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October 9, 2000
The Managerial Shuffle
Here Come the Retreads
Now that Davey Johnson's pink slip has surfaced from a long lurk in the Dodgers' interoffice mail, there are five managers out of work. Within the next couple of weeks, we'll probably see Jimy Williams and Jim Fregosi join the list. While it makes for nifty trivia that no manager was fired in-season, the firings mean something slightly different for each of the teams. The usual crocodile tears are being shed for the public's benefit about how Buck Showalter, Gene Lamont, Terry Francona and Jack McKeon all deserve better, but what are the really important elements of these firings, and the hirings yet to come? And how much recycling are we going to have accept this time around?
If Jack McKeon was cranky enough to sue over the question of whether or not he was fired because of age discrimination, his dismissal would be a particularly interesting case. If Jim Bowden ends up selecting Bob Boone as McKeon's replacement, it would be Bowden who would have given greater evidence of age-related handicaps like memory loss. Has everyone forgotten Boone's ineptitude as a manager during his stints with Tacoma and Kansas City? There's a hint of a glaucoma problem here if Boone gets the job, at least as far as what George Bush called "the vision thing." Firing the oft-recycled McKeon for someone who hasn't demonstrated any core competency to deserve recycling strikes me as poor judgment on a par with acquiring Fonzie Bichette or Ruben Sierra. On a similar level of irrelevance, Bowden is supposed to be considering Hal McRae, last seen as the Phillies' hitting coach. I don't know what the fascination with uninspired and uninspiring ex-Royals managers represents, but it isn't a good thing. Why not dig up Duke Wathan? If the objective is to bring back Davey Johnson, that's fine, but if the choices are limited to Ken Griffey's dad and some ex-Royal flops, then Bowden isn't rating the job as one with any real importance.
As for Arizona, we can only probably rule out Cotton Fitzsimmons, because the early buzz is that Jerry Colangelo is also supposed to be interested in the Terry Francona popularity contest. Since Francona's greatest strength is his facility at working the press and gaining its sympathy, it looks like the Snakes are overreacting to a media that turned on Buck Showalter for failing to turn his pre-game interviews into industry-standard backslapping and gladhanding sessions. The buddy system seems to be in full swing, because the only other candidates being mentioned are team broadcaster Bob Brenly (who's impossible to dislike, even if you don't remember him from his playing days) and coach Carlos Tosca. All of these men will have to accept less responsibility in the organization than Showalter had, which means more responsibility for Joe Garagiola Jr. and the Colangelo cronies. Trying to believe that that's a good thing will take an awful lot of Kool-Aid.
With managers like Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson and Jimy Williams possibly floating around this winter, Gene Lamont will probably have to settle for the waystation of slipping into another coaching job. There are reasonable questions about whether or not Lamont deserves to be criticized for his handling of Aramis Ramirez and Chad Hermansen in recent years, as well as Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova. On a certain level, it's hard to fault Lamont with what appears to be an organization-wide problem as far as identifying and developing hitting talent.
Lamont just needs to thank his lucky stars that he's no longer tied to Cam Bonifay. The fact that Bonifay is seriously considering Terry Francona should spell out how grim the future could be for the Pirates. Francona has translated his singular experience of managing Michael Jordan in Birmingham into four seasons of demonstrating a profound talent for trashing his pitching staff from top to bottom. Firing Terry Francona was long overdue, and is even the subject of some hope among the Phillies disgruntled-yet-faithful.
Because of the Pirates' state of haphazard chaos and wishful thinking, hiring Buck Showalter to become the organization's generalissimo would probably be the closest thing to progress. However, keep in mind that Showalter, while thoughtful and hard-working, did not demonstrate the same eye for talent with the Snakes that he had with the Yankees, where he had the benefit of a better group of people working in player development than he had with the Snakes. Buck also had the advantage of having managed in the organization's minor leagues to gain familiarity with the players destined to become Yankees.
The Phillies, freed from Francona's uninspired and uninspiring rule, are supposed to be considering Bob Boone, Dutch Daulton or Third Base Coach for Life John Vukovich. Ed Wade already has to live down the Francona hiring, so burdening the organization with Boone would probably wreck any chance he has to finally turn the Phillies around. Daulton would be popular, which isn't a bad thing. However, hiring him would require some very thoughtful considerations for who would fill the jobs of bench coach (to help Daulton), hitting coach (to try to get Travis Lee's career back on track) and pitching coach (if you can't get Larry Andersen out of the booth, bring up Gorm Heimueller). Marc Bombard managed at Scranton this year, and has one of the best records in the minors in terms of winning consistently. He deserves more than token consideration, whether it's as the manager or as Daulton's bench coach and managing instructor.
The real crime is that one of the better managerial prospects in baseball, Chris Chambliss, is not getting even token consideration. Chambliss' continuing "problem" appears to be his inability to BS his way through an interview. This isn't exactly tragic, because Chambliss has been an important coach for the Yankees during their championship run, but the man earned his shot years ago. Other guys (and the organizations they're currently affiliated with) that I'd like to see get a chance include Gary Jones (Red Sox), Grady Little (Red Sox), Ken Macha (Athletics), Greg Biagini (Rangers) and Rick Down (Dodgers). Macha is on several short lists and may get some consideration for the jobs with the Reds, Pirates and Red Sox, while Little is supposed to be the default setting at manager if the Duke manages to maneuver Jimy Williams out of the job, only to find everyone else is no longer available. Like Little, Down is supposed to be the internal candidate for the Dodgers' job in case nobody else can be found.
Now, while I've consistently trashed Terry Francona so far, keep in mind that all managers have some strengths and some weaknesses. In Francona's case, the strengths seem limited to personal charisma and a positive relationship with the media, but that can be an important criterion in what is after all an entertainment industry. But considerations of this sort, like Buck Showalter's fascination with dress codes, have to be considered secondary skills to the more basic issue of whether or not the guy can manage.
There is an advantage to considering managers with outstanding track records and little name recognition: it is, after all, the pool from which managers like Earl Weaver, Tony LaRussa or Davey Johnson came from, while "famous" managers like Don Baylor or Phil Garner don't have a lot to recommend them considering their performance as managers after talking or whining their way into jobs.
There's also a list of good managers from the "default" pool, the guys who get the jobs that nobody else wanted, whether it was Tom Kelly with the Twins or Mike Hargrove with the Indians. If Down or Little finally get their opportunities with the Dodgers and Red Sox, it could turn out better than anyone expects. What Red Sox fan doesn't remember the improbable success of the Joe Morgan era? However, they're both stepping into situations where expectations outstrip reality, and where they could just as easily be dumped as fall guys for their GMs.
In the case of retreads like Francona or Bob Boone or Hal McRae or (shudder) Kevin Kennedy, there are precedents that some of them deserve a break, especially when you consider the modest beginnings of the careers of managers like Bobby Cox, Bobby Valentine, Whitey Herzog, Jack McKeon, and even Casey Stengel. The question for a retread has to be whether or not the manager has demonstrated some core skills that a team that wants to help itself would want. I think I've conveyed the amount of doubt I hold that Francona, Boone, or McRae will grow up to be the next Herzog or Stengel.
Chris Kahrl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.