Though I had promised part two of our look at static teams, I felt it important to pause here and take a look for precedents for yesterday’s big news story, the termination of Brewers manager Ned Yost. That was almost a futile quest. As Joe Sheehan wrote yesterday, the move was nearly unprecedented. But it has happened before.
This quote from a wire report on the firing nearly gives the game away: “It marked the first time in major league history—except the strike-split 1981 season—that a manager was fired in August or later with his team in playoff position, the Elias Sports Bureau said.” Elias is referring to one of two events, both of which took place in 1981. By far, the more interesting of the two involved the Montreal Expos, because they terminated future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams 26 games into the split schedule’s second half. Organizational soldier Jim Fanning took over the club on September 8, the 82nd game of the season. The Expos were 14-12, 1½ games behind the National League East-leading St. Louis Cardinals; there were 27 games left to play.
Under that season’s format, the standings at the time of the strike comprised the season’s first half. Teams in playoff position at that time (in the National League, the Phillies and the Dodgers), were already guaranteed a playoff berth. The post-strike portion of the season was made a distinct race, with the winners at the end of that segment taking on the first-half winners in an additional playoff round. This would end up a bit of an embarrassment in the NL. In the American League the two teams with the season’s overall best records—the Brewers in the East and the A’s in the West—did qualify, but the two best clubs on the senior circuit, the Cardinals and the Reds, both went home, having won neither half.
Like the current Brewers, the Expos were a talent-laden team that had just missed making the playoffs the year before. Under Williams, the 1980 Expos, starring catcher Gary Carter, center fielder Andre Dawson, and righty starter Steve Rogers, had gone 90-72, falling behind the eventual World Series-winning Phillies by a single game. The Expos had played back down from a mid-September lead of 2½ games with 17 games to play, but the two teams were tied at 89-70 on October 2, and they finished the season playing head to head at Montreal. In the first game, Philadelphia’s Dick Ruthven and Montreal’s Scott Sanderson delivered a tense pitcher’s duel that ended in a 2-1 win for the Phillies, the difference coming on a sixth-inning Mike Schmidt solo shot. The Expos would need to win the second game to force a winner-take-all game in the season’s last tilt. Rogers opposed Larry Christenson, but neither starter was around for the decision. Expos closer Woodie Fryman blew a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth by yielding a two-out RBI single by Bob Boone. The game remained tied until the top of the 11th, when Schmidt again played the hero by belting a two-run homer off of Stan Bahnsen. Tug McGraw retired the Expos in order in the bottom of the frame to clinch the pennant.
It was the second time in two years that the Expos had been dumped out of the postseason. In 1979, Williams’ Expos were even stronger, going 95-65 with a more dominant version of the same pitching staff. The team took over first place in late May and held it into August, then began playing leapfrog with the Pirates, falling as far back as 3½ games in early September before surging back to retake the lead. On September 24, the Expos went to Pittsburgh for their penultimate series of the season, a four-game set. They led by a half-game going in, but dropped three of four and left trailing by a game and a half. Their final series would be at home against the Phillies. Philadelphia took two of three, Steve Carlton pitching a 12-strikeout, three-hit shutout in the final game, and that was all she wrote.
These memories died hard, especially given a volatile clubhouse that was chafing under Williams’ gruff style, which he redoubled in the aftermath of the two disappointing finishes. “There was tension in the clubhouse between the manager and the players,” club president and general manager John McHale said later. “Highly-tuned athletes are sensitive to whether a manager wants to talk to them… Dick always has sort of a sarcastic, put-down remark. He operated that way, even as a player. And, look, he has had great success managing in his style. I think a lot of our players had a hard time taking it.”
