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Felipe Alou Has the Midas Touch If you thought the 68-year-old manager was over the hill, guess again. He has the rebuilt Giants in first place in the NL West

June 09, 2003
June 09, 2003

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June 9, 2003

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Felipe Alou Has the Midas Touch If you thought the 68-year-old manager was over the hill, guess again. He has the rebuilt Giants in first place in the NL West

Felix Rodriguez sat staring into his clubhouse stall, pondering
the latest in his string of poor relief appearances for the San
Francisco Giants. He had been called from the bullpen in the
eighth inning to protect a one-run lead in the May 19 game
against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but after he walked the first
two batters, manager Felipe Alou had taken him out. Now Alou,
seeing his dejected reliever moments after the Giants had lost
4-3, had a decision to make. Should he could call the
30-year-old righthander into his office for a private talk? Or
meet with him in the morning, when they were both fresh and
rested? Or say nothing, to send Rodriguez the message that he
wasn't worried about him? Or...Alou pulled up a chair behind
Rodriguez, leaning in to talk over the pitcher's shoulder like
a backseat driver.

This is an article from the June 9, 2003 issue Original Layout

In full view of teammates and reporters, Alou began an animated
discussion with him in Spanish. "¬øEstas saludable?" ("Are you
healthy?") Alou asked. Rodriguez said that he was. "Dime la
verdad" ("Tell me the truth"), the manager said sharply, aware
that Rodriguez had kept a finger injury secret last season. Again
the pitcher assured the manager that he was fine, and the two men
continued their conversation in voices loud enough to be
overheard. Even those who didn't speak Spanish could tell that
Alou's purpose was part interrogation, part motivation. After a
few minutes the manager got up and walked away, apparently
satisfied. "I'm not going to throw him in the trash," he told the
eavesdropping members of the media. "He's a very important part
of the mix."

It was not the way Alou, 68, a grandfatherly looking manager
known for his nurturing ways, normally handles such
situations--but it worked. After giving up six earned runs in
five appearances, Rodriguez has pitched considerably better (one
earned run in 6 1/3 innings) since that clubhouse conversation.
"Usually I would wait until the next day, and [the conversation]
would be behind closed doors," Alou says. "But there are times as
a manager when you don't want anybody to get to your player
before you do. Like an infection, you want to treat it right
away." But so publicly? "Well, I didn't want to talk to him like
someone had died," Alou says. "You talk to a player like you feel
sorry for him, and he might start feeling sorry for himself. But
if I have the same situation tomorrow night, I might handle it
differently. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time.
If you know me, you know I go by feel."

After 47 years in baseball, including 29 in the majors as a
player, coach and manager, Alou, who was hired to replace Dusty
Baker last November, has quickly gotten a feel for his new club.
Despite the change in skippers and the four new players in the
lineup this season, the defending National League-champion Giants
were on top of the NL West at week's end with a 35-20 record and
a 4 1/2-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Giants haven't spent a day out of first place this season
despite making major roster changes after losing the World Series
to the Anaheim Angels. San Francisco lost slugger Jeff Kent and
dependable third baseman David Bell to free agency, replacing
them with Ray Durham (a team-high .326 through Sunday) and
Edgardo Alfonzo (.223), respectively. The Giants traded an
established starter, Russ Ortiz, and added three mostly unproven
pitchers--rookie righthanders Kurt Ainsworth (5-4, 3.56) and
Jesse Foppert (3-4, 4.31) and second-year lefthander Damian Moss
(6-3, 3.41)--to their starting rotation. Even their most
important player, 38-year-old leftfielder Barry Bonds, has
apparently returned to earth (.299, 13 homers, 28 RBIs) after
back-to-back phenomenal years. The main reason San Francisco has
made such a smooth transition despite the turnover is Alou, who
has impressed observers not just with his knowledge of the game
but also with his understanding of his players.

"Some managers just have the right touch," says centerfielder
Marquis Grissom, 36, who played three years for Alou with the
Montreal Expos and was hitting .313 as the Giants' new leadoff
man. "Felipe has always had it. He already knows which guys need
a pat on the back and which guys to just leave alone. You'd never
guess that this is his first year with this ball club. He seems
all settled in already."

At this late stage of his career Alou seems more at ease than he
has been in years. The last few seasons of his 10-year tenure as
manager of the Expos, which ended when he was fired on May 31,
2001, were marred by the shaky status of the franchise. After
Alou turned down an offer from the Boston Red Sox and served a
perfunctory stretch as a bench coach for part of last season with
the Detroit Tigers, there were some who doubted his desire to
manage again. San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean wasn't
one of them. Alou was the only managerial candidate he
interviewed. "Once we had a chance to meet with him and see that
he still had as sharp a baseball mind as he ever did," Sabean
says, "it was obvious that he was the right fit for us."

As the father of 10 children--16-year-old Valerie and 11-year-old
Felipe Jr. with his current wife, Lucie, and eight others from
three previous marriages--Alou naturally brings a father-son
overtone to his relationships with his players. "You just don't
want to disappoint him," says lefthander Kirk Rueter (6-1 , 3.33
ERA). "It's not that you're afraid of getting chewed out, it's
more that you don't want to see that look in his eyes that tells
you he expected more out of you."

Alou apparently has struck the right chord with Bonds, the
Giants' temperamental future Hall of Famer. "He's about the same
age as my son Moises," Alou says, referring to the Chicago Cubs
outfielder. "People ask how you handle Barry. The answer is you
don't handle him at all. Barry and I have had some conversations,
but for the most part you just allow a player like that to do his
work." One afternoon last week Alou walked through the clubhouse
at Pacific Bell Park, stopping for brief conversations with a few
of his players. But as he passed Bonds, who was sitting in his
infamous recliner reading mail, the manager merely reached out,
touched his superstar on the shoulder and left his hand there for
an extra beat, sensing that a silent hello was all that Bonds
needed.

