SPORTS WATCH

Surviving in a precarious occupation

Baseball managers all have one thing in common: when they’re hired, they’re on their way to being fired

TRENT FRAYNE November 4 1991
SPORTS WATCH

Surviving in a precarious occupation

Baseball managers all have one thing in common: when they’re hired, they’re on their way to being fired

TRENT FRAYNE November 4 1991

Surviving in a precarious occupation

SPORTS WATCH

Baseball managers all have one thing in common: when they’re hired, they’re on their way to being fired

BY TRENT FRAYNE

Anyone familiar with Men at Work, the runaway best-seller by George F. Will, an American political pundit and wide-eyed baseball buff, is aware that successful major-league managers carry an enormous fund of strategy under their peaked caps. A full 69 pages of Will’s book were devoted to the turmoil inside the busy skull of Tony La Russa, the manager of the Oakland Athletics, and there was no clear indication, when Will was finished, that he had explored every crevice.

Not all managers own philosophies as complex as those of the burdened Oakland thinker. During the recent American League baseball playoffs, for example, it was possible to examine the modus operandi of the rival managers, Tom Kelly of the triumphant Minnesota Twins and Cito Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays, searching out the secrets for survival in a precarious occupation.

Precarious? You have no idea. At the most recent count, 13 managers of the 26 majorleague teams had been dismissed since opening day for being what a tall forehead in The New York Times described as “ignoramuses, dolts, nincompoops—in other words, they didn’t win any division championships lately.” Accordingly, when Tom Kelly emerged one afternoon from the Minnesota dugout in Toronto’s Sky Dome, he was encouraged to outline how he had managed to elevate the Twins from last place in 1990 to the pinnacle this season.

Kelly is a stem-visaged fellow of 41, with hard brown eyes and greying reddish hair, who frequently carries a stubby dead cigarillo in a comer of his kisser. Television viewers frequently catch him seated calmly in the dugout behind a pair of tinted, brown-rimmed glasses halfway down his nose.

As I say, he apparently doesn’t subject his brain to the weighty excesses author Will uncovered beneath La Russa’s coiffured pile. When I asked him if he had a particular managerial philosophy, he shifted the cigar butt

thoughtfully. “Sure,” he said at length. “I try to keep out of the way and not screw up.”

Across the carpet, propped gingerly in a comer of the Blue Jays dugout to ease an aching back, Cito Gaston received the press hordes patiently. He is tall and erect and moustached, a quiet-spoken man of 47 who spent 11 years as a major-league outfielder and, since, has shied determinedly from any claim to being the baseball equivalent of Albert Einstein. As with Tom Kelly, however, he does have a managerial philosophy. “Stay out of the way and let ’em play,” is what the man said, sitting there in the dugout.

Baseball managers come in all shapes and sizes, most with individual idiosyncrasies but all with one thing in common: when they’re hired, they’re on their way to being fired. It’s as inevitable as a base on balls. Even so, there has never been a carnage quite like the current one when exactly half the managers were sent packing. For now, Kelly is safe, having reached the World Series for the second time since he became the Twins’ manager late in the 1986 season. But Gaston’s position became precarious the instant the Blue Jays were dispatched by the Twins in the American League playoff.

Usually managers are fired by the owners of

losing teams, the baseball cliché being that it’s impossible to fire 24 players but easy to dispatch one manager. But even managers of successful teams are often bade farewell. One time, I sat listening to this topic in the tiny subterranean office of Sparky Anderson, who has been managing the Detroit Tigers since he was fired by the Cincinnati Reds after nine years there. In that span, the Reds finished on top in the National League West five times and were second three times. They got into the World Series on four occasions and won twice. Nonetheless, Anderson was fired following the 1978 season.

“I didn’t blame them,” Sparky said earnestly, this time in his Tiger catacomb, puffing on a curved pipe and blowing fruity, sweet-smelling tobacco into the defenceless air. “I’d been there nine years. See, I think sometimes they just get sick of lookin’ at yuh.”

In earlier times, managing a big-league ball club was the next thing to lifetime employment. Occasionally, of course, managers were cast adrift, but they nearly always re-emerged running other teams. (Casey Stengel once said, testifying at antitrust hearings before the Kefauver committee, “I became a majorleague manager in several cities and was discharged. We call it discharged because there is no question I had to leave.”)

Walter Alston ran the Dodgers in Brooklyn for four seasons, then moved with them to Los Angeles for 19 years more. Charlie Grimm led the Cubs for 13 seasons, and Jimmy Dykes was across town in Comiskey Park managing the White Sox, also for 13. Miller Huggins ran the Yankees for 12 years and Joe McCarthy took over their helm for another 16. The famous John J. McGraw was a fixture in New York for 31 years as manager of the Giants, but nobody matched Cornelius McGillicuddy, who had the good sense to shorten his name to Connie Mack before he took over the old Philadelphia Athletics in 1901.

For half a century, Mack spent his summer afternoons on the A’s bench adorned in a high, starched collar and a flat straw hat directing his players. Of course, he was helped by the fact he and Benjamin Shibe had been awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the new American League in 1901. In 1951, when he hired a former A’s third baseman, Jimmy Dykes, as his replacement as manager, Mr. Mack, as everyone called the skinny old fellow, was 87.

Nowadays, managing is a terribly earnest business. Firings are wholesale perhaps because, as Blue Jays executive vice-president Pat Gillick suggests, there are such staggering amounts of money involved that owners have grown edgy and trigger-happy. Certainly, managers rarely seem to have the fun of earlier times and nothing like the longevity. Three decades ago, following 12 years of managing the Yankees and going to the World Series a truly remarkable 10 times, Casey Stengel was honored at a testimonial dinner. He was 71 years old that year (1960) and had a twinkle in his eye as he rose at the head table to thank his hosts. “I couldn’t have done it,” 01’ Case said of his amazing record, “without the players.” They don’t make managers like that no more.