Before Jim Essian got the call, he was put on hold.
At 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21, Essian, the manager of the Chicago Cubs' Triple A Iowa team, was sitting in his office in Des Moines and talking on the phone with farm director Bill Harford. Just then, the Iowa trainer, Brian McCann, stuck his head in the door and told Essian he had heard that Don Zimmer had been fired as the Cubs' manager. That was news to Harford, who told Essian he was putting him on hold to take another call. The other call was from Cub general manager Jim Frey, who was looking for Essian. Harford got back on the line and told Essian he was to fly immediately to New York, where the Cubs were about to start a three-game series with the Mets. In that game of phone tag, Essian was it. After the five-hour trip from Des Moines, a sleepless night and a 3½-hour interview with Frey and club president Don Grenesko, Essian was named the new Cub manager.
Actually, he was the Cubs' fourth manager in two days. There was Zimmer, of course, who was shot down on Tuesday with the team in last place at 18-19. While Essian was in the air on Tuesday night, interim manager Joe Altobelli wrote out the lineup card at Shea Stadium. But Altobelli was ejected in the fifth inning for arguing with umpire Steve Rippley, and coach Chuck Cottier ran the club for the last four innings of the 8-6 loss.
In fact, the whole managerial job market was hopping last week. On the day the Cubs hired Essian, the last-place Kansas City Royals fired John Wathan and named coach Bob Schaefer as their interim manager. "I'm working on a multi-hour contract," said Schaefer. Last Thursday the Baltimore Orioles, also in last place in their division, kicked Frank Robinson upstairs and made coach Johnny Oates the manager. The following day, the Royals made Hal McRae baseball's fifth black manager and the fourth manager to have his son play for him. (Nobody seemed to notice, though, that Essian is baseball's first manager of Armenian descent.)
The hirings and firings came so fast and furious that The National sports daily ran a chart of prospective job-seekers, along with their current status, and included California Angel manager Doug Rader and Cleveland Indians manager John McNamara, both of whom were mistakenly listed as being between jobs. Then again, maybe The National knew something. The four firings so far this year—the Phillies replaced Nick Leyva with Jim Fregosi on April 23—put baseball on a pace similar to 1988's, when there were 12 managerial changes.
Among the managers rumored as possible sacrificial lambs last week were McNamara, Rader, Roger Craig of the Giants, Greg Riddoch of the Padres, Buck Rodgers of the Expos, Bud Harrelson of the Mets, Tom Kelly of the Twins, Tom Trebelhorn of the Brewers and Stump Merrill of the Yankees. The managerial instability was such that the Yankees' silent partner, George Steinbrenner, of all people, was moved to say, "I think costs are driving [teams] to do a lot of things. I don't know if [changing managers] is the answer."
Essian certainly looked like the answer last week. Through Sunday, the Cubs were 5-0 under their new manager and had climbed over the Expos and the Phillies into a virtual tie for third with the Mets, only four games behind the first-place Pirates.
Essian, the fourth of 13 children, grew up in the Detroit area as a Tiger fan. Unfortunately, Detroit was one of the few teams he didn't catch for in his 12-year major league career. At one time or another, he has belonged to the Phillies (who traded him to Atlanta for Oates), the Braves, the White Sox (twice), the Athletics (twice), the Mariners and the Indians. Always known for his fiery temperament, Essian went directly from catching to managing, starting with an independent Florida State League team in 1985. The Cubs hired him to manage their Class A Winston-Salem club the next year, and he won the Carolina League championship. He has since managed first-place clubs at Double A Pittsfield (Mass.) and Triple A Iowa. It was at Pittsfield that he caught Frey's eye. "He had a scrambling club because there wasn't a whole lot of talent," says Frey. "He had the players very active, and he took risks. He could handle pitchers, run a game."
