Cooperstown Calling Contemporary Managers?

As readers to my columns here at THT may have noted, there are some topics in which I take a considerable interest. One is the Hall of Fame, a topic of numerous columns. Another is managers. Aside from some columns at THT, I have a deal with McFarland Publishers to write a book on managers (rough draft completed, final copy due on April Fool’s Day).

So it occurred to me, why not take two interests of mine and put them together in the hopes of achieving some peanut-butter-plus-chocolate-like epiphany? Specifically, let’s look at contemporary managers and try to determine which ones have a good chance for eventual immortality and who still needs to work on his resume. Some of the answers are rather obvious; still there are points of interest for many.

Let’s start with the ones most obviously Cooperstown-bound and work our way down from there:

The following list might make it sound like there are a disproportionate number of immortals amongst us, but that’s not the case. First, not all hopefuls end up making the final cut.

Second, and more importantly, Hall of Fame managers are a bit more common than you might expect. Sure, there are “only” 19 men inducted as managers, but those 19 combined to manage over 64,000 games. And that doesn’t include guys currently managing who will go in, or retired managers waiting for the VC to pick them. In the 20th century, about 20 percent of all games were managed by future Hall of Famers.

The big three

These are, obviously, LaRussa, Cox and Torre. But you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?

Tony LaRussa: Our first no-brainer.

As both the youngest and winningest member of the trio, LaRussa has a chance to do something long thought impossible: pass John McGraw on the all-time wins list. He’ll end the year about 300 wins shy. That’s four years of managing. Please note he’s four years younger than Cox and Torre.

His secret, aside from being really good at what he does, is that he’s always managing somewhere. Since filling out his first MLB lineup in August 1979, he’s been on the job somewhere the entire time, save for a two-and-a-half-week stretch in the summer of 1986. Only Connie Mack and McGraw can claim such perpetual employment in this topsy-turvy occupation.

Oh yeah—he also has a dozen postseason appearances, claimed five pennants, and won a pair of World Series titles. Those titles came with two different franchises. Only three other men—Bucky Harris, Bill McKechnie, and Sparky Anderson—have won it all with multiple franchises. All are in Cooperstown.

Bobby Cox: Cox’s .557 career win-loss record is the best among the Big Three. His teams have made the postseason in a majority of his seasons. That’s pretty impressive for someone who lasts 10 years on the job, let alone 25+. Even with Atlanta’s October disappointments, he still has one world championship and five pennants.

He has 14 consecutive postseason appearances, and he likely would’ve had 15. (The Braves were on target for the wild card in 1994.) Sure, it’s easier to make the playoffs now than ever before, but how many managers have even had 15 straight winning seasons? Only Cox, Sparky Anderson, Joe McCarthy, Earl Weaver and Al Lopez. Obviously, all are in Cooperstown. Cox’s worst winning percentage in that stretch was .543—something only McCarthy can top (though Weaver ties).

Joe Torre: To date, only three men in baseball history have managed in five different decades: Connie Mack, John McGraw and Leo Durocher. The current trio has a chance to double total, should they all stick around another two years. They may not as they are all getting up there in years, but it’s amazing such a doubling might even be possible.

What’s more impressive, there’s no one else out there who looks to be in position to join the five-decade club. To join, you need three things going for you. First, you have to be young when you start managing. LaRussa, Cox, and Torre were all in their mid-30s when they began.

Second—and most obviously—you have to last a long time. Third, you have to start your career at the end of a decade. That’s the case for everyone except Mack, and he’s a special case, given that he was part owner of the A’s.

That combo doesn’t happen for many others. There are only two managers who began in the 1980s still out there: Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland. Can you really see either of them hanging around until 2020? Piniella has already said this is the last job he’ll ever have.

Dusty Baker would have to manage until he’s 81, as would Mike Scioscia. Only Connie Mack has managed at that age. Aside from him, baseball’s oldest manager was Casey Stengel, at age 75. Ron Gardenhire would have to last to age 82. Cito Gaston and Ozzie Guillen have to make it to age 76. Bruce Bochy has to “only” last 75, but I don’t see him having the stature to last as long as Stengel.

