Few manage on their own

A talented manager can make a difference, but Earl Weaver said it best: "You have to have good ballplayers to win ballgames."

August 06, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Atlanta Braves hadn't won a thing in seven years when they installed Bobby Cox as manager 65 games into the 1990 season.

They haven't finished a full season out of first place since.

So a manager must be pretty important to a baseball franchise, right?

Well, consider an alternative example from Orioles history. Earl Weaver was a genius, pretty much any baseball person will tell you. He went through 15 seasons and three generations of talent without guiding a loser and retired after the 1982 Orioles won 94 games.

So the fiery wizard is replaced with a low-key chap named Joe Altobelli, and the 1983 team does what? Only wins the World Series.

The rest of the sport's history hardly helps clarify the importance (or lack thereof) of the eternally scrutinized species baseball manager. There have been consistent winners, others with a flair for the quick turnaround and still others -- many, many others -- who left little impression at all.

Some franchises' fortunes have turned on managerial hires. Others have rolled along, winning or losing, through two, three, four different field leaders.

There's only one semi-certain rule when a team makes a switch, as the Orioles did Thursday, dispatching Lee Mazzilli for Sam Perlozzo after less than two seasons: Don't expect miracles.

Said Weaver, "You have to have good ballplayers to win ballgames."

Summing up the reality of managers, baseball [See Managers, 5c] [Managers, from Page 1c] historian Bill James once wrote: "Occasionally there is a John McGraw, a Casey Stengel, a Sparky Anderson -- and for every [one] of those there are two hundred of the others, the ones who work a lifetime for one moment in the shadows next to glory."

Even the best do little more than make a good team a bit better, said Steven Goldman, author of Forging Genius, a recent book on Stengel.

"They can take the players they're given and by deploying them in a clever way, swing the pennant race not by 10-20 games but by a few games," Goldman said.

Some say the majority of managers remain anonymous because the role isn't that important -- more like the branch director at a bank than the chairman of the board. It's a theory proffered in Moneyball, Michael Lewis' book on the Oakland Athletics.

"In what other business," former Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson asked, "do you leave the fate of the organization to a middle manager?"

Alderson poses the question while discussing why he let Tony La Russa walk in favor of the more pedestrian Art Howe. Alderson said Howe was brought in "to implement the ideas of the front office, not his own."

It's in the talent

Moneyball logic says that La Russa, now managing the St. Louis Cardinals, can obsess all he wants about defensive shifts and the hit and run, but he wins because Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds are in his lineup every day.

Many current and former baseball men, however, say such thinking is terribly incomplete.

Weaver, for example, saw himself as a key talent evaluator. His general manager provided him with a 40-man roster, but then he had to pick the 25 best players and figure the best ways to use them. He also gave advice on trades and signings.

"I think you've gotta lean on each other," he said when asked the ideal relationship between a front office and manager. "The manager, he knows best what the team needs on the field, and it's up to the GM to get it for him."

Weaver's `Oriole Way'

Only a handful of modern managers have been good enough and distinctive enough that franchises grew around their philosophies instead of the other way around.

Weaver was one.

Former Orioles general manager Hank Peters remembered a conversation the two had in the 1970s. Peters was curious why Weaver kept replacing slugger Lee May with light-hitting Tony Muser in the late innings. "Well, Hank," Peters recalled the manager saying, "he's on the 25-man roster, so I've got to use him."

Weaver's uncanny ability to make use of spare parts and one-trick artists led the organization to focus on its bench more than most. And the Orioles' "deep depth" became a trademark of the Weaver era.

Another trademark was the "Oriole Way," a series of rules for practice and play composed by Weaver and taught uniformly at all levels of the organization. Thus when a Bobby Grich came up to replace a Davey Johnson, the transition was seamless.

"It's a bonus when you can install your system and be around long enough to show dividends," Weaver said.

But he has no illusions that he would have been given such time if he hadn't won three straight pennants out of the box. "I think Lee Mazzilli is a good baseball man and a victim of circumstance," Weaver said. "But you gotta win."

With good talent on hand, many say, a manager needn't be more than a steady hand. Altobelli was a case in point. "We knew we had damn good players, and his job was: Don't louse it up," Peters said.

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