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November 14, 2001
Rany On The Royals
MuserableOn the final day of the 2000 season, Tampa Bay General Manager Chuck LaMar called manager Larry Rothschild into his office, or so the story goes. LaMar was all set to fire Rothschild, but a twinge of conscience overcame him after his manager sat down, and, as in a scene from a bad movie, he changed the subject and gave Rothschild a second chance.
That chance lasted 14 games. Vito Corleone gave his enemies more of an opportunity to make amends.
I am reminded of this when looking at the Royals' curious decision to bring back Tony Muser for an unprecedented sixth year of humiliation. David Glass briefly withdrew his confidence in Muser during the season's final days, and while Allard Baird bargained with Glass to give Muser another shot, all indications are that his reprieve may be no longer than Rothschild's was. If Muser can't bring an end to nearly a half-decade of losing by Mother's Day--if not sooner--he'll be gone.
This is ridiculous. When LaMar brought back Rothschild, he handed him essentially the same team that he piloted in 2000; the only move the Devil Rays made over the winter was to trade Roberto Hernandez and Cory Lidle for Ben Grieve. Did LaMar really think that Rothschild had some secret potion up his sleeve that would allow him to make a contender out of the same group of guys that went 69-92 in 2000? Where did he did think Rothschild spent the off-season, Hogwarts?
The Royals lost 97 games this season, and Baird has already made it clear that if the Royals are to improve to at least .500 and save Muser's job, it's not going to be as a result of a roster overhaul. The Royals already gave out their big contract for the year to keep Brent Mayne in the fold; the only other free agent getting a lot of press is Marty Cordova. You know...the guy who hit .245 with four homers just a season ago.
So it's not only ridiculous; it's unfair. It's unfair to the Royals' players, who have the additional pressure of knowing that another slow start--the team is working on a streak of 12 straight losing Aprils--will doom their manager. It's unfair to the team's fans, who have to endure another wasted off-season while waiting for the axe to finally fall. Hell, it's unfair to Muser, who deserves a clean break now so he can find a new job while so many openings await.
But mostly, it's unfair to the franchise, which deserves to be managed by the best man for the job. That man, whoever he may be, is far more likely to be available in November than in May. When Rothschild was sent packing with a 4-10 record, the season was underway and potential replacements who had been available during the off-season--guys like Jim Tracy--had already been hired elsewhere. Instead, with the season underway and coaches like Chris Chambliss reluctant to leave their teams in the lurch, the Devil Rays were forced to reach into the replacement bin, from which they picked Hal McRae. This was hardly an inspired choice, as under McRae the D-Rays finished with 100 losses--more than they ever had under Rothschild.
Right now, some highly qualified managerial replacements are ripe for the picking. The usual suspects are still there: Buck Showalter hasn't left the broadcast booth yet, and God only knows where Davey Johnson is these days. After getting canned by an organization that has the luxury of considering a season that ended in the Division Series a "failure," the best candidate of all, Larry Dierker, is available.
Dierker has the perfect qualifications for the Royals job, because he has proven skills in exactly those areas where Muser is lacking. Muser has failed to mold even one of the Royals' many fine young arms into a good pitcher? Dierker has developed an entire division's worth of starters, and his success with Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt this year shows it wasn't all due to ex-pitching coach Vern Ruhle. Muser overvalues defense? This season, Dierker went with Julio Lugo as his shortstop, and Lance Berkman in center field, and won the NL Central.
Muser doesn't get the value of plate discipline? The Royals have been out-walked by their opponents by a sick margin during Muser's tenure, a total of 553 walks in the last four years (including 352 walks just in the past two seasons.) During Dierker's five-year reign in Houston, on the other hand, the Astros drew 698 more walks than their opponents. In 1999 alone, they outdrew their opponents by 250 walks, the greatest margin in baseball history.
Yes, his team has lost in the first round of the playoffs four times in the last five years. The Royals once had a manager with the same track record of failure, a guy who led the team to a first-round loss three years in a row, who after falling to second place in his fourth year, was shown the door. Whitey Herzog's next playoff team won the World Series.
No, Dierker is not perfect, but Joe McCarthy is dead and Earl Weaver is content growing tomatoes, so he'll have to do.
The main complaint with Dierker is that he's too soft on his players, that over time he lost the respect of his veterans because he wouldn't make a fuss when, say, a rookie first-stringer cleaned the clock of a veteran bench player in an argument over whose turn it was in the batting cage. But even this might work to the Royals' advantage. One of Muser's main weaknesses is that he is too gruff and inflexible to get along with some of his most talented players. If the Royals replace Muser with a low-stress manager like Dierker, a guy like Mark Quinn might take some of that energy spent fighting his old manager and use it to have a couple of career years on the field. Yes, there's a chance that three years from now, the clubhouse will be in open revolt, but that's a bargain price to pay for a playoff appearance or two.
Let's not kid ourselves, though: it won't happen. Baird loves to talk about how much he appreciates Muser's many talents, like his character, determination, and work ethic. By the time May rolls around and Baird gives Muser that final month to prove how hopelessly inadequate he is for the job, Larry Dierker will probably be safely tucked away in the arms of an organization that appreciates his singular talent: the ability to win.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.