't hear the more telling reasons, such as "I want a championship, and Iwant it now" or "TV ratings and attendance are down." Or: "Yourpress has been very bad lately." Or: "Our slugger's agent says you haveto go." Or, the most likely reason of all: "We're firing you to coverup our own incompetence."
Firings havealways been a fact of life for the coaches and managers in the Big Four proteam sports. But in simpler times, a skipper had to worry only about theperformance of his team. Now he has to answer to an owner who is less patientand more than likely eccentric; to the various vice-presidents hired by theeccentric owner; to the players, who are emboldened by huge salaries andgreater bargaining power all around; to the press, which second-guesses hisevery wrong move; and probably to some guy in the marketing department.
Despite all thefirings—and because of them—there is never any shortage of candidates forcoaching or managing positions. The 26 current baseball skippers have managed55 different teams. Fourteen of them have worked for at least two clubs. Twohave managed five different teams, and the champion, Dick Williams, hasskippered six, in order: Boston, Oakland, California, Montreal, San Diego andSeattle. There must be something good about the job. What follows, though, isthe downside of being a mentor in this day and age:
•Uneasy lies thehead that doesn't wear a crown. "There's more emphasis on winning todaythan in the past," says Frank Robinson, who replaced Cal Ripken Sr. asmanager of the Baltimore Orioles after the sixth of the club's record 21straight season-opening losses. "Not just winning, but winning achampionship. There used to be pressure to win, but if you showed progress,usually the organization was satisfied. There's no such thing as showingprogress now. It's win or else, which makes it almost impossible to manage. Ifyou win your division, you're pretty safe. But there are only fourdivisions."
Not that makingthe playoffs in other sports guarantees job security. John Mackovic was sackedby the NFL Kansas City Chiefs after leading them into the 1986 playoffs for thefirst time in 15 years. And consider what happened to Keenan, the former coachof the Flyers.
Over the lastfour seasons, Keenan had a record of 190-102-28, second in percentage only toTerry Crisp of the Calgary Flames among active NHL coaches. He led the Flyersto the Stanley Cup finals in 1986-87, where they lost in seven games to theOilers. The team had an off-year in 1987-88, due in part to the prolongedabsence of 50-goal scorer Tim Kerr, but Philadelphia did finish third in astrong division and made the playoffs. Still, general manager Bobby Clarkesurprised Keenan with the pink slip, telling him the team didn't seem to playwith enthusiasm. In fact, several of the Flyers had gone to Clarke to complainabout Keenan. Which brings us to another problem facing coaches.
•Are you talkin'to me? In 1925, Yankee manager Miller Huggins suspended Babe Ruth for variousacts of insubordination, and when Ruth went running to owner Jake Ruppert,Ruppert backed Huggins. Nowadays, if the superstar doesn't like you, you'regone. Ask Paul Westhead, who was fired by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981, atleast partly because Magic Johnson wasn't crazy about the way he coached.
Very few managersor coaches have unbridled authority. Sather, who also serves as his team'spresident and general manager, is one who does, and he has won four StanleyCups in five years. Whitey Herzog is another, and his St. Louis Cardinals havebeen in three of the last six World Series.
As for the restof the coaching fraternity, pity its members for they have so many egos tocontend with. Last year Davey Johnson, manager of the 1986 world champion NewYork Mets, had to beg his players to spend more time in the dugout during thegame. He also cracked down by prohibiting cardplaying 15 minutes before infieldpractice. Sometimes it seems as if the inmates are running the asylum.
In the closingminutes of Game 7 of the Boston-Atlanta NBA playoff game on May 22, Celticcoach Jones had guard Dirk Minniefield all set to enter the game. But LarryBird shooed Minniefield back to the bench, thus making it quite apparent whowas running the team. Compare that with the scene before Game 1 of the 1929World Series, when Philadelphia A's star Al Simmons pointed to surprise starterHoward Ehmke and said to manager Connie Mack, "You're not going to pitchhim, are you?" Mack threw a withering glance back at Simmons and said,"Is it all right with you, Al?" Simmons nodded his assent, and Ehmkestruck out 13 in a 3-1 win. Of course, Mack was the owner as well as themanager, which also explains why he was more secure than present-day skippers.He held the job in Philadelphia for 50 years.