In the off-season the Cubs acquired leftfielder George Bell and bullpen stopper Dave Smith, and they were the consensus choice to win the National League East. But Smith blew some saves early in the season, and Bell was adjusting to a new league, and on May 10 the Cubs were floundering at 14-14. That was when Zimmer read an article in the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, in which Grenesko was 'quoted as saying, "The performance of Don Zimmer will be evaluated at the end of the season...just like any other employee of the club." Zimmer took offense and told his wife, Jean, that he was going to demand that he be given a new contract by July 1. She told him she didn't think that was a good idea.
Zimmer delivered the ultimatum anyway, and when Grenesko said, "Do you realize what you are jeopardizing here?" Zimmer replied, "You sound like my wife." Ten days after the meeting, Zimmer was fired. Giving him the bad news was Frey, his old high school teammate at Western Hills in Cincinnati. "I've had a lot of heartaches and disappointments in baseball," says Frey. "This was the most unpleasant time of all."
The Cubs could have gone after a marquee name to replace Zimmer. Former Mets manager Davey Johnson made himself immediately available to Chicago, saying, "Great organization, great tradition, great city, Great Lake." But Frey thought Essian was ready for the job, and he convinced Grenesko that he was the man, even though at 40, Essian is the youngest full-time manager of the Cubs since Phil Cavarretta became player-manager in 1951. (Essian's ascension also means a promotion for Iowa's batboy, 11-year-old Jim Essian, who worked his first game for the big club last Saturday.)
This may be Essian's first major league managing job, but he is no stranger to the current Cubs, 15 of whom played for him in the minor leagues. "He's a genius," says outfielder Dwight Smith. "He motivates his players by showing confidence in them. It's nothing he practices. He's very sincere."
Essian is a constant cheerleader in the dugout, in marked contrast to the stoical Zimmer. "He'll go through fire for his players," says first baseman Mark Grace. "He'll also bring the fun back into the clubhouse. For three weeks, this clubhouse has been dead, no life."
Essian gives high fives at the least provocation, he always remembers to take his hat off when shaking the hand of a player who has just hit a home run, and his pre-game ritual in the minors included something called "gimme nine"—all nine starters gathered together on the steps of the dugout before taking the field. Says outfielder Doug Dascenzo, "During a game, he's always walking back and forth in the dugout, like he's in a courtroom getting ready to prosecute somebody."
Essian admits he's worried about how he'll handle the Cubs' veteran players, some of whom are his contemporaries. "I may have to change some of my ways," he says. "In the minor leagues, you can get the players to respond if you take a few dollars out of their pockets because they don't have that many dollars, and they're all young and hungry for a piece of the pie. I will have to find out what I can and can't say to these guys. I have a lot to learn."
But even the veterans seem to like the new rah-rah attitude. Says Grace, "[Andre] Dawson and Ryno [Ryne Sandberg] usually lead by example. But they've become more boisterous because they've got a manager who wants that."
It's a standing joke among Essian's minor leaguers that, before every game, he tells them, "This is the biggest game of the year." For his first game as manager of the Cubs, on Wednesday night in New York, Essian tried to prepare a little speech. "I got only halfway done," he says. "So I was half-prepared, and it went over halfway decently. At least it ended with a laugh. I didn't know I was going to make them laugh, though. I said, 'Let's not kid ourselves. This is the biggest game of the year.' "
The Cubs beat the Mets that night 5-2 behind the strong pitching of Greg Maddux. The next night, they beat the Mets 4-3 on a suicide squeeze in the ninth with a count of 3-2 on Dascenzo, who had already fouled off one squeeze attempt. It was a bold call, and very much appreciated by the Cubs. "Jim basically won the game by himself," said pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who enjoyed throwing to Essian when they were batterymates on the 1983 Indians. "He had the Mets off balance all night. I don't know too many guys who would have the guts to try that stuff in only their second game."
After that game, Essian yelled to Dwight Smith as he headed up the runway to the visiting clubhouse, "Don't forget to tell everybody that tomorrow is the biggest game of the year."