Baseball managers don't count Managers: Major-league managers may be fired in hopes of improving a slumping team, but at least some experts say it really doesn't matter. It's the players that count.

Sun Journal

August 02, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

They don't throw a pitch, drive in a run or snag a fly ball. But they're often the first blamed when the game is lost.

Major-league baseball managers are held responsible for the performance of dozens of highly trained, sometimes idiosyncratic professionals, any one of whom may tip the scales from win to loss with a single play or lapse of concentration.

Managers' scalps are demanded when the club falls short of expectations. And when their teams go on extended hot streaks, they are hailed as masters of the nuanced game. A few are even enshrined in the Hall of Fame, as the Orioles' Ned Hanlon and Earl Weaver will be this weekend.

Is it fair? Is it accurate?

Some researchers in this statistics-crazed sport say the numbers suggest otherwise. Although a good manager helps a team and a bad one may hamper it, fans put far too much emphasis on the position. Games are won by the players on the field, not the men stalking the dugouts.

In baseball, as in most other sports and organizations, the bulk of decisions are automatic and reflexive. Brady Anderson catches a high pop for an out. Cal Ripken knocks one into the left-field bleachers. An Arthur Rhodes wild pitch sends two runners home.

Oriole manager Davey Johnson has as much control over those plays as he does Anderson's appendix.

"We really have a cult of the coach, but the research we did showed there's no difference," said D. Stanley Eitzen, a sports sociologist at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, Colo.

Coaches and managers may play an important role with young, developing athletes in the minor leagues where a lot of teaching is needed, he said. But by the time a player hits the majors he is usually well seasoned.

An exceptional manager can still change the course of a season through savvy player moves and effective motivation, Eitzen said.

But that is more the exception than the rule, especially in baseball. The potential for high salaries offers plenty of incentive. And innovation has lessened over the years as the game has become standardized.

That wasn't the case when Ned "Foxy" Hanlon managed the Orioles at the end of the 19th century. Rules were still evolving, and a chance inspiration could have a big impact.

Hanlon was among the first managers to take his team south for spring training, to pay scouts to identify talented youngsters, and to use hand signals during games, for example.

Even the job of assembling the team, jealously guarded in Hanlon's era, has been taken over by general managers and other front-office personnel schooled in the accounting necessary to keep the multimillion dollar books balanced and trades legal.

Once a game begins, the manager operates within a fairly narrow range of options, and the decision is usually dictated by standard practice, Eitzen said, such as using a right handed pitcher vs. a right handed hitter.

Eitzen once compared team records before and after 700 coaching changes in college basketball. He found almost no discernible difference that could be attributed to the coach, other than a short term bump after a change is made.

He thinks the lack of managerial impact is especially true in baseball, where similar research has yielded the same results.

"They move people around and make decisions but in most games, like baseball, you need to have the horses to win," he said.

"Baseball is a simple game. If you have good players, and if you keep them in the right frame of mind, then the manager is a success," Sparky Anderson, who managed the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds, once said. "The players make the managers; it's never the other way."

Until the early part of this century it was common for a manager to also be a player, suggesting that managing was not all that consuming.

The best career record for a baseball manager belongs to Joe McCarthy, who wracked up a .615 winning percentage; that is, his teams won 61.5 percent of their games. But his lineups included Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. And even McCarthy's teams lost nearly four out of every 10 games -- hardly a dominant performance in any sport other than baseball.

Of the 10 managers with the highest winning percentage records in baseball, only one -- McCarthy -- is above .600. In football, where strategy and preparation may play a larger role, the winningest coach is Vince Lombardi with a record of .740.

Managers elected to baseball's Hall of Fame include several with losing or nearly losing records: Connie Mack, with more wins and losses than anyone else, posted a .486 record; Bucky Harris has a .493; Casey Stengel, .508; Wilbert Robinson, .500.

Earl Weaver retired from the Orioles after the 1982 season, in which the team turned in a .580 record. His replacement, Joe Altobelli, managed the team to a .605 record, and a World Series championship, in 1983. But the team dropped to .518 in 1984.

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