For a man who's been ridiculed, railed against and run down in New England for the past decade, Grady Little surrounds himself with a surprising amount of Red Sox memorabilia. You might think that he would want to put his two years of managing in Boston behind him, that he'd want to block out the ugly memories and uglier insults that are still hurled his way by talk-radio yappers from Nashua to New Haven. But around every bend of his spacious brick home in suburban Charlotte lies another Bay State memento: A large watercolor painting of Fenway Park, a Yawkey Way street sign, a wall of framed lineup cards featuring Boston's 2003 murderers' row of Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
This is an article from the July 8, 2013 issue
"I know it may sound strange to some folks up there, but I don't have a bad word to say about my time in Boston," Little says in a Southern drawl as thick and chewy as salt-water taffy. "The fans up there can be intense, but they just want to win. You can't blame them for that. It doesn't bother me. Never has bothered me. Not a bit."
Little is 63 now: The grandfather of three has been out of professional baseball since 2007, when he parted ways with the Dodgers after two successful seasons, including an unexpected playoff appearance in '06. In his four seasons as a major league manager, Little had a 385--290 record; his .552 winning percentage puts him ahead of Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Sparky Anderson on the alltime list. But Little is remembered for a game he lost—actually, for one decision he made in a game he lost. In Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, with the Red Sox holding a 5--2 lead over the Yankees, Little let a fatigued Pedro Martinez pitch too long into the eighth inning. Martinez coughed up the lead, Boston lost when Aaron Boone homered in the bottom of the 11th, and Little has never heard the end of it since.
"Look, my life is about that moment," he says. "My life is about people judging me on one game when I managed about three thousand. Shoot, I made a decision. The results were bad that day. But I made those same decisions to get us there."
Little takes a gulp from a giant mug of coffee, rubs his messy mop of white hair and flashes a frisky grin. He knows what you want to him to say next. That he screwed up. That he blew it. That he still thrashes around in bed at night screaming, "Posada.... Posada! ... POSADA!" But that's not who he is. If you're waiting for an apology, keep waiting. Because Grady Little regrets nothing.
Little flops into an overstuffed chair in his living room. He's wearing a white shirt, plaid shorts and flip-flops. He doesn't look like a man in exile. He looks like a snowbird living the good life.
When Little agreed to this interview, he knew where it would eventually lead. He has become something of a Zen master when it comes to spotting that look in the eye of a reporter or a Red Sox fan who's tap-dancing around the question everyone wants to ask: Would he make that same decision today?
He will answer it, but give him time. It's been 10 years, what's another hour or two? And before he does, he needs you to understand all the little decisions that led to the moment that has come to define him.
Little played high school baseball in Charlotte, not far from where he's sitting on this sunny May morning. His father, Bill, was a baseball man too; he was working his way up through the Cubs' organization until an injury shattered his ankle nearly to dust. Just like that, his career was over. Bill had three sons and three daughters at home, so he took a job driving for Ryder Truck Lines. Little remembers his father scheduling his long-haul trips around the boys' baseball games. "The girls in our family wore hand-me-down dresses at the same time my dad was buying us new spikes and gloves," says Little. "That's how my sisters tell it anyway."
Grady, the oldest of the boys, developed into an all-state catcher and was drafted by the Braves out of high school in the 15th round in 1968. Around that time his father nudged him to go down to the local drug store and check out a blonde who'd started working there. He did as he was told, and soon he and the girl began dating. After a month or so Little brought Debi home to meet his parents. "My father pulled me aside and said, 'That's not the girl I was talking about.' But as it turns out, she was the right one." Little and Debi are still married 42 years later.
Little's baseball honeymoon wasn't nearly as successful. After three seasons he was still stuck at Class A; the Braves released him and the Yankees picked him up. He never got higher than Double A with them. "I tried to play for seven years, but I couldn't hit," he says. "By the time I was playing in the Yankees' system, I knew I wasn't going to make it to the majors. When they let me go [in 1973], I told them, 'I can't believe you kept me around this long!' "
Despite his lack of talent, the Yankees' brass thought enough of Little to ask him to manage their rookie league team the following season. But before Little reported to spring training, George Steinbrenner, who had bought the team in early 1973, cleaned house. Little's managing career was over before it started. "I was probably the first manager ever fired by George," he says, uncorking a barrel-chested laugh.
