August 16, 2010
The Last of The Czars
Just when you were convinced that managing was a thoroughly debased profession, along comes Buck Showalter. Five clubs have changed managers in the course of this season (Arizona, Baltimore, Florida, Kansas City, and Seattle), which wouldn’t have been a shocking number from the 1960s through the 1980s, but is high for the current era. Back in the 1920s, Giants manager John McGraw said, “With my team I am an absolute czar. My men know it. I order plays and they obey. If they don't, I fine them.” Did Don Wakamatsu look like the czar of anything to you? For that matter, does Jerry Manuel?
During the 1960 season, six teams changed managers, which is impressive given that there were only 16 teams at the time. Including interim skippers, 26 men got to pretend they were czars that year. They added two teams the next season and fired one more manager. The seven teams canning managers that season remains the all-time high for teams making a voluntary in-season change (as opposed to the manager taking time off for illness, dying on the job, or being suspended a la Pete Rose), although the figure has been equaled five times, most recently in 2002, when Don Baylor, Buck Martinez, Davey Lopes, and Tony Muser apparently had the uniform torn from their backs for the last time (Charlie Manuel, Phil Garner, and Buddy Bell would live on to fight another day).
In recent years it has been more typical for about four skippers a year to be sacked in season, although in recent years we’ve twice had the full complement make it through the year unscathed. The casualty list going back to 2000:
What is remarkable about the bloodletting is that there is certainly more to come, even if there are no more changes between now and October; by next spring, the managerial cadre will look vastly different than it does now. Bobby Cox, Lou Piniella, and Cito Gaston are retiring. Joe Torre seems likely either to join them on the beach or relocate given his age and the Dodgers being run by the Bickersons. Kirk Gibson, Edwin Rodriguez, and Daren Brown still bear the “interim” title and could be replaced. Dusty Baker is a free agent, as is Tony LaRussa. Ozzie Guillen clashes with Kenny Williams. Ken Macha doesn’t seem secure. No one is quite sure why Jerry Manuel is still around. It could be that by April, 2011, half the teams will have changed skippers.
We have arrived either at a generational changing of the guard or the point where managers have become such a homogenized product that they have become virtually interchangeable. Innovation in managing stopped with LaRussa’s decision to visit the pitcher’s mound as often as a man with a swollen prostate visits the bathroom. Cox stopped platooning 20 years ago, and now his main on-field tactic is to reflexively issue intentional walks. Mike Scioscia, once a canny avatar of pitching, defense, and high-average hitting, has so fetishized his own values that he has made an icon of Jeff Mathis. There is one truly creative manager working today, and his name is Joe Maddon. Yet, for all his varying lineups, his making his catcher his leadoff man, his continual repurposing of Ben Zobrist, and his refusal to make more of Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac than either one of them is, Maddon still runs a conventional pitching staff and bullpen, unwilling to break with LaRussian orthodoxy (the revolutionaries are now the establishment) at its most sclerotic.
Even Maddon’s flexibility isn’t original, representing rediscovered Stengelian roster management. With original thinkers either unwelcome at the major-league level or simply extinct, McGraw’s czars have been reduced to variations on the same theme, largely hollow leadership figures who are there to remind their young charges that they must play and win to earn their pay and to peddle pabulum to the press. There is no manager bold enough to use his closer in the fifth inning instead of the ninth, or the second; to abjure the perverse belief that it is better to face a left-handed hitter with a bad left-handed pitcher than a good right-hander; to eschew a bulging bullpen in favor of a well-stocked bench. These freethinking managers, if they exist, apparently need not apply.
Ironically, the closest thing we may have to a breath of fresh air is Showalter, who is actually 45 years old and has been managing on and off for 18 years, 25 if you include his minor-league work, which he began in the New York-Penn League back in 1985 (where he managed a teenaged Al Leiter). Showalter is something so old and anachronistic that it has become new again: he’s a legitimate hard-ass, not a corporation man but a control freak with, if not original ideas as far as on-field tactics—with the 2006 Rangers he barely pulled any strings at all—strong feelings about attitude and comportment. Their salaries and job security dwarfed by the modern zillionaire player, managers long ago gave up on McGraw’s czar routine. Showalter hasn’t gotten the message.
“You don’t want him on you,” Adam Jones, whose .251/.274/.382 first two months helped sink the Orioles at their moorings. No doubt Showalter’s grouchy magic, “that scowl,” Jones called it, will work for awhile, as it has worked so far, the Orioles going 9-4 under their new manager. Indeed, it will work until any recalcitrant players realize that their contracts are valid whether Showalter likes them or not. Illusions may fall faster if Showalter indulges in tactics like those of Arizona, where he made Tony Womack his starting right fielder and leadoff man (in 1999; you could look it up) and got run out of the playoffs by a Mets team which did not boast Randy Johnson at the peak of his powers, or notice panicky, Queeg-like moments like the one in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS when Showalter abandoned floundering closer John Wetteland in favor of 147 pitches from David Cone and Jack McDowell on one day’s rest.
So in Showalter we have the last of the czars, but you know what happened to the czars. We’re still waiting on a man of brains, daring, and substance, not just haughty attitude. As for the four other managerial transactions, they were much rearranging of furniture, one Ken doll in a windbreaker replacing another. There are examples of clubs responding heroically to a change of manager. Charlie Grimm was on both ends of that reaction in the 1930s. In 1932, the Cubs fired Rogers Hornsby and replaced him with Grimm, and the team won the pennant. In 1938, the Cubs fired Grimm and elevated Gabby Hartnett, and the team won the pennant. That kind of turnaround is unlikely to happen now, because the contrast in styles and personalities has become so muted by conventional thinking. Neither Wakamatsu nor Fredi Gonzalez nor even the much-derided A.J. Hinch have seen their successors improve on their records in any substantive way, which suggests both that the fault was not with the deposed managers but with the teams themselves, as well as that the replacements haven’t brought anything new to the table. Dave Trembley and Trey Hillman are the exceptions here only because they may have been genuinely incompetent.
As the managers fall over the rest of the season and over the winter, we can hope for someone new who will shock baseball the way McGraw, Stengel, or even LaRussa did, but the most likely result was predicted by Pete Townshend in 1971 when he wrote, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”