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September 5, 2007
In the Interim
Pete Mackanin's Second Chance
Pete Mackanin virtually spent a lifetime in the minor leagues waiting for a chance to manage in the major leagues, logging 1,766 games in 13 seasons as a skipper down on the farm. Now, Mackanin is Cincinnati's interim manager, taking over July 1 after Jerry Narron was fired when the Reds got off to a 31-51 start. The Reds have gone 31-26 since the switch, and even got within 6 ½ games of the National League Central lead, until the current skid of seven losses in nine games dropped them from the fringe of contention. Still, not too shabby, considering that the Reds were a season-worst 16 ½ games behind when Mackanin took over.
While Mackanin is still waiting to see whether he will get the job on a permanent basis, all those years in the minor leagues obviously sharpened his sense of humor. When asked if he thought he might be the National League Manager of the Year for guiding the Reds from oblivion all the way to being within shouting distances of the division leaders, Mackanin didn't miss a beat. "I think I'm going to be Interim Manager of the Year," Mackanin said. "I think I'm going to win it, I really do." Of course, Mackanin is the only interim manager in the major leagues at the moment. Baltimore's Dave Trembley initially had that title when he was promoted from bullpen coach to manager on June 18 after the Orioles fired Sam Perlozzo. However, Trembley was named the permanent manager on August 22, at which point the Orioles promptly lost 30-3 to the Texas in the first game of a doubleheader that night to launch a nine-game losing streak. Similarly, although Seattle's John McLaren was promoted from bench coach when Mariners manager Mike Hargrove shockingly resigned July 1, he was not given the interim tag, even though his contract only goes through the end of this season.
"I guess you can look at it as somewhat of an awkward situation, but I don't," said Mackanin, who was serving as the Reds' advance scout when Narron was axed. "I'm not trying to do anything differently than I would if I didn't have 'interim' in front of my name. I'm just doing what it takes to win as many ballgames as possible and keep the organization on the right track, just like any other manager would. I don't think you can do this job any other way."
If nothing else, Mackanin has given those in decision-making positions something to think about when it comes time to pick a permanent manager. While it was once thought that Reds owner Bob Castellini would look to bring in a high-profile manager, unless Tony La Russa does not return to St. Louis next season, that could be changing. "All of us have been impressed with Pete," Castellini said. "He has a nice way about him. He communicates well with the players."
Mackanin is someone who immediately makes those around him feel comfortable. However, he also has the innate ability to draw a line, and his players know not the cross it. "I love the guy, and I think everyone in clubhouse loves the guy," Reds left fielder Adam Dunn said. "He just has a great way of making everyone relax. He's a funny guy and he keeps things loose, but he's not the type of guy you're going to walk all over. We know he is in charge and we respect that. It's not like we're looking at him as the substitute teacher and we're just having fun until the regular teacher comes back."
"I hate making excuses and I hate blaming the manager, but there was kind of a negative haze here," Reds first baseman Scott Hatteberg said. "Pete is much more upbeat. He tries to be around and keep guys loose. He's preaching a fun, more optimistic atmosphere, and I think guys appreciate it."
While the Orioles moved to give Trembley a one-year contract extension through 2008 with a club option for 2009, there is no indication the Reds will make a decision on Mackanin until the end of the season. "It's two completely different situations," Mackanin said. "I don't think what happened with Trembley in Baltimore can hurt me, but I don't know if it will help me."
What would really help Mackanin is some decent pitching. The Reds have allowed 5.36 runs a game, 15th in the 16-team NL, ahead of only Florida (5.40). Aaron Harang has proven to be the worth the four-year, $36.5-million contract he received in the offseason, as he has been the Reds' only consistent starting pitcher; his 5.3 SNLVAR ranks eighth in the NL. Bronson Arroyo was expected to be a co-ace after signing a two-year, $25-million contract extension in the offseason that carries through 2010; although effective (he has a 3.2 SNLVAR), it's something less than they expected after his 2006 season. Nobody else in the rotation is above 1.2. Likewise, the bullpen really only has one member that it can count on, closer David Weathers. His 3.495 WXRL ranks ninth in the NL, but he's also the only Reds' pitcher among the top 50.
The Reds' offense is among the best in the NL as it ranks fourth with an average of 4.86 runs a game, but much of that is the product of a hitter-friendly ballpark; as a team, they rate a much more mediocre eighth in team Equivalent Average. Dunn (39.0 VORP) and right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. (37.5) are leading the way, while second baseman Brandon Phillips (30.8), Hatteberg (25.7), and center fielder Josh Hamilton (22.7) have also been significant contributors. Though General Manager Wayne Krivsky has been much maligned for some of his moves, he picked Phillips off the scrap heap in a minor trade with Cleveland, and signed Hatteberg as a low-cost free agent. He also gambled on getting Hamilton through the Rule 5 Draft, though he had not played at all from 2003-05 while battling drug addiction, and had only appeared in 15 short-season A-ball-level games at Hudson Valley last year before having knee surgery.
However, Krivsky hasn't been quite as adept at acquiring pitchers, though he did get Arroyo from Boston in a trade for outfielder Wily Mo Pena last year. "There is no doubt we can hit with anybody in the league," Reds catcher David Ross said. "We can outscore teams on any given night, but it's tough to try outscore teams every game. We have the makings of a good pitching staff, but we need more depth."
Mackanin echoes those thoughts and has confidence Krivsky can fill the pitching holes in the offseason to make the Reds competitive next year. However, Mackanin wonders if he will be around next season to see it. Mackanin also served as Pittsburgh's interim manager in the final weeks of the 2005 season after Lloyd McClendon was fired, and although he led the Pirates to a 12-14 record, he was not asked to interview for the permanent job, which instead went to Jim Tracy. While it may not seem like much, Mackanin's .462 winning percentage is the best by a Pirates manager since Chuck Tanner left for Atlanta after the 1985 season.
"It's hard to pursue this job because there's so much politics involved and so much else involved in it, but that being the case, I'm thrilled even to be doing this," Mackanin said. "If this is the extent of it, I'm extremely happy because I'd like to think I've helped make at least something of a difference. "I'd certainly like to have a chance to take a club from the first day through a whole season, but it's out of my hands."