Williams took his firing graciously, but said, “I’m not running a popularity contest. I’m trying to win championships. I don’t think I’ve ever been a nice guy, and I’m not going to get involved in their problems. I don’t want to be their friend. All good managers were like that 30 years ago.” Whatever his faults, Williams was always a “to thine own self be true” kind of guy. In his autobiography, No More Mr. Nice Guy, he wrote, “McHale began to question me… Maybe it’s because he was overworked trying to cover up for various players we suspected (or knew) were doing drugs.” Less bitterly, he said, “All they [the players] did was hate me… The bottom line was that my team was tired of me. I’d been in Montreal longer than any other stop in my managerial career, and the players, after being kicked along through two bad years and two good ones, just didn’t think it was worth it anymore. The irony was that I’d helped them mature to a point where they could win without me. So that’s what they wanted to do, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Fanning, briefly a catcher with the Cubs in the mid-’50s, had been with the Expos since the team’s founding, and was at that point the organization’s farm director. He hadn’t worn a uniform in over 20 years, and it showed, as questionable, sometimes nonsensical tactical decisions led to three straight losses at the outset of his tenure. At the end of the day on September 11, the Expos had dropped to third place, 2½ games behind the Cardinals. After that, though, the club would come together, going 16-8 to finish the season. The hitting attack was actually unimpressive during this stretch, being average at best, with the club hitting into 20 double plays and also being caught stealing 10 times in 19 attempts, this despite having burners like Tim Raines on the club. It was the pitching that caught fire, allowing just 2.8 runs per game during that time. The Expos also took advantage of six games with a weak Mets club during the last days of the season, beating them in four of six contests.
Those same Mets had swept three games from the Cardinals at Shea Stadium a week earlier, sending the Redbirds into a 1-7 skid at the same time that the Expos were winning seven straight. By the time the Cards woke up, they were trailing by 2½ games. St. Louis came back to take their last two against the Expos to put themselves back on top by a half-game (26-21 to 26-22). The Expos had five to play, all on the road—two at Pittsburgh, three at New York. The Cardinals also would be on the road, with two at Philadelphia and three at Pittsburgh. It was almost all Expos after that. They took both games at Pittsburgh while the Cardinals split with the Phillies; the Expos were now up by a half-game with three to play. In the first game at Shea, Rogers shut out the Mets on two hits, while Warren Cromartie and Dawson homered. Simultaneously, the Cardinals dropped a heartbreaker in Pittsburgh: having battled back from a 7-5 deficit to tie the game in the top of the ninth, closer Bruce Sutter did the near-impossible and walked Omar Moreno to open up the bottom of the inning, setting up the winning run. The Cardinals were now down a game and a half, and would need the Expos to lose the last two games. They didn’t, winning the next day to end the race.
Fanning’s team made it through the first round of the playoffs, beating the rival Phillies in five games before dropping a tough five-game National League Championship Series to the Dodgers. Fanning would return as the team’s skipper in 1982, putting together an indifferent 86-76 record. He would be replaced by Bill Virdon in 1983. Virdon was no more effective, if not worse, and he would be terminated late in the 1984 season with the team well out of contention. He would be replaced by Fanning for the last 30 games, though this time a turnaround was out of the question, and Buck Rodgers would be hired to take over the club in 1985.
Dick Williams was rumored to be headed to the Yankees for the 1982 season, but he was always rumored to be headed to the Yankees, and he never did manage the club, coming no closer than a late-career advisory position to George Steinbrenner. Instead his next destination as a manager was San Diego, where, after two .500 seasons, he took the team to the 1984 World Series. The inevitable personality clash with general manager Jack McKeon led to his parting ways with the Golden Arches team after the 1985 season, and he finished out his career with three unsuccessful years in Seattle.
So there is something of a precedent for the Yost move, and a successful one at that, though the Williams-Fanning story doesn’t really prove much. Fanning was not a particularly insightful or skillful manager, and whether the team reacted to the change of personality or just had a good month is impossible to say; they certainly weren’t winning because Fanning liked to call for the bunt on two-strike counts. In the end, both moves reflect badly on the respective front offices. McHale probably deserves a pass, in that the seven-week strike delayed any reckoning that Williams’ clubhouse problems might have caused; had the season been played in full, perhaps the contentious manager would have worn out his welcome at midseason. In contrast, in the Brewers’ case Doug Melvin (or ownership) doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt. It is awfully late in the season to notice that Yost was a tactically maladroit manager—apparently it’s okay to stick with a weak manager as long as the team is able to overcome his mistakes.
If there’s a different comparison to be drawn, perhaps the Brewers have taken a cue from another noteworthy 1980s firing—in 1983, the Phillies canned Pat Corrales with the team leading the NL East; perhaps the eventual NL pennant winners figured it wasn’t going to last on his watch. If the Brewers had those kinds of worries, they should have reacted sooner, giving themselves time to find a better replacement than their third-base coach, and for the replacement to effect real change. Instead, we get the baseball management equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. Yost might have deserved what he got, but the team deserved better.