The only man it’s feasible for is Terry Francona. He was hired at age 38 in 1997. He’ll be 71 in 2030. If he doesn’t get it, we’re stuck waiting to see if recent hires like Manny Acta and Joe Girardi can make it. Enjoy seeing if any of the Big Three make it to 2010—that might be the last time in your lifetime anyone manages in five decades.

The Little Four

Some others have pretty good cases, even though they’re all missing a bit.

Jim Leyland: He is on the borderline, but probably on the wrong side of the border. He’s got a bunch of impressive credentials, but there’s always a “but” somewhere in them.

He won pennants with two teams: Florida and Detroit. He just missed winning a pennant with a third squad, the Pirates. That would have ensured enshrinement, but it was not to be. He won three straight division titles with Pittsburgh, but they never got over the hump.

He won it all in Florida, but when people think of that team they recall the dismantling more than the championship. If they don’t think of the dismantling, they recollect the free agency bonanza general manager Dave Dombrowski harvested. Leyland seems incidental to his most prestigious accomplishment in popular memory.

Detroit won a pennant, but they lost the Series to a far worse team. Then they proceeded to underachieve in subsequent seasons. Also, this was the second straight time Leyland worked with Dombrowski. Cooperstown might focus more on the general manager than the manager.

If Pittsburgh had won a pennant, or if Detroit had won the 2006 Series, or if he hadn’t been overshadowed in Florida, Leyland would have an excellent shot. Instead, he runs the risk of being a managerial Jim Kaat—impressive career accomplishments without the necessary “wow!” factor.

His two pennants would tie him for the fewest of any Cooperstown immortal. He’s 26th in career wins, but only one post-1900 Hall of Famer ranks lower than that. (All three pre-1900 guys—Ned Hanlon, Frank Selee, and Harry Wright—are lower but their schedule was shorter.)

He has more wins than 2008 Cooperstown inductee Billy Southworth, but Southworth had to wait almost 60 years for induction. More importantly, he had one of the best winning percentages of all time. Currently, Leyland has a losing record for his career. That kills him. Only managers with really long careers, like Mack and Harris, get in with losing records.

Lou Piniella: Want to know if he’ll make it to Cooperstown? Watch what happens this October. If the Cubs win the pennant, he’s a lock. If they don’t, he has no chance. He’s the anti-Leyland. Whereas the current Tiger skipper has a series of “buts” dragging down his case, Piniella has a series of “buts” uplifting his.

Piniella has only won one world title—in fact he only has one pennant—but that was one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Those 1990 Reds were supposed to be doomed against the mighty A’s juggernaut.

He never took the Mariners to the postseason, but they did win 116 wins in a season for him once. Tying the single-season win record is a big mark for him, even when you factor in their postseason loss in the ALCS. Besides, the Mariners never had a winning season before he arrived. He took them to the postseason four times, still their only trips in franchise history.

If Piniella takes the Cubs to the promised land, that continues the theme. Sure others have won pennants with multiple teams without gaining enshrinement as managers—Alvin Dark, Yogi Berra, Pat Moran—but this wouldn’t just be a second team. It’s the doomed, damned and deplorable Cubs.

A title, a pennant, and some playoff appearances normally don’t make Cooperstown call, but a huge upset, 116 wins, and a breaker of Western civilization’s oldest curse combined would.

Dusty Baker: Stop and think how good his case looked heading into the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Baker was on the verge of capturing his second straight NL pennant. These performances came with different teams, highlighting the case for his admirers. He had a terrific career win-loss record and had already won three Manager of the Year Awards.

He’d only been on the job a little over a decade, but that’s as promising a start as you can have. Winning pennants with two teams is nice, but as noted above, a Cubs pennant is an extra special feather to have in a manager’s cap. It would be doubly special to earn in your first year there, as Baker threatened to do in 2003.

Now stop and think where his case stands today. The Cubs, of course, blew that game and didn’t win the pennant. Each year the team did worse than the year before. Now he’s in Cincinnati, and the team’s floundering along with him just like it did without him. His reputation has gone from first-rate to journeyman, and he only has one pennant. And no one cares about Manager of the Year Awards.

He needs something special to get back on track. Leyland may already have enough credentials, and Piniella just needs one good October, but Baker needs something a bit more sustained than that. Otherwise he’ll join Pat Moran and Charlie Grimm in the leftover pile.