•It's my ball.George Steinbrenner has come to symbolize the tyrannical, petulant owner, butthe Yankee boss is only one of many in a breed of nouveau riche moguls. Thesebig kids with their toys like to tinker around and play God. They don't givemuch thought to another person's pride or dignity. Some of them don't deservetheir luck. Take Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who has been blessed with threewinning coaches in succession: Jack McKinney, Westhead and Pat Riley. McKinneywas the real architect of the champion Lakers, modeling them after thefast-breaking teams he had worked with as an assistant in Portland in the late'70s. McKinney suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle accident early inthe 1979-80 season, and his assistant, Westhead, became his interimreplacement. Months after McKinney had completed an arduous therapy program.Buss fired him. Why? The Lakers won the NBA championship under Westhead.Eighteen months later, Westhead was gone, too.
•Sweetheart, getme rewrite. Media coverage has greatly increased over the years, and as TexasRangers general manager Tom Grieve says, "If a manager can't deal with themedia, he's already in trouble." Since the manager or coach is underconstant scrutiny, it helps him to be on friendly terms with sports-writers.The press also acts as a conduit for any player who has a complaint, sonewspapers sometimes become the clothesline from which to hang dirty laundry.Casey Stengel used to say, "The secret to managing is to keep the five guyswho hate you away from the five who are undecided." These days the manageror coach has to keep the five who hate him away from reporters.
There's a newdanger for mentors: the poll. In Toronto, polls conducted by both CTV and TheToronto Sun determined that fans wanted Jimy Williams fired, by a ratio of 2 to1. Still, the Blue Jays are resisting public opinion, in part because theydon't want to be perceived as having bowed to pressure from the players andfans. But then general manager Pat Gillick is very high on Lou Piniella, and onSaturday Piniella resigned as general manager of the Yankees because hecouldn't get along with Billy Martin. So it may be time for a change inToronto.
•It's not easybeing green. Bowa's crime was being a young skipper (42) of a young team. Hehad manager written all over him even when he was just starting out as aPhillies shortstop. When he retired after 16 years as a player, Padres generalmanager Jack McKeon gave him a year's audition running San Diego's Triple Aaffiliate in Las Vegas, and he led that club to the Pacific Coast Leaguechampionship. Given the Padres job at the start of last season, Bowa ranted andraved as the team, divided between aging veterans and raw rookies, got off to a12-42 start. But from June 5 to Sept. 23, the Padres went 52-45, and it seemedthat Bowa had turned them around. In September, the club president, ChubFeeney, extended Bowa's contract through 1988. He also asked Bowa to mellow outa little, and Bowa did. But Feeney and Bowa did not see eye-to-eye on personneldecisions.
The Padres gotoff to a slow start again this year—they were stuck in fifth place as of lastThursday—but that probably had less to do with Bowa's managing than withinjuries to Tony Gwynn and John Kruk, San Diego's two best players. Bowa seemedalmost certain that something was in the works after the Los Angeles Timesreported Thursday that the Padres' nine-game Eastern swing would decide themanager's fate. According to the Times, on the team plane from Montreal to NewYork that night, Bowa handed his car keys and the keys to his San Diego home tocoach Greg Riddoch; Bowa would be heading to his home in Bryn Mawr, Pa., if andwhen he got fired.
Feeney,meanwhile, had already made up his mind that it was, yes, time for a change. Heand McKeon flew to New York for Friday night's game against the Mets. ThePadres' 3-0 victory must have buoyed Bowa because he filled out the lineup cardfor Saturday night's game before leaving Shea Stadium. At 7 a.m. a reportercalled Bowa's hotel room to tell him that McKeon was in town, probably to takehis job. So Bowa was not surprised when Feeney called at 8:30 a.m. and askedhim to come up to his room. "Is this about firing me?" asked Bowa.Feeney said it was. Bowa hung up on him.
