October 7, 2009
On the Beat
This time last year, Jim Tracy was about as far removed from the postseason as a man who spent almost his entire adult life in professional baseball could get. That's because Tracy spent the 2008 season out of the game; he had been fired by the Pirates after the 2007 season following a two-year run as their manager, one that saw his teams go 135-189. Tracy had a house on a golf course in suburban Pittsburgh, and spent the year working on his game on the links when he wasn't watching his son play catcher at Duquesne University. Tracy's chances of managing in the major leagues anytime soon appeared slim. He was just focused on getting some kind of job in baseball.
Yet, as the postseason starts today, Tracy will be one of eight managers trying to guide his team to a World Series championship, as the interim manager of the Rockies, who won the NL Wild Card and now get to face the Phillies in the National League Division Series. It's pretty amazing stuff for a man who was just happy to be in uniform when spring training began, that just because Rockies manager Clint Hurdle reached out to a former rival in the NL West-Tracy managed the Dodgers from 2001-05-and asked him to be his bench coach. When the Rockies got off to an 18-28 start, Hurdle was fired on May 29. and general manager Dan O'Dowd asked Tracy to assume the manager's job on an interim basis.
Tracy told O'Dowd he wanted time to think about it. O'Dowd said he had only one hour to make a decision, because the Rockies were hosting the Padres that night and they needed someone to run the club. Tracy talked it over with his wife, and decided to give managing another shot. "I really felt our club was capable of playing better, and maybe I could do some things to help it perform better," Tracy said.
The Rockies have been a different club since Tracy took the helm. They went 74-42 following the switch to finish with a 90-72 record and earn their second playoff berth in three years. While Tracy did not ask O'Dowd to overhaul the roster, nor did he make sweeping changes in the way the personnel were being utilized, he did make a few alterations. Clint Barmes and Ian Stewart had basically been splitting the second-base duties during the first two months of the season, but Tracy decided to use them both as regulars, making Barmes the everyday second baseman and moving Stewart back to his natural position at third base, which relegated the slumping Garrett Atkins to a reserve role. Tracy's other important lineup decision to give increased playing time to Seth Smith in left field as the season wore on. Barmes' EqA was just .243 but he did hit 23 home runs. Stewart's .261 EqA wasn't eye-popping but it was improvement over Atkins' .225 mark and he belted 25 homers. Smith finished with a .294 EqA, which was an upgrade over Ryan Spilborgh's .241.
Those who spend time around the Rockies say that seemingly every move Tracy has made since taking over has been the correct one, but Tracy dismisses the idea that it is a Midas touch on his part that has gotten the Rockies this far. He says it is just a matter of understanding his players' strengths. "I go back to something I learned from Felipe Alou, who was my mentor when I first started coaching in the major leagues back in '95 (with the Expos), and I've always worked under this premise, is that I do things I feel at the time are right," Tracy said. "They may not work out. They may be easily second-guessed as a result of them not working out. But something he said to me that never, ever goes away is it's my job to gain a real understanding as to what my players can and cannot do. I rarely, if ever, have asked one of my players to do something that I know in my mind that in sending them out there that this is not a real good forum for their skill set. And I think if you expose your players to situations that make the most sense for their abilities that it's OK to think that this is going to work out. It may not but I don't ever have to walk into my office and feel like I've compromised the abilities of one of my players. I think that's the way you do it and that's how you do it correctly."
If Reggie Jackson was the player most readily thought of when you ask, 'who's Mr. October?', then Joe Torre is surely the managerial version. Torre will be making his 14th consecutive post-season appearance tonight when he leads the Dodgers into the NLDS against the Cardinals. This year, he has guided the Dodgers to their first back-to-back NL West titles since 1977-78 this year, that after taking the Yankees to the postseason in each season of his 12-year run from 1996-2007.
Torre isn't slowing down at age 69 and admits that changing coasts last year re-energized him after being fired by the Yankees following the 2007 season when they lost in the American League Division Series for a third straight year. "Never in my wildest dreams, if six or eight years ago you'd tell me I'd be out here in California still managing, it would have been hard to believe because when I was managing the Yankees, I wouldn't have thought I would have the energy to start over again," Torre said. "I don't think even though you're successful at one place that it automatically exempts you from working hard and trying to get things done here. But it worked out great and I have to thank my family for being so supportive and helping make the decision. And it's been fun here these two years. It's been very different from New York, except this time of year when it's all the same. You're still out there trying to win."
The Yankees had the best record in the major leagues during the regular season, going 103-59 to bounce back from missing the postseason for the first time since 1993 last year. While the Yankees enter the postseason as the favorites to win their first World Series since 2000, they do have one potential handicap. Joe Girardi is the only manager in the postseason who has never managed a post-season game. Girardi was promoted from bench coach by the Yankees to replace Torre prior to last season, and his team finished third in the AL East behind the Rays and Red Sox in his first campaign with the club.
"As far as feeling that I'm at a disadvantage, I don't," Girardi said. "I've been in the postseason as a player. I've been in the postseason as a coach. (Rays manager) Joe Maddon really didn't have any experience last year when he entered the postseason; they made it all the way to the World Series. It'll still come down to the preparation you put in and then managing the game. I think the interesting thing about baseball is on Opening Day you have butterflies. There are certain times during the season that you have butterflies. But when the game starts, those all go away because you're doing what you're used to doing. And I think it's because of the anticipation of getting there and because you care. I do know I'm very excited to be in this position, and I like our club."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets plan to be big players in the free-agent market, targeting Angels right-hander John Lackey and Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday. Meanwhile, general manager Omar Minaya is interested in hiring two recently fired general managers, J.P. Ricciardi and Kevin Towers, as talent evaluators and special assistants. … Dave Clark made such a strong impression while serving as the Astros' interim manager during the final two weeks of the season that he is emerging as a serious candidate to land the job on a permanent basis. … Dodgers GM Ned Colletti's contract expires on October 31, but is expected to sign an extension as soon as his team's run in the postseason ends. … The Diamondbacks are leaning toward releasing outfielder Eric Byrnes and eating the last year and $11 million left on his three-year, $30 million contract. … Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer is reportedly Padres owner Jeff Moorad's top choice to replace Towers as the team's next GM. … Two closers who could be had in trades this upcoming offseason are the White Sox's Bobby Jenks and the Pirates' Matt Capps. … The Braves are willing to trade second baseman Kelly Johnson after he lost his job to Martin Prado this year, and will at least listen to offers on right-hander Derek Lowe. … Beyond right fielder Milton Bradley, the Cubs also plan to make four-corners player Jake Fox and second baseman Mike Fontenot available for trade. … The Brewers are likely to hire Rick Peterson, who has been out of baseball the last two years, as their pitching coach.
Finally, congratulations to Jon "Boog" Sciambi, a long-time friend of BP, for landing a full-time gig at ESPN, where he will do play-by-play on MLB and college basketball broadcasts. Sciambi spent the past three seasons calling Braves' games on TV, and worked in the same role on Marlins' telecasts before that.