In the Line Of Fire
The Cubs' Don Baylor was the latest to go down in a tough season
Who could blame White Sox manager Jerry Manuel if his skin began
to crawl last week? On Friday his crosstown counterpart, Don
Baylor, was fired by the Cubs. The next day Manuel, whose team
was picked by many to win the American League Central but
stumbled to a 42-46 record in the first half, received the
dreaded vote of confidence from general manager Ken
Williams--one that sounded a lot like the statement Andy
MacPhail made in support of his manager seven weeks before
Baylor was sacked. "The success of the manager is largely based
on the production of the players, and the players have not
performed to their capabilities," Williams said. "I have not
wavered in my confidence [in] Jerry and his staff."
These days it doesn't take much more than a three-game losing
streak to make the manager of a sub-.500 club worry about his job
security. Baylor was the sixth skipper to be axed this season
(seventh if you count Boston's Joe Kerrigan, who was replaced by
Grady Little during spring training). The knocks against Baylor
were the usual ones: an inability to communicate with his
players, the perception that the team was underachieving and the
need for a new direction.
Will the change spark the Cubs, who went into the All-Star break
in fifth place in the NL Central, 12 1/2 games behind the
Cardinals? Probably not (chart, below). After Buddy Bell was
fired as Colorado's manager in April, the Rockies won 24 of their
first 34 games under new skipper Clint Hurdle, then went 12-20
heading into the All-Star break. The Brewers, 3-12 when Davey
Lopes was fired in April, won their first four under Jerry
Royster, then went 26-43.
If new managers make so little difference in the standings, why
make the change? "The basic [criterion] for changing a manager is
simple: when the talent on the field does not equal the amount of
victories in the standings," says MacPhail, who also stepped
aside as G.M. in favor of assistant Jim Hendry but remains the
team's president and CEO.
Firing the manager is the easiest way to start overhauling a
team, but it is also a signal to players that the front office is
ready to make other changes down the line. Does bringing in a new
manager midyear make players play harder the rest of the season?
"I don't think so," says Expos first baseman Andres Galarraga.
"But it's a wake-up call for everybody."
Montreal's Brad Wilkerson
Life Is Good At the Top
First the Expos traded for Indians ace Bartolo Colon, then last
weekend general manager Omar Minaya tried to hammer out a deal
for Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd and righthander Ryan Dempster
without increasing Montreal's $39 million payroll. (Minaya hadn't
given up as of Monday.) But lost in all the buzz around the
G.M.'s furious negotiations was one of the main reasons why the
club felt confident enough to make a postseason push--the play of
rookie outfielder Brad Wilkerson.
The Expos started the season 25-26, but since moving Wilkerson
into the leadoff spot on May 29, they were 21-15 and at the
All-Star break trailed the Diamondbacks by five games in the
National League wild-card race. After homering in three straight
games against the Phillies last week, he led all NL first-year
players in hits (77), runs (51), walks (39) and total bases
(125), and his .288 average was second best. Wilkerson's nine
outfield assists were tied for second best in the majors. "He
gets better every day," says one advance scout. "It's amazing how
much improvement he's made."
Montreal drafted Wilkerson, who was an All-America at Florida,
with the 33rd pick in 1998. His advance through the minors was
slowed by a torn left rotator cuff that required surgery after
the 2000 season, and then he hit .205 in 47 games with Montreal
last year. But he won the starting leftfield job this spring, and
after centerfielder Peter Bergeron was demoted in May, Wilkerson
was shifted to center.
More important, after batting Wilkerson mostly seventh and eighth
the first two months of the season, manager Frank Robinson was
impressed with the rookie's ability to work the count and hit to
all fields. That led Robinson to the move Wilkerson to the top of
the order. Says Robinson, "Wilkerson's the one who got this team
going in the right direction."
A First Half To Forget
The All-Star break couldn't come soon enough for three veteran
pitchers who have struggled mightily this season.
--Chan Ho Park, Rangers (3-4, 8.01 ERA). Last December the
righthander signed a five-year, $65 million deal and was expected
to become the team's ace. Instead, sidelined by a strained right
hamstring, he had made only 11 starts and allowed at least five
earned runs in seven of them. Park, 29, says he is healthy now,
but in his last outing he allowed five earned runs in 6 1/3
--Livan Hernandez, Giants (6-10, 4.94). Hernandez skidded off the
tracks after a 4-0 start. The 27-year-old righthander, who became
the first San Francisco pitcher to lose 10 games before the
All-Star break two years in a row, has lost significant velocity
on his fastball--and a good deal of his confidence.
--Denny Neagle, Rockies (4-6, 6.06). A year and a half into a
five-year, $51.5 million contract, the veteran lefthander has
unraveled, too often leaving pitches out over the plate. In his
last start, on July 2, he was pounded for 10 runs and 10 hits
over two innings in an 18-5 loss to San Francisco. Two days later
he was demoted to the bullpen.
Sign of the Week
A Master Card Writer
A Reds fan at Cinergy Field expressed his displeasure with Ken
Griffey Jr.--Cincinnati was 7-13 in games Griffey started and
36-25 in games he didn't play--by holding up a sign that read:
4 REDS TICKETS: $30
4 SODAS: $10
4 HOT DOGS: $15
KEN GRIFFEY JR.: WORTHLESS
Righting the Ship
From 1990 through 2001, teams switched managers 33 times during
the season while they had a losing record--as the Cubs did last
Friday when they replaced Don Baylor with Bruce Kimm (right)--but
only four of those teams had a winning mark at the end of the
TEAM FIRED MANAGER (RECORD) NEW MANAGER (RECORD)
1990 Mets Davey Johnson (20-22) Bud Harrelson (71-49)
1991 Royals John Wathan (15-22) Hal McRae (66-58)
1992 Expos Tom Runnells (17-20) Felipe Alou (70-55)
1998 Dodgers Bill Russell (36-38) Glenn Hoffman (47-41)
in the Box
ROYALS 4, A'S 3
Kansas City's Michael Tucker doesn't hit many home runs--he had
four at the All-Star break--and a bizarre baserunning blunder in
this game didn't help his stats. In the top of the 10th, with one
out and Mike Caruso on first, Tucker hit a drive over the wall in
dead centerfield. As he rounded first base, Tucker stopped and
then was passed by Caruso, who was retreating back to first.
Both men thought A's centerfielder Terrence Long had made a
leaping catch. (Long did get his glove on the ball, but he lost
it when he collided with the fence.) Caruso was allowed to score,
but Tucker was called out and credited with a 405-foot single.