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June 6, 2002

Breaking Balls

Meet the Press

by Derek Zumsteg

John Boles doesn't know this, but for a time he was one of my favorite people. Every week, as I put together The Week in Quotes, I went through all the wire game recaps of two teams and gorged myself. Tony Muser was always good for a couple of lines, but John Boles was quote gold. He was smart, funny, and honest, and prone to saying things like "Preston Wilson is not playing after he gets two (more) strikeouts. Pope John Paul II could speak ex cathedra and demand that I play him, and it won't happen."

Under Boles, the Marlins were thought to be underperforming. The media attacked him for not having major-league playing experience, for not picking fights with the umps like other managers (and thereby generating a story), and for losing control of the clubhouse. When Dan Miceli provided evidence for their thesis by ripping Boles, they ate it up. The Marlins subsequently fired Boles. Since then, Boles hasn't been offered another managerial job, Bud Selig gave then-Marlins owner John Henry the Red Sox, and now the Fish are badly managed by Jeff Torborg.

Boles is the most obvious example for me of how the media coverage of managers leads to poor decision making and harms the quality of the game on the field. Teams could have better managers, and the media is part of the reason they don't. A manager's ability to glad-hand the local and national media is a primary factor in their hiring, and has led to qualified candidates being overlooked year after year. Owners are reluctant to hire a talented guy who will immediately attract a hailstorm of criticism, especially when the alternative is a consensus good guy who will net a lot of good press and help sell tickets.

At the Seattle Pizza Feed, Rob Neyer and I disagreed over whether lineup construction had any significant effect on a team's offense (I argued the affirmative, Rob the negative; this means the smart money is betting "no"). Rob argued that the difference between the best and worst lineups was trivial, and his trump argument was "Even if there was a difference, it'd be worth it to set up your lineup conventionally just to keep the press off your back."

Rob is right. At the start of this season the A's weighed their options and batted high-OBP plodder Jeremy Giambi leadoff. He got on base like crazy, and scored runs despite his lack of speed: he was on base 62 times and scored 26 runs, a better rate than speed demon Ichiro Suzuki (115, 45), who has better hitters behind him. Howe's reward for this successful gamble was to be attacked, week in and week out, by columnists for not having speed at the top of the order to create opportunities, to manufacture runs when the home run wasn't not working, ad nauseum. People who had had Hall of Fame careers drawing walks and who never laid down more than 10 sac bunts in a season tore Art Howe for not moving runners over enough.

Twice a day, every game day, Art Howe has to talk to reporters as the A's struggle to compete. It was an easy story for writers-who'd grown up in an era where the stolen base to home run ratio was much closer to 1:1-to blame the team's offensive problems on a lack of old-school baseball. While I don't think Art Howe is a great manager, he has better things to do with his time than put up with a gaggle of reporters asking him what he thinks about National Columnist's opinion that they should bat leadoff. Faced with the same choice again, Howe is going to be reluctant to try something similar, even though it clearly worked.

The constant press attention forces managers to be taciturn and talk in vague generalities. Bobby Cox knows this and is smart about it. In the years I've been tracking quotes, he's never slagged his players, because he knows the pack of reporters will go to that player, tell the player what Cox said, then try and goad him into a reaction. Then Cox is going to have to soothe things over, and he'd rather be watching video or betting his coaches whether they can turn a dead guy into a serviceable reliever (smart money here, folks? Yes). So Cox talks around it, finds something good to say, and moves on.

The media plays a significant role in the retention of managers. The ones who have excellent relationships with local media--Phil Garner was the high epopt of their secret club--are rarely taken to task for their failures. When rumors surface about their jobs being in jeopardy, columns start to run on how it's not the manager's fault his teams suck, his players all love him, and he's nice to puppies. Beat reporters get paid the same whether the team is good or bad, and a quote-happy manager willing to feed you the occasional tidbit on the side is a huge boon to making your quota of column inches every day.

It works the other way, too. Larry Dierker is a smart guy, and when he sometimes failed to supply the correct quote-for-the-game ("We came up short, but the effort was there."-- (tm) Jim Tracy) and instead tried to explain something in any sort of depth, you could almost sense the annoyance in the post-game write ups. Players who had cozier relationships and reputations as team leaders had the ear of the reporters, and when the team went through a rough spell, they turned on him. Copy was turned in and Dierker had "lost the clubhouse." The death watch started.

I'm as guilty as this as anyone. I'd love to hire interns to follow Rickey Henderson and Doug Glanville around and write down everything they said for TWiQ. I want quality information, though. I'm interested in why managers make their decisions, and "putting pressure on the defense" isn't even as good an answer as "it felt right." I like to listen to Dusty Baker talk about why he did things that don't make sense to me but win him ball games, year after year. I'd like to see inventive managers rewarded and not strung up for trying something weird.

The ideal solution is a more open, intelligent press corps willing to write a smart story and not as eager to exploit disagreements. That isn't going to happen soon in an industry where Bob Kravitz still gets paid to sit down with his crayons and attack opposing players who'll be in town for the next homestand.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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