Thursday, October 14, 2010


There are, the joke goes, three things every man thinks he can do better than anyone else: build a fire, run a restaurant and manage a baseball team. I’m not sure about the truth of the first two of those, but the last is beyond dispute.

Just about all of us guys have played baseball at some point in our lives, and feel that the knowledge gleaned thereby transfers easily to the highest level of the game. Silly as that sounds, the repeated evidence of our senses makes it plausible. Again and again we sit before our TV screens, urging our team’s manager to do or not do something, then see him come to grief when he goes against our wishes.

That’s particularly true if you’re a Cubs’ fan, by the way.

Now, it seems, we might get our chance to prove our mettle. No less than 10 Major League teams have had managerial openings since the recent end of the regular season, and while three have been filled (by the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Braves), seven remain—with the Cubs, Mets, Brewers, Pirates, Mariners, Blue Jays and Marlins—and more could follow. That’s quite a help-wanted list in these job-tight days, and if the lineup of applicants is long it’s surely no longer than that for many less-interesting positions.

Go ahead and send in your application. It couldn’t hurt.

Don’t feel deterred by a lack of baseball smarts, because they’re more common that you might think. Plenty of people inside and outside the professional game know full well when to bunt, steal, hit and run, squeeze, pitch out, change pitchers and do all the other managerial stuff, even the super-difficult double-switch. Most of us easily can do what the ex-pitcher Bill Lee considered the job’s most-frequent duties, namely “sitting on your ass, spitting tobacco and nodding at stupid things.”

Managerial candidates need some positive attributes, of course. One is locker room “cred,” which is helpful in gaining players’ attention. A common way to get this is by having had a good Major League playing career. Two of the fellas who’ve landed managerial jobs of late—Kirk Gibson with the Diamondbacks and Don Mattingly with the Dodgers— qualify on that ground.

But there are other roads to the same destination. Baseball’s is a male society where physical strength and pugnacity are respected, and some of the best managers of yore could go nose-to-nose with players 30 years their junior and not come off second best. Walter Alston, Chuck Tanner, Ralph Houk and Frank Robinson were said to excel in that category, as does the Angels’ Mike Scioscia among present-day skippers.

Billy Martin was in a class by himself here. “A lot of people looked up to Billy. That’s because he’d just knocked them down,” noted Jim Bouton, the ex-Yankee pitcher and author.

If you’re a little guy, nastiness can fill the same purpose. “He cussed so awful last year I didn’t want to sit next to him,” Orioles’ pitcher Scott McGregor once said of his famously diminutive and cantankerous manager, Earl Weaver. “The Lord was going to strike him dead if he kept talking like that and I didn’t want to be there when it happened.”

Communications skills help, too, but not in the usual business way. A manager may have wisdom to impart but conveying it to players whose minds are likely to be elsewhere can be difficult. This was true back in The Great McGraw’s day. “One per cent of ballplayers are leaders of men,” he lamented. “The other 99 per cent are followers of women.” Decades later Mayo Smith averred, “Open up a ballplayer’s head and you know what you’d find? A lot of little broads and a jazz band.”

Substitute “rock band” and you’re right up to date.

One thing some players have no trouble concentrating on is their manager, and why they don’t like him. This requires manipulative skill on his part. “The secret to managing a club is to keep the five players who hate you away from the five who are undecided,” Casey Stengel said.

Like in any field, a manager has bosses who must be placated. “Me and my owners think exactly alike,” Jim Fregosi said. “Whatever they’re thinking, that’s what I’m thinking.” Support from your team’s fans can’t be expected; as the football coach Duffy Daugherty put it, “Coaches are responsible to an irresponsible public.”

You live or die not by your own efforts but by those of others. Job security hardly exists--“If you’re looking for job security, drive a mail truck,” said Alvin Dark—and even relative success is no guarantee of continued employment. “They get tired of seeing you. Really, that’s all it is,” said Sparky Anderson.

Still want the job? Sure you do, so you’d better hurry. The line forms on the left.

Friday, October 1, 2010


NEWS—Derek Jeter fakes being hit by a pitch. Gets away with it!

VIEWS-- On September 16, in a road game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Ray’s pitcher Chad Qualls threw inside to the New York Yankees’ Jeter, who spun away from the plate as though the ball had struck him. He was awarded first base by umpire Lance Barksdale.

