Sometimes keeping the manager turns out better than firing him

BASEBALL

August 18, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCKL

The San Francisco Giants did not fire Roger Craig when the club was deep in the National League West cellar. The Chicago White Sox didn't question Jeff Torborg when his club was three games under .500 on June 20.

What do these two teams have in common -- aside from some semblance of organizational stability? They both are contenders again, while five of the six teams that did make managerial changes this year remain deep in the standings.

The Giants floundered so badly in the early months of the season that Craig's name was at the top of everyone's list of the potential unemployed. But patience has proved to be a virtue in San Francisco and the Giants have climbed into position to challenge the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers.

The White Sox never were in such critical condition, but they rebounded from their 30-33 record of June 20 to win 35 of the next 50 games. Nobody has done it better over the same period.

Is there a message in all this? Only that firing the manager is a quick fix that generally doesn't fix anything. It is a knee-jerk reaction that often is used to mask some deeper organizational weakness.

There is one big exception this year. The Kansas City Royals were 15-22 when John Wathan was fired and replaced by Hal McRae. The club is 15 games over .500 (46-32) since the managerial change and has become a factor in the AL West.

But there are five other teams that haven't fared quite so well. The Orioles were 11 games under .500 when Frank Robinson (13-24) was fired. They are nine games under since. The Montreal Expos were nine games under (20-29) when Buck Rodgers was fired. They are 13 games under since. The Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies have shown little improvement, and the Cleveland Indians are as hapless as ever.

None of this is meant to cast doubt on the qualifications of any of the new managers, five of whom are managing for the first time at the major-league level. John Oates has done a fine job in Baltimore. Jim Essian has held his own in Chicago. Mike Hargrove is getting some valuable experience despite a hopeless situation in Cleveland. But managerial changes tend to be cosmetic.

There is something to be said for stability. The Dodgers didn't fire Tom Lasorda after finishing deep in the standings in 1986 and '87. The club came back to win the world championship in 1988 and appears to be on the way to the playoffs again this year. The Detroit Tigers have had some major ups and downs since their world championship season in 1984, but they are back in contention under Sparky Anderson, who has managed the team for more than a decade.

The manager can provide organizational continuity, or he can provide a convenient scapegoat. It usually depends on the quality of the organization.

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The Hair Club: Remember when they had real controversy in New York. Billy Martin would go rip-for-rip with Reggie Jackson ,, or George Steinbrenner (or both). Steinbrenner would go hunting for dirt on Dave Winfield. Fay Vincent would go hunting for dirt on Steinbrenner. The tabloids would sizzle with the latest from baseball's longest-running soap opera.

Now, baseball's erstwhile bad boys have been reduced to arguing over personal grooming. Don Mattingly was held out of the lineup the other day because he failed to get a haircut.

Management apparently has decided that it is much better to look good than to feel good. Mattingly, who has been the Yankees fair-haired boy for some time now, was left wondering whether he wants to remain with the club.

This wouldn't be a big problem if he were some marginal rookie. Then, the club could just send him back to the minor leagues. The Yankees' Class AAA club is, after all, the Columbus "Clippers."

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The Orioles have a right to crow over the success of Chito "The Cheese That Goes Crunch" Martinez, but not if his emergence leaves the club with the erroneous impression that it can become a contender in 1992 by outsmarting instead of outspending the opposition.

Give the organization credit for nabbing another underappreciated minor-league prospect when Martinez was signed as a six-year minor-league free agent out of the Royals organization, but understand that the Orioles have spent a lot of time trying to find a short cut to the top of the standings. There isn't one.

Here's hoping that Martinez becomes an exceptional major-league player. Here's also hoping that the team goes out and gets some more exceptional players this winter. Here's hoping that some of them are major-league free agents.

*

Please name it Camden Yards. Please.

Imagine how embarrassing it would be now if they had named the old park "Colt Field."

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San Diego Padres catcher Benito Santiago is looking forward to free-agent eligibility after the 1992 season, and he isn't taking any chances with his potential earning power. He has taken out a $5 million insurance policy to protect him against a career-threatening injury and expects to increase the face value to $10 million next year.

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