|CASEY STENGEL Genius . . . right?|
The definitive statement on a baseball manager's worth may very well have been uttered by Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who broke into the major leagues in 1942 with the Boston Braves (59-89, 2 ties) and who began his final major league season 23 years later with the New York Mets (50-112), the identity of his manager being one and the same.
"I knew Casey Stengel before and after he was a genius," Spahn observed.
A corollary to this is a statement made by Stengel himself in the midst of his 12 mostly glorious years as skipper of the New York Yankees.
"I couldn't have done it without the players," he declared.
At the other end of the managerial ego spectrum we had Charlie Dressen, who was sort of a Triple A Leo Durocher. Charlie was Charlie's biggest fan, once telling his Cincinnati team, "Hang in there boys; I'll think of something."
But what, exactly? Dressen couldn't hit, run, catch, throw, or pitch for his team. He's already made out the batting order (a topic in itself). So the only way the feisty skipper could help his team, right then and there, was by attempting to alter the course of the game. Bunt. Steal. Hit-and-run. Pinch hit. Order an intentional walk. Pitch out. Bring the infield in. And, of course, lift the pitcher.
He could also order his pitcher to throw at somebody, or he could even pick a fight with an umpire to get his team fired up. He wasn't powerless. But in the end, was he not completely dependent on his players executing whatever it was he asked/ordered them to do? And did any of this involve any particular baseball genius?
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver doesn't think so.
"The game runs itself," he insists.
"You don't win many games with strategy," echoes (Walpole) Joe Morgan, beloved Red Sox skipper from 1988-91. "But I will say this: You can lose games by not taking the pitcher out early enough. The other thing I'll say is that some people get careless. You'll hear people say, 'Don't worry about pitching to a guy's weakness until you really have to get him out.' Next thing you know, you're down five runs in the third inning."
Just about everything you think you know about Earl Weaver is true. He was an outspoken exponent of the big inning. He used his entire roster. He believed that the most important duty of a manager was to take the right 25 players north from spring training, and that using them properly was simply a matter of common sense. Of course, it was a little more complicated than that.
"I was fortunate to have the right 25 players," he says. "Fundamentals. You work like hell on little things in spring training, and they did them in the game. I had players that, when you showed 'em what to do, they did it in a game. [Center fielder Paul] Blair takes a one-hopper off the wall and throws it to [shortstop] Mark Belanger and he throws the guy out at the plate."
That image does linger, as do many others involving the Orioles, whom Weaver managed from 1968-82 and again in 1985 and 1986. There was a definite look and feel to the Orioles in the Weaver era, much of it having to do with his deployment of personnel rather than any unusual approach to running the game. Earl wasn't into trickery or sorcery. Recall his famous credo?
Pitching, defense, and three-run homers.
"I'm remembered for that, but that depends on the kind of staff I had," he says. "Back in the late sixties and early seventies, I could win with pitching, defense, and a three-run homer. Later on, I probably needed two."
His polar opposite was Gene Mauch. If Rod Carew led off the bottom of a Minnesota first with a single, the entire ballpark knew the No. 2 man was laying one down. Mauch believed in playing for one run just as fervently as Earl did in playing for three, five, or whatever.
"I played for Gene Mauch," points out Morgan. "In Philadelphia. I was playing third and when we played the Dodgers he had me play 45 feet from home plate when Maury Wills came up. He said, 'If that guy beats out a bunt, don't even bother to come back to the dugout.' But, yes, he played for one run. He always wanted to score first."
Managers do have preferences, more than styles. You'd like to have a certain type of player, but if you don't, you have to improvise, even if it means you're trying to take two people and mold them into one. "If it takes two catchers to get the job done, you use two," says Weaver, who is proud of his famous left field platoon of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein, the righty-lefty combo that combined for 36 homers and 98 RBIs in the pennant-winning season of 1979.
It all starts with the players. You can't attempt to lead the league in stolen bases if you've got a team of Clydesdales. If there is a sound organizational policy, and, say, if you're developing or importing players to play in a certain ballpark, then there is a better chance of getting the proper players for the proper manager. Whitey Herzog had very successful running teams in both Kansas City and St. Louis because he was managing in turf parks geared toward pitching, not power hitting. If he were managing in Boston, it would have been a different story.
You think Terry Francona took an offseason course in speed management between the '06 and '07 summers? No, but when he got to Fort Myers last spring and found both Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp ready to run, he turned them loose. Now it's Jacoby Ellsbury's turn. But one thing will not change: the Red Sox won't be among the league leaders in sacrifice bunts. Terry Francona is clearly more of a big-inning manager.
In one sense, Francona is a 21st-century extension of Earl Weaver. Unlike his immediate predecessor, he studies his computer data. He works pitcher/batter matchups according to the numbers. Earl, of course, did it with Dr. Charles Steinberg's index cards.
"I was the first to use the stats," he declares. "When Darrell Johnson was managing the Red Sox, he'd sit Tommy Harper down against [Jim] Palmer. The fact is Palmer was terrified of Harper and I had the numbers to prove it. And he'd have [Carl Yastrzemski] in there against [Mike] Cuellar. I don't think Yaz had three hits in four years off Cuellar."
Identifying specific skills and knowing how to use the players you had was Weaver's idea of managing. "And knowing when to pull a pitcher," he adds. In his best years, Weaver seemed to have an uncanny knack for having the right pinch hitter ready, but he didn't view that as game management as much as it was making the right personnel decision months before. With the right people at his disposal, the game simply played into his hands.
But Weaver could stir the pot. "Oh, we'd win games with trick plays every once in a while," he points out. "Men on first and third, the runner on first takes off, he stumbles, the man on third makes it home." That was fine, he figures, but nothing to hang your hat on.
In Morgan's view, preparation is more important than so-called strategy. "Going over the hitters with your pitcher and your catcher is very important," he maintains. "Tony Pena was the best. You'd tell him something, and he'd never forget it."
Most of what the public and media hail as superb managing involves a pinch hitter or reliever doing his job. Stengel carved out a formidable reputation with the Yankees as a master manipulator of personnel. He platooned, he pinch hit, he shuffled people defensively, and he certainly established a Stengel style. But he did it with very good core players. Do names such as Mantle, Berra, Bauer, McDougald, Skowron, Reynolds, Raschi, Ford, and Howard ring a bell?
The truth is that managers can mess up a game more than they can win it. And it may very well be true, as Weaver says, that the game runs itself.
Check this out. On Aug. 24, 1951, St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck turned the game over to the fans. As recounted in "The Bill James Guide To Baseball Managers," manager Zack Taylor sat in a rocking chair, puffing a pipe and reading the paper. As the game progressed, the 1,115 fans in attendance held up signs reading "bunt," "steal," "yes," "no," etc. as situations arose. The fans even selected the starting lineup.
Final score: St. Louis 5, Philadelphia Athletics 3. The Browns won only 52 games that year. Zack Taylor should have pulled out that rocking chair more often.