Terry Francona: He has two world titles, which is a big help on any manager’s resume. However, he’s as invisible as a manager can be with two world titles.

The Red Sox’s success has primarily been seen as a testament to the team’s money, Theo Epstein’s decisions, and the character of veterans like Curt Schilling. I don’t hear people speaking ill of Francona, but he gets lost in the shuffle, a cog in Kid Theo’s machine. It doesn’t help him that he had his share of critics in his only other job, in Philly.

Despite that, he’s a lot closer than one might think. If the Red Sox win a third world title, he suddenly has a very good chance to go in. Here are the people who have won at least three World Series titles: John McGraw, Connie Mack, Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel and Walter Alston. All are immortals.

If he doesn’t win three, he’s stuck with the Danny Murtaughs and Ralph Houks. Not bad managers, but not in that most exclusive of clubs. If he gets a third, not only will he have a nice “wow” factor on his resume, but he’ll almost certainly be able to last a long time on the job with one team or another. As already noted, he was very young when he started, so he can rack up some impressive career wins to go with those titles.

Win, and he’s in.

Too soon to tell

Mike Scioscia: So far, so good. He already has a title, and he’s gearing up for his fifth playoff appearance in nine years. Also, he’s always been given a lot of credit for the Angels’ success over the years. He’ll need to win at least one more pennant, but he’s off to the best start of everyone who began the job this millennium.

Ron Gardenhire: I think he’s a great manager, but right now his resume looks a little thin. As of this writing (Saturday), he’s angling for his fifth postseason appearance, but Minnesota’s record in the playoffs has been horrible. They’ve lost in the ALDS thrice and were easily dismissed in their only trip to the ALCS. The general baseball public doesn’t pay much attention to him, also hurting his odds.

It’s still early in his career, so he has plenty of time to garner the big accomplishments, but there is a danger in repeated October disappointments. Windows don’t remain open forever, and a lack of postseason glory is fatal to a Cooperstown candidacy. Not only do all of the Hall of Fame managers have multiple pennants, but you need something special to put you over if you have only two.

Ozzie Guillen: Way too early to tell. He’s won it all, his teams consistently exceed expectation, and he gets lots of credit for that.

It’s only five years though. A lot of men, such as Charlie Dressen, have looked great for a few years. Guillen needs to keep it up. The danger I see for him is that he might burn out if he gets caught with an under-talented squad for a few years in a row. That’s just my own hunch. He’s done a great job so far.

Others

Cito Gaston: He’ll turn 65 next year. At best he’ll only have a little more than 1,100 wins by his 70th birthday. Like Francona, he needs a third title, but his odds are much worse. It doesn’t look good.

Bruce Bochy: He’s a long shot, but not quite a hopeless case. Bochy has over 1,000 wins and a pennant and is only in his early 50s. If he can last another 10 years in the game with one team or another and latch onto a solid franchise, his odds suddenly look much better. He’d have around 2,000 wins (everyone over 1,650 is either currently working or in Cooperstown), and could have multiple pennants.

If he lasts a ways longer and wins a World Series, he suddenly has a better case than Jim Leyland currently has. Then again, do you realize how many guys you can say that about? Yeah, if Jimmy Dykes had been hired by the Dodgers or Yankees instead of the Philadelphia A’s or Baltimore Orioles, maybe he could’ve gotten in. When you need everything to break perfectly, you’re a damn big long shot.

Eric Wedge: This is a real screwball one, but his odds are better than you think (though still not good).

Here’s the key point on his favor: he was barely 35 years old when he started managing the Indians, making him the youngest person to fill out the lineup card in the last 25 years. He has nearly 500 wins, but he’s still younger today than Mike Scioscia was upon his hiring as Angels manager.

If he’s respected enough to last a while, he’ll pick up some very impressive career counting stats. If he lands some playoff teams in the process, he’ll have a legitimate Hall of Fame case.

I don’t see it happened, though. I don’t follow the Indians too closely, but that team usually does a little worse than expectations, which I take as a knock on the manager. An early start puts him in a good position, but he’s got to make the most of his opportunities. To date, he’s failed badly at that.

As for the rest of the game’s managers, they either have so little experience or such bad odds it isn’t worth discussing their chances.

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