With his wife and six-year-old son in tow, Little decided to move to Texas and try his hand at farming cotton. But after four years he was burning to get back into baseball. In 1980 he got a job managing the Orioles' rookie team in Bluefield, W.Va. It paid $4,800 a year. After that it was on to the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns, the Charlotte O's, the Kinston (N.C.) Blue Jays and the Pulaski (Va.) Braves. Just about everywhere Little went, he won. The Braves, whose general manager was Bobby Cox, noticed and kept promoting him. First to Class A Burlington, then to Class A Durham, followed by Double A Greenville and finally Triple A Richmond, where in 1994 he won a championship and was named manager of the year for the fourth time.
In 1996, having climbed the ladder as far as he could in the minors, Little finally got the call that would change his life. Bruce Bochy, the manager of the Padres, needed a bullpen coach. Little didn't even bother talking it over with his wife. "There was no discussion with Debi and there was no discussion about salary," he says. "I just said, 'Yeah, let's go!' When you'd been through what my family and I had been through, [I] felt like a player who gets called up to the majors. You're getting a chance to change your life."
After a season in San Diego, Little was tapped by Jimy Williams, another Cox disciple, to be his bench coach in Boston. From 1997 through '99, Little watched Williams grapple with and get dog-piled by the notoriously fickle New England media. "Jimy would never listen to talk radio and he would advise everybody else not to," Little says. "They were still talking about Bill Buckner and a play that Johnny Pesky made in 1946! This may sound goofy, but I figure the winters up in Boston are so long that people get cooped up and get cabin fever for six months. And when they finally get out in the good weather in this beautiful historic city, they're in a traffic jam the whole time. That'll make you pessimistic."
In 2000 Little moved on to Cleveland as Charlie Manuel's bench coach. Then in '02, after 16 years managing in the minors and six more coaching in the majors, at age 52, Little was finally given the chance he'd been waiting for: Boston hired Little to be its manager in mid-March, just three weeks before the season started. He had to hit the ground running and make sense of his new roster fast. He liked what he saw. "We jumped off to a heck of a start," he says. "We had 93 wins that first season, but the Yankees and Oakland both won more than a hundred."
The next year's team will forever be remembered as the "Cowboy Up" Red Sox—a long-haired band of merry pranksters who let their freak flags fly and played as if there were a bonus awarded for having the muddiest uniform. The names are as revered in Boston as Adams and Revere: Ramirez, Big Papi, Pedro, Nomar, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar. "Grady allowed you to just be who you were," says Millar, who's now an MLB Network analyst. "We called him Country, and he was one of my favorite managers—if not my favorite, period. We had so many unique personalities on that team. That team set the foundation for the 2004 World Series team. Grady doesn't get enough credit for that."
The Dirt Dogs went 95--67 in 2003, snatching a wild-card berth. They faced the A's in the first round of the playoffs and quickly went down 0--2 before clawing their way back to win the next three games and the series. Next up: the Yankees in the ALCS. This was how it was supposed to be. If the Red Sox were going to finally win the World Series, they had to go through the Bronx.
Naturally, the series came down to a Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. Sox fans had groused about Little not starting Martinez on short rest in Game 6, but the manager's gamble to hold him back for the deciding game had paid off: Boston won Game 6, and Martinez started out the next night by pitching seven masterly innings, striking out eight, walking just one and allowing only six hits and two runs. But the bottom of the seventh was a bit of a struggle: After getting two quick outs, he allowed a solo home run to Jason Giambi and then back-to-back singles. He struck out Alfonso Soriano to end the rally, and as he walked off the mound, Martinez pointed skyward—the usual signal that his work was done for the night. He had thrown 100 pitches.
Little says he's never watched the game again. It says something about the man that when he's asked about what came next—his decision to send Martinez back out in the eighth to protect Boston's three-run lead—his first reaction is to compliment his player. "Pedro was the best pitcher I ever coached," he says. "I can't pinpoint my exact thinking at that moment, but we'd been hitting and missing with the bullpen all season. They did a great job in that series, but I'm not just reflecting on two or three games, I'm reflecting on 170. That's where the thinking of stretching Pedro came in."
Martinez was Little's ace that year—he was 14--4 during the regular season, with a league-leading 2.22 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 1862/3 innings. The reliever waiting in the Red Sox bullpen was lefthander Alan Embree, who had a 4.25 ERA. But there were other factors to consider. Overall, Martinez had held opponents to a .215 batting average that year, but his effectiveness waned as he fatigued: after his 100th pitch in a game, opponents hit .298 against him. And lately Embree had been pitching well—in the postseason he had retired 17 of the 21 hitters he'd faced and not allowed a run.
Martinez began the eighth by getting Nick Johnson to pop up. Then Derek Jeter laced a double. Bernie Williams followed with a line-drive single to center, scoring Jeter. It was 5--3. Little walked out to the mound.
