In four seasons as manager of the Oakland Athletics, Ken Macha led the low-budget A’s to a pair of Western Division titles and two second-place finishes. His teams posted a winning percentage of .568, but in the eyes of general manager Billy Beane, it wasn’t enough. Citing a “disconnect” between the manager and his players, Beane unceremoniously fired Macha after the 2006 season. Looking to recharge his batteries, Macha is currently working as a pre- and postgame studio analyst for the New England Sports Network (NESN), the Red Sox television network.
David talked to Macha about his managerial philosophy, his relationship with his players in Oakland, and kicking down doors.
David Laurila: You have an engineering degree. How does that influence how you think as a manager?
Ken Macha: Engineers are logical thinkers; they aren’t reactive. If you’re building a bridge, or designing a truck, you break down every component. There’s logic to each step of the process. You’re basically trained to analyze, which is what you’re doing as a manager. There’s a mental discipline to the way you go about your job.
DL: How would you describe your managerial philosophy?
KM: Managing in the minor leagues, I learned right off the bat that the players win and lose games, and your job is to make them better. That goes from Day One to the end of the season, and that development continues in the big leagues. For one thing, in today’s game you need to have young, minimum-salary guys on the team in order to afford the big-money guys. And if you ask Derek Jeter, I’m sure he’ll tell you that he learned something about the game recently. Coaching and discussing baseball is important at all levels. Barry Zito won a Cy Young throwing a fastball, curve, and changeup, but hitters were learning to make adjustments against him. We coaxed him into learning a slider, in part because his batting-average-against versus left-handed hitters was too high. As a manager you’re always trying to help your players get better.
DL: Can you say a little more about helping pitchers make adjustments?
KM: As a manager I try to work through my coaches, and I was fortunate to have guys like Rick Peterson and Curt Young handling my pitching staff–both of them are excellent. What you’re doing with pitchers is looking for what will be beneficial to them in the long run. Using Dan Haren as an example, we wanted him to be working deeper into games, so we encouraged him to throw more changeups. You can control bat speed with a good changeup, and you can also get outs early in the count, especially with hitters who are too aggressive. You need to locate your fastball to both sides of the plate, but an effective changeup is your second-most important pitch.
DL: Do you feel that managers get too much blame when teams don’t win?
KM: I don’t think a lot of people understand what a description of a manager is. I actually went on a bit of a rampage in Boston a few years ago talking about Terry Francona. There are about 35,000 good managers in Fenway Park every night, but there’s more to the game than they see. Baseball isn’t all Xs and Os, it’s managing people. If you’re down three games to none to the Yankees, you need to keep your team focused and competitive. Or if you’re fifteen games under .500, that’s when you need to manage. You need to make sure that your players don’t start fighting, or giving up, or playing for themselves. Hitting-and-running, bunting, all of that stuff–forget about it. It’s part of the job, but it’s not the most important part.
DL: In talking about managerial role models, you once said that you credit Dick Williams for teaching you fundamentals. Can you elaborate on that?
KM: Dick was absolutely huge when it came to fundamentals. If there was a runner on first base in the ninth inning of a tie game, he’d put the bunt sign on with Andre Dawson or Gary Carter up to bat, and he expected that they’d be able to do it. He was the same when it came to defense. I remember when I was playing third base in a game where we had a big lead late in the game. There was a runner on first, and the batter rolled over the ball and grounded it weakly to me, and I flipped it to first base for the out. Dick chewed me out severely because I hadn’t kept the double play in order. You didn’t throw to the wrong base or miss the cutoff man when you played for Dick, or you heard about it. There was a spot on the end of the bench with room for two people to sit, and if you made a mental error he would take off his glasses, point, and signal you over. That’s what I meant by fundamentals. You have to know how to play the game right.
DL: You were Oakland’s bench coach when the Red Sox wanted to interview you for their managerial job prior to the 2002 season. What are your thoughts on the A’s denying them permission to do so?
KM: When someone has a chance to move along and better themselves, they should be given that chance. Now, if it’s a lateral move, I think a team has every right to want to keep their people in place. But if it’s an upward move, to hold someone back from that opportunity isn’t right.
DL: What do you think your managerial experience would have been like in Boston?
KM: I had managed in Pawtucket, and would read the Boston Globe every day, so I knew most of the complexities. I knew that baseball is “it” up there, and understood how everything is magnified. I knew there would be a lot of pressure. Had I come–and I don’t want to sound arrogant here–I feel that if you focus on what has been successful for you, you’ll keep having that kind of success. It’s all about being prepared every time you come out to the ballpark. That’s been my mantra as long as I’ve been in the game.