Alou's stature as a former All-Star and NL-pennant-winning
outfielder with the Giants (1958 through '63) no doubt helped get
him Bonds's respect from the start. Before the season Bonds spoke
of the "great job" that Alou did in Montreal and of his desire to
"make this a good team and make his job easier."

"I believe Barry's aware of my history," he says, smiling
slightly. A framed picture of the Giants' 1962 team hangs on his
office wall, beside drawings of former teammates Willie Mays
(Bonds's godfather), Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey, among
others, many of whom have stopped by the ballpark to see Alou.
"Felipe's still very recognizable in this city," Sabean says.
"Seeing him in a Giants uniform again is like going back to a
very pleasant time in history for San Francisco fans." At the
home opener on April 7, Alou received the loudest ovation during
team introductions. "That's because at my age," he says, "they
thought I was hard of hearing."

That wit and charm, in addition to his San Francisco pedigree,
were part of the package that made Alou uniquely suited to the
Giants job. "The fact is, we were replacing a very popular
manager," says Sabean. "We wanted Felipe mainly because of his
baseball knowledge and experience and the respect he has earned
over his years in the game. But it didn't hurt that he was also
the kind of figure that our fans could warm up to in a hurry."

To Alou, his age (he was the oldest manager in the majors until
the Florida Marlins hired 72-year-old Jack McKeon in May) is
nothing but a source of material to feed his sense of humor. He
knows that the years haven't slowed his mind, and they appear to
have had little effect on his body. He has aged the way any
athlete would want to, having grayed enough to look distinguished
yet retaining the powerful chest and shoulders that enabled him
to hit a career-high 31 homers in 1966. His main form of exercise
is walking the streets of San Francisco, and his only vice is a
postgame glass of red wine. "In the two months I've been here I
haven't been caught napping in the dugout yet," he says. "But
it's a long season, and the warm weather is coming, so who knows?
I may need a coach just to poke me if I nod off."

Alou, the first Dominican to manage in the big leagues, is less
amused by other preconceived notions. "There was a preseason
publication that ranked me at the bottom of all the new
managers," he says. "Maybe that was because of my age. I hope it
was because of my age and nothing else. Do you know what I'm
saying?" Alou, whose younger brothers Matty and Jesus also played
in the majors (box, page 50), is well acquainted with the slights
that Latinos and other minorities still endure. He believes it is
one of the reasons that despite 12 years of managing--and
winning--in the minor leagues and winter ball, he wasn't offered
a major league post until the Expos hired him in 1992 at age 57.
Having waited that long, Alou is in no hurry to leave. The Giants
gave him a two-year contract with a mutual option for a third,
after which many team observers expect pitching coach Dave
Righetti to succeed him. But retirement is not in Alou's
immediate plans. "Why would I do that?" he says. "Retirement is
for people who don't like their job or can't do their job. That's
not me."

The Dodgers nearly lured Alou away from Montreal in 1998, but his
loyalty to the franchise--and a three-year, $6 million extension
that nearly doubled the Los Angeles offer--caused him to turn
down L.A. Less than three months after he was fired by the Expos
in 2001 (the low-payroll team had a 21-32 record at the time),
the Red Sox offered him their managing post. Alou passed on that
opportunity because Boston's offer was only a one-year deal. "I
have been in the game far too long and accomplished too much to
accept an offer of one year," he says.

Before the 2002 season the Red Sox were in the market for a
manager again and considered Alou, but they passed him over for
Grady Little. He interviewed for other managerial
positions--"jobs I knew I wouldn't get," Alou says--just to make
sure that his continuing interest was noted, but G.M.'s weren't
always encouraging. "I drove six hours round-trip to interview
with one team," he says, "and afterward they told the media that
they weren't sure how interested I really was in the job.
Sometimes it seems as though they're looking for a reason to
cross you off the list."

But Alou remained patient. "I always thought there would be more
offers," he says. "But I didn't know that there would be one this
good. To be with a contender in a city that I know so well is
almost more than I could have asked for." He may have a
relatively short term as the Giants' manager, but if the team
continues to thrive, that may change. "When the time comes, I
think both sides will know what's right," he says of the
possibility of managing beyond next season. As usual with Alou,
it's all a matter of feel, and right now the feeling couldn't be
better.

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGESCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER LOOKING GOOD Neifi Perez and all the Giants have responded to the Alou style and, as of Sunday, had reeled off five straight wins.COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS FATHER KNOWS BEST A light touch from the paternal Alou, in the clubhouse or in the middle of a dispute, is all Bonds needs.B/W PHOTO: RICHARD MEEK LONG-RUNNING SHOW Over 17 seasons Alou played with five major league teams, including the Giants, Braves (in between Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron) and A's.B/W PHOTO: LEE BALTERMAN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN [See caption above]

Read Phil Taylor's column, The Hot Button, every Monday on
si.com.

"PEOPLE ASK HOW YOU HANDLE BARRY," ALOU SAYS. "THE ANSWER IS, YOU
DON'T HANDLE HIM AT ALL. YOU JUST ALLOW A PLAYER LIKE THAT TO DO
HIS WORK."
"I ALWAYS THOUGHT THERE WOULD BE MORE OFFERS," ALOU SAYS OF
MANAGING A SECOND TIME. "BUT I DIDN'T KNOW THAT THERE WOULD BE
ONE THIS GOOD."