"I was right there when Grady came out," says Millar. "Pedro wanted the ball. Grady was basically saying, 'Let's go big fella.' He was positive. Pedro was positive. People always need a scapegoat. And I'm telling you right now, if Pedro leaves that game and Grady goes to the bullpen and we give up those runs and lose? He is killed in Boston."
After returning to the dugout, Little watched the horse he'd bet on all season give up a ground-rule double to Hideki Matsui, followed by a broken-bat bloop hit to center by Jorge Posada that tied the game. You know the rest: extra innings. Tim Wakefield. Aaron Bleepin' Boone. Yet another shiv to the heart of Red Sox Nation.
After patiently listening to my play-by-play, Little reaches for his coffee, finds it empty and returns to the question: Would he make the same decision today? Would he leave Martinez in the game? "I know a lot of people would like to know, but I can't sit here and tell them exactly," Little says. "All I can say is, I didn't treat it any differently than any other game that I'd gone through the previous five or six months. I look back sometimes and say, What if I had taken him out? What would have happened? We don't know. I was in the third base dugout watching it. All these people who were forming opinions about Grady Little, where were they sitting? It was so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think. Where were they sitting? They were sitting somewhere else."
When the season was over, the angry mob on Yawkey Way needed a head on a pike. On Oct. 27, 2003, Grady Little was let go as manager of the Boston Red Sox.
In 2004, Terry Francona led Boston to its first World Series championship in 86 years—with largely the same team that Little had managed. The Curse was finally lifted. Bill Buckner was forgiven. And Grady Little was a man without a job.
Little signed on with the Cubs for a couple of years, scouting and evaluating their farm system before being given a second chance to manage, with the Dodgers in 2006. There, Little did what he'd always done: He won, going 170--154 in '06 and '07. But something had changed. Winning didn't feel the same. "I started to feel the same way after a five-game losing streak as I felt after a five-game winning streak," he says. "I knew that wasn't right. I'd been going for a lot of years. And at that time I thought, I don't want to do this anymore."
After his second year in L.A., Little and G.M. Ned Colletti decided it was time for Little to move on. He moved back to Charlotte, and for the first time in decades he saw what a life away from the game was like. He could join Debi and the grandkids at Memorial Day barbecues and spend the Fourth of July putting around on a pontoon boat. He could hop on his candy-apple-red Yamaha motorcycle and take off without wondering who his starter would be the next day. "I got to see all of the things I've been missing my whole life," he says.
Still, as much as he has enjoyed his time away from baseball, he admits that he still gets an itch every March when pitchers and catchers report for work ... and Grady Little doesn't. Perhaps that's why he recently started coaching high school kids at the nearby Hickory Grove Christian School. He may be the most overqualified varsity coach in America.
As the noonday heat starts to die down, we take a drive to the school's ball field. It's set back on a bluff and shaded by tall pine trees. There's not a soul around at this time of day, but the sound of crickets is deafening. Little gets out of his car and reaches into his pocket for a tin of Copenhagen, wedges a pinch under his lip and takes a deep breath of the freshly cut grass. "You know, you might physically walk away from the game, but your heart never leaves it," he says. "If a coaching opportunity came around, I'm ready to go back to work. I have the energy and the will to help an organization."
For now a North Carolina high school diamond will do just fine. Little spits out some tobacco juice and looks off into the distance somewhere past the 350 sign in straightaway center. "It may not be Yankee Stadium, and it may not be Fenway Park, but it's baseball."
Five Completely Trivial Things We Learned About Grady Little
Over six seasons as a minor league catcher in the Braves' and the Yankees' organizations, Little hit just two HRs. Does he remember both? "When you have that few, how can you not?"
Both of Little's brothers are involved in pro ball: Bryan, a 2B for the Expos, White Sox and Yankees from 1982 through '86, is a scout for the White Sox; and Tom is an adviser to amateur players.
As the technical consultant on Bull Durham in 1988, Little's job was to make Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins look like ballplayers. Costner, he says, was a natural. Robbins? Not so much. "It was a project to make it look like he was throwing 100 miles an hour."
The move he's most proud of: acquiring David Ortiz in early 2003 and then putting him into the Sox' every-day lineup in July, in place of Opening Day DH Jeremy Giambi.
His Manny-being-Manny story: The time Ramirez—"a misperceived character"—took rookie Shea Hillenbrand out in New York City and bought him several custom-made suits and pairs of dress shoes. "You don't hear those stories about Manny; they're too positive," he says.