DL: The Red Sox ended up hiring Grady Little in 2002. How similar are you to Grady as a manager?
KM: I’ve never been on a staff with him, so it wouldn’t be right to try to answer that directly. I can say that I learned a lot in Oakland, both how they build teams and how they evaluate players. I was like a sponge soaking that up. But baseball is a game where you can’t put yourself in a box where there’s only one way. Being totally old-school, or relying too heavily on statistics, limits you. You need to utilize all of the information you have and you need to help your players develop. That’s the optimal way to manage.
DL: What was your best year as a manager in Oakland?
KM: The season we were 15 games under was my best year as a manager. We had a lot of injuries early, and one of the biggest was to Bobby Crosby. We struggled with him out of the lineup, and when he came back he really solidified us. We got back into contention, and I think we were a game out when he slid into Sal Fasano and broke his foot near the end of August. We knew how we had played with Bobby, and we knew how we played without him, so that was one of the few times I ever asked management for help. The powers-that-be came into my office and I asked for one thing. I said, “Get me Nomar.” He was available, and had we been able to bring him in he would have really uplifted the clubhouse. I think he would have pushed us over the top. It didn’t happen though, because one of the powers-that-be reacted to my request by saying that Nomar was a negative. We ended up finishing in second place.
DL: How much influence did you have on player acquisitions in Oakland?
KM: In Oakland, field personnel have zero influence on the roster. Management has 100 percent control. But regardless of who is making the personnel decisions, you need the pieces to fit. You want two lefties in the pen, and you want guys on the bench who can hit right-handers and guys who can hit left-handers. You need the team to be balanced.
DL: You once karate-kicked a bathroom door to rescue Joe Blanton. What happened?
KM: We were playing Seattle, and Joe was pitching against Felix Hernandez. One thing Joe has is a temper. When he gives up runs or makes a poor play he can lose his mind, and sometimes I’d need to send the pitching coach out to the mound to rein him in a little. Anyway, a few things go wrong in a tight game and between innings he runs into the bathroom and starts kicking the door. He kicks it so hard that he bends the door jamb and can’t get out. He yells to the guard in the clubhouse, but the guard couldn’t get it open. Neither could Rene Lachemann when he tried. So I came over and said to everyone, “Get out of the way!” I was able to kick the door in and get Joe out of there.
DL: When you were Oakland’s bench coach you had a reputation of getting along very well with the players. Last year you reportedly had communication problems with some of them. Is there a real difference in those relationships when you go from being a bench coach to a manager?
KM: Yes, there is, there’s a big difference. But there’s more to it than that. For the most part, my door was always open last year, and my philosophy is that I’ll always tell it to you straight. The idea is to get the best lineup out there on a daily basis to win, and it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. I’m sure there are some people every year who are upset with Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Adam Melhuse is one of the guys who complained, but he never came in to talk to me. Not once. We were in a situation where we needed to win, and Jason Kendall did a better job of handling the pitching staff. I felt we needed him in the lineup more than Adam, and I’d have told Adam that. A couple of other guys had things to say, too, but even though the door was open, nobody came in. Everything that was said came after the season. Before that there were no problems, and I’ve had very few in my years as a coach or manager. And I’ve been in the game for a long time.
DL: Most players admit that they were more than a little nervous when they made their big league debuts. Does the same thing happen to managers?
KM: I had 13 years coaching in the big leagues, and four managing in the minors, but when you sit down on the bench for the first time you still ask yourself, “Am I ready for this?” When I look at guys with little experience moving into that position, I don’t see how they can handle it unless they’ve really done their homework. I enjoy managing, but it’s not easy. It’s a man’s business.
DL: Will you do anything differently the next time you manage?
KM: I don’t think so. I know who I am, and I know what I do. You’re seeing a small window of problems when you look at what happened in Oakland, and if you talk to Trot Nixon or Miguel Tejada or Frank Thomas–the list is long–they’ll all tell you that any picture that paints me as a bad person isn’t accurate. It’s a matter of reputation and character. There’s also such a thing as perception and reality, and I think most people in baseball know who I am.
DL: This is the first year in quite some time that you haven’t coached or managed. How differently are you looking at the game of baseball right now?
KM: It’s interesting every night. I was talking to Jerry Remy the other day, and he commented on how I don’t have to worry about my general manager or about players complaining that they’re not in the lineup. But I miss that day-to-day pressure. People who haven’t managed don’t understand the work that goes into the job, or that you take losses personally, but it’s something I enjoy. I hope to manage again someday.