There was little joy in watching the final, desperate days of the Tony Muser Era arrive at their inevitable conclusion. Nor was there any sense of anger or frustration from knowing how much opportunity has been wasted while we waited for the axe to fall.
There was only relief. Relief, and closure.
The players can finally prepare for each game without wondering whether the man who picks the lineup today will do the same tomorrow. The fans can once again root for their favorite team without that awful feeling of conflict that arises when you feel winning the day's game is no longer in your team's best interests. Even Muser can finally start making arrangements for a future that he has long known would come.
We all deserved better than this, though, no one more than Muser himself. If there's one lesson to learn from this, it's that you really can kill with kindness. Allard Baird stuck with Muser to the bitter end for one simple reason: he liked him. Sure, Baird also thought that Muser was the right man for the job, blah, blah, blah, but in the end it was really all about friendship, and all the qualities–trust, faith, and loyalty–that go along with it.
That friendship didn't help Muser one bit. Instead, it may have ruined him.
This may be hard to believe–I can hardly believe it myself–but as recently as the 2000 season, I felt that Tony Muser was an asset to the Kansas City Royals. His weaknesses were evident even then, but they seemed to be balanced by his strengths. His inability to make in-game tactical decisions was a fair price to pay for having a manager who was willing to let his young players play through their inevitable slumps and growing pains. The respect he commanded in the clubhouse made up for his inability to get along with cheeky rookies like Jeremy Giambi. Most of all, Muser had helped to restore credibility to a franchise that had been left in tatters following Bob Boone's scorched-earth exit. In that sense, Muser had accomplished what he had been brought in to do.
At that very moment, he had outlived his usefulness. Managers are not like players; they aren't "good" or "bad" independent of context. You can't quantify a manager's value the way you can with a player, because that value is entirely dependent on how that manager's abilities mesh with the needs of a team. Precious few managers are equally comfortable at building a franchise and keeping it at the top. Most managers need an environment that allows their particular skills to shine, whether it's developing young talent or motivating veterans, whether it's putting together a formidable lineup or getting the most out of a pitching staff.
In his first three years as the Royals' manager, Muser had shown us what he could and could not do. What he could do was take a team stuck at the very beginning of the success cycle and serve as its caretaker until the team was ready to get serious about winning. He could instill some semblance of order to a fractured clubhouse; he could remain patient as the franchise took its lumps with raw young talent. He had also shown us his limitations: he could not out-maneuver his opponent, he could not accept that there is not a direct correlation between talent and character, and God Almighty, he could not run a bullpen.
Not every team can employ Bobby Cox. Muser's blend of strengths and weaknesses made him, if not one of the better managers in the league, at least someone who had proven he could be an asset to a team in the right context. And while the Royals–with Muser's help–no longer represented that context, other opportunities would have arisen once he was let go. An opposing GM that had just been hired to take over a directionless team in desperate need of a complete overhaul (Dave Littlefield with the Pirates, for example) could have done a lot worse than to hire Muser as manager while he tried to right the franchise.
If Allard Baird had understood this when he was promoted to GM two years ago, Tony Muser might have that opportunity today. Instead, because of his personal friendship with Muser, Baird allowed him to stay on well past the point where he had outlived his usefulness. Tony Muser could have walked away from the Royals two years ago with his head held high and his reputation unblemished. Today, his name is mud and his legacy a disaster, while his final days have become a local embarrassment and a national story.
This is what happens when friendship gets in the way of business. Because Baird could not separate his personal feelings for Muser from his responsibility to the Kansas City Royals, Muser's name will almost certainly never again be floated when a managerial position opens for a major-league team.
Muser is a good man. He is not a good manager, but he is a good man, a man who showed class and dignity throughout his painful tenure and its even more painful conclusion. He deserved better from his friends. Baird had only the best of intentions, but good intentions aren't enough. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a friend is to tell it straight. There comes a point at which blind loyalty ceases to be friendship, and becomes betrayal.
Unfortunately for Tony Muser, Allard Baird passed that point a long time ago, and never even noticed.
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