June 9, 2011
The Fallout in Oakland
Friendship can mean everything in baseball. For Bob Geren, it gave him the chance to manage the Athletics for four-plus seasons before he was fired Thursday with his team 27-36 and on a nine-game losing streak. Geren and Athletics general manager Billy Beane grew up in San Diego competing against each other on the baseball field; they become such close friends that Geren served as the best man in Beane's second wedding. According to those close to the Athletics' situation, it also did not hurt that Geren was willing to do whatever Beane asked without ever offering much resistance.
However, friendship and subservience only goes so far and can't save a manager's job when his team is going bad during a season that started with post-season hopes. The Athletics felt they were primed to unseat the Rangers as the American League West champion following a winter in which they bolstered their offense by trading for left fielder Josh Willingham and right fielder David DeJesus and signing designated hitter Hideki Matsui as a free agent. Instead, the Athletics have flopped, though they still have at least a puncher's chance of winning a weak division; they trail the first-place Rangers by eight games.
Willingham's True Average is a fine .295, but DeJesus is at .264 and Matsui has crated to a .209 mark. Beane's off-season makeover had had less of impact than expected, and that is on him.
Anyone who read Moneyball understands Beane holds managers in low regard. Michael Lewis' book portrayed the relationship between Beane and then-manager Art Howe as a bullying one. It was painful to read, especially since Howe is as nice of a person as you would ever want to meet.
Howe was followed by Ken Macha, who was much more hard-nosed. Macha was also more willing to fight back at Beane and was fired just a few days after the Athletics were swept by the Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series.
Beane seemed to find what he was looking for in Geren. However, Geren compiled a 334-376 record, and his high-water mark came last season when the Athletics finished 81-81 on the strength of an outstanding young pitching staff that allowed just 3.86 runs a game, tops in the AL and third-best in the major leagues behind the Padres and Giants.
Geren has a very low-key personality, and the perception of him around baseball was that he was not a good communicator. That came to the surface last month when left-hander Brian Fuentes, filling in as the closer after Andrew Bailey had off-season elbow surgery, blasted Geren for calling his closer into ties games in four consecutive appearances. Fuentes lost all of the decisions, then charged Geren with not communicating with the relievers about their roles or talking to the players in general. Watching from afar as the Rockies' closer, Huston Street, who formerly held that job with the Athletics, felt compelled, without prompting, to text Susan Slusser, the esteemed beat writer with the San Francisco Chronicle, to say that Geren was the worst person he had ever met in sports.
So now the Athletics turn to Bob Melvin to try to get them back into the AL West race as the interim manager. He has not managed since being fired by the Diamondbacks 29 games into the 2009 season; he served as a special assignment scout with the Mets last year, then rejoined the Arizona organization as a special assistant to GM Kevin Towers this season.
Like Geren, Melvin is a low-key guy. However, the differences end there. Melvin is an extremely cerebral manager, befitting his Berkeley pedigree, and has a knack for connecting with his players. Melvin was so well-regarded in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse that there was nearly anarchy by the players when he was fired and replaced by farm director A.J. Hinch. Melvin had a 493-508 record with the Mariners (2003-04) and Diamondbacks (2005-09), and led Arizona to the National League West title and the NLCS in 2007.
Again, the Athletics' season isn't over. The AL West is a weak division, and bridging an eight-game gap certainly isn’t impossible, especially since Melvin seems to be the right man to ease the unrest amongst the players and refocus them. Of course, considering the Athletics are last in the AL and next-to-last in the major leagues in runs scored despite all the off-season additions, it would help just as much if Melvin could hit 30 home runs.