Videos clearly showed that it was Jeter’s bat that was struck, not his person. Jeter later admitted as much. An uproar ensued, partly because of Jeter’s good-guy reputation and partly because Jeter rhymes so nicely with “cheater.” One website I saw took a poll and 57.5% of those responding said they thought the Yankee captain had sinned, while the rest thought that his “acting” was a legitimate part of baseball.

As usual, the majority is wrong. Getting away with what you can, and pretending to be in the right no matter what the circumstances, are time-honored parts of all our major team sports. While golfers and tennis players descend from a “gentlemanly” tradition and are expected to call fouls on themselves, the base runner who, say, knows he was tagged out but still is called “safe” while advancing would risk his teammates’ scorn and an umpire’s rebuke should he offer an immediate confession.

That’s okay because sports are considered to be little worlds unto themselves, subject to their own customs, and as long as no one gets hurt one should be able to follow them without being seen as dishonorable in the society at large. Remember that the team-sport model—not golf’s and tennis’s—prevails in the broader community. When’s the last time you sent the state a check because you found yourself speeding and no cop was around to ticket you?

NEWS—The Chicago Cubs’ Tyler Colvin is hospitalized after being speared by a piece of a teammate’s broken maple bat while on the third-base line. Baseball continues to “study” the bats issue.

VIEWS—Bats have been exploding all over the Major Leagues since maple, shorter-grained and more brittle than traditional ash, became the game’s wood of choice a decade or so ago. Flying-bat injuries have been numerous, including ones to fans, umpires and coaches as well as players. Several of them have been scary but none more so than Colvin’s, with the bat splinter puncturing his left upper chest and threatening to pierce his lung. He was released from the hospital three days after the September 20 incident in Miami, but the rookie’s season was declared over.

Baseball’s response was the same as it’s always been--“we’re studying it.” That’s what it says when it wants to wish a problem away. Truth is, the players union is as much to blame as the commissioner’s office, because many of its members like maple bats’ combination of hardness and light weight. That’s the same sort of shortsightedness the union displayed for all the years it opposed steroids’ testing on privacy rounds, forcing players to make the Faustian choice of endangering their long-term health for the short-term performance gains steroids can bring.

A few inches up and Colvin might have caught the projectile in his neck. A few inches down and it might have found his heart. Alas, it looks like that’s what it will take to get baseball’s head out of the sand on this one.

NEWS—The Arizona Diamondback’s Mark Reynolds could be the first every-day player whose strikeout number is higher than his batting average for a season.

VIEWS-- Reynolds, the D’Backs’ third baseman, has been my least-favorite ballplayer these past few seasons. That’s partly because he epitomizes the careless, swing-for-the-fences ethos that infects many players today. Just as bad, when he’s asked about his proclivity to whiff, he answers with a rhetorical shrug. That’s his style, he says, in effect. Live with it.

The D’Backs do because he hits more home runs than most, but while power hitters often strike out a lot the not untalented but muscle-headed Mark has taken the negative side of the equation to new heights, or depths. In the 107 years that began the modern game, no player ever struck out 200 or more times in a season. Reynolds did it with 204 in 2008, his first full year up, then upped his record to 223 the next season. So far this year he’s fanned 208 times, bringing his career total to 764 in 2,238 total times at bat. That’s an atrocious once every 2.9 trips.

And while he’s hit 32 home runs this season, his current batting average is.198. That’s below .200-- the so-called Mendoza Line which is the game’s bench mark for ineptitude. It’s named for Mario Mendoza, the utility infielder who dipped below it several times in his nine seasons (1974-82) with Pittsburgh, Seattle or Texas. But Mendoza made his living with his glove, while Reynolds, erratic afield, can’t claim distinction there.

About the only ameliorating factor for Reynolds is that many of his teammates are almost as bad as he is. Five of them have more than 100 Ks so far this season, and with 1,495 of them all told as of yesterday the D’Backs already have set an all-time team swish record, by about a furlong. Strung together that’s enough outs for 55 complete games—more than one-third of a season-- without making contact.

This week the genius who covers the D’Backs for the Arizona Republic did a piece seeking the reasons for their last-place divisional standing and 95 losses to date. He concluded, with player quotes for support, that a “losing mentality” was to blame.

Losing mentality? Maybe, but hitting the ball more often wouldn’t have hurt.