Rather than goquietly, Bowa burned bridges, telling reporters. "The game has passed[Feeney] by. This would hurt if I got fired by somebody I respect, if I gotfired by a Joe McIlvaine or Frank Cashen [Mets executives]. But this guy didn'teven know the names of the players on his own team." That last remark wasin reference to an incident earlier this year when Feeney approached Kruk,thinking he was pitcher Lance McCullers, grabbed his right arm and said,"Way to go. Lance. You're finally starting to earn the money we're payingyou."
Feeney at leastwas gracious in his appraisal of the situation. "Larry Bowa has been anextremely hardworking manager who has given his all," he said."However. I have a responsibility to our organization to find a solution tothe team's problems." McKeon, who had to borrow a pair of uniform pantsfrom Kruk for his first managing job since Oakland in 1978, said, "Larry'sa high-class kid. I think he did a good job. Sometimes business decisions enterinto it." Business decisions? Do the Padres think McKeon is a gateattraction?
At least oneplayer, pitcher Andy Hawkins, applauded the move. "This is kind of likehaving a weight lifted off your shoulders," said Hawkins. "[Bowa] wasjust depressing." But Gwynn, whose words carry a little more weight in theclubhouse than Hawkins's, said, "Larry did a great job. We let him down.This is a very frustrating day for me because I don't know what direction thisteam is going in. In my mind there are more questions with this team [today]than there were yesterday."
Kruk summed it upthis way: "I haven't been around long enough to know about managers,"he said. "Larry could have been the best manager in the world or the worst.But I know what he had to work with. We're just not that strong a team. Hetried last year to yell and scream, and it didn't work. This year he tried tobe mellow, and it didn't work. We just aren't good. It'd be tough for God tocome in and manage this team."
Not all changesare bad ones. It actually took guts for Braves general manager Bobby Cox tofire Tanner, who felt so secure that he told a reporter hours before hisdismissal, "I can have this job for as long as I want it." Atlanta willnow have to eat the nearly three years remaining on Tanner's $400,000-a-yearcontract. But Cox saw that Tanner was jeopardizing his youth movement because1) he was abusing some of the young pitchers, 2) his coaches were unable toteach, and 3) his Pollyanna approach was being laughed at.
But so manychanges are made strictly to save face. Before other teams use their coaches ormanagers as scapegoats, they might do well to follow the example of the TexasRangers. They got off to a terrible start this year, standing 10-16 on May 6.Elsewhere under such circumstances, sportswriters might have begun a deathwatchon the manager. But instead Grieve gave manager Bobby Valentine a two-yearextension on his contract. "He had made a strong commitment to us, so wedecided to make him a commitment," says Grieve. "He is a first-classperson, a first-class manager, he is good with the players, with the press,with the fans, and he moved down here. I cannot think of this team in thefuture without thinking of Bobby as the manager.
"We decidedto act when we did before any of the whispers started. We could have given hima vote of confidence, but those things are usually followed a week later by afiring. I also think the contract helped relax the team as a whole. They didn'tfeel as if they had to perform because his job was on the line."
Since Valentinereceived the contract extension, the Rangers have gone 14-7 and moved intothird place behind Oakland and Minnesota.
Maybe it is timefor a change: a change in the way teams treat their managers and coaches.
[This articlecontains a chart. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
DICK WILLIAMS'S PORTS OF CALL
The majors' most-traveled manager has touched basewith no fewer than six teams. He won two World Series with Oakland and lost oneeach with Boston and San Diego.
OSTON RED SOX 1967-69
OAKLAND A's 1971-73
CALIFORNIA ANGELS 1974-76
ONTREAL EXPOS 1977-81
SAN DIEGO PADRES 1982-85
SEATTLE MARINERS 1986-
Since 1980, Steinbrenner's whims have produced thissequence of managers in the house that Ruth got nobody fired in.
DICK HOWSER 1980
GENE MICHAEL 1981
BOB LEMON 1981-82
CLYDE KING 1982
BILLY MARTIN 1983
YOGI BERRA 1984-85
LOU PINIELLA 1986-87
In the turbulent '80s, 302 coaches or managers have left jobs--fired,usually--in the major team sports. Each figure below represents one of thedeparted.