Cooperstown Confidential: managerial musical chairs

Ultimately, the Indians did the right thing in hiring Terry Francona as their next manager. He was the best available candidate, and as long as he was affordable to Cleveland, there was no reason for the Indians not to reel him in as the successor to Manny Acta.

I do, however, have some objection to the way in which the Indians handled their managerial transition. Rather than wait for the end of the season to fire Acta, they dumped him during the final week of the regular season and installed Sandy Alomar Jr. as interim skipper, with the possibility that Alomar would be named full time manager during the offseason. Ever since his playing days, Alomar has been regarded as a team leader, and showed excellent communications skills in his short stint as interim manager. Given Alomar’s popularity in Cleveland—not only with fans and media but the Indians players—I thought it was just a formality that he would be named the permanent manager.

Obviously, that wasn’t the case. In bypassing Alomar, Indians management created an air of expectation followed by disappointment for Cleveland fans who were expecting the former catcher to become manager. Even though Alomar says he expects to be named to Francona’s coaching staff, that’s not what Indians fans had in mind.

So here’s the question. If the Indians wanted to take a serious run at Francona, why not just wait until the end of the season to fire Acta and not name an interim manager? Why create the false perception that Alomar might become full time manager, only to tell him that he wasn’t quite good enough, or ready enough, to take over the job. I don’t quite get it.

While the process was wrong, it’s hard to argue with the result. Francona is a terrific manager; he’s smart, patient, and knows how to deal with the modern day player. He simply had the misfortune of being unfairly derailed by a group of undisciplined and disloyal players in Boston. But he’s intelligent enough to learn from his situation in Red Sox Nation. Francona now knows that he will have to be a little tougher with his players, and not give them as much free rein as they had in Boston.

The Francona hiring is also fitting from an historical standpoint. After all, his father Tito played the largest chunk of his career (six seasons) with the Indians in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The senior Francona had his best years in Cleveland, where he made an All-Star team and once drew consideration for American League MVP. And lest we forget, Terry himself played briefly for the Indians back in the late 1980s. Terry batted .311 in 222 plate appearances in 1988, as both a DH and cameo player at first base and left field.

Probably only a few Indians diehards remember Terry Francona’s first go-round in Cleveland. They probably don’t remember his second tenure in Cleveland as a special assistant to the front office. I have a feeling that Indians fans will remember his tenure as manager much, much longer. Do not be surprised if Francona has the Indians in contention in the American League Central by 2014…

Other than Bobby Valentine himself, no one was surprised that he was given the heave-ho by the Red Sox the day after the regular season ended. While I have sympathy for Valentine—he had a team full of vipers at Fenway this season—only the delusional would argue that Valentine did good work in Boston. He alienated too many of his players, ran Kevin Youkilis out of town, made some strange lineup decisions, and generally seemed to lack the fire and passion for the job that he had shown in New York and Texas years ago.

Valentine did so poorly that he likely managed himself out of contention for another major league job; if he wants to return to the dugout, he may have to return to the Japanese Leagues, where he remains exceedingly popular, or try his wares in some other country where baseball is not the National Pastime that it is here.

So whom will the Red Sox turn to as their next skipper? Most recently, the name of the former Astros catcher, the highly intelligent Brad Ausmus, has come up. So has Dodgers coach Tim Wallach, who has long been considered a managerial prospect. Both will apparently receive interviews. But the name we keep hearing is John Farrell. If this were still 2008 or 2009, I could see it; at the time, Farrell was doing terrific work as the Red Sox’ pitching coach and was highly regarded as a manager-in-waiting.

But why would the Red Sox find Farrell appealing now? He has had two lackluster seasons with the Blue Jays, who have failed to progress as an organization, and if anything, seem to have taken two steps backward. Like too many of today’s new breed managers, he is placid and passionless in the dugout.

More importantly, two veteran Jays openly questioned the lack of leadership on the Blue Jays during the final weeks of the regular season. Omar Vizquel and Jason Frasor raised doubts about the lack of teaching and discipline that took place. This past season, the Blue Jays ran the bases horribly—as badly as any team I watched in 2012—and that’s exactly the kind of shortcoming that could be considered an indictment of Farrell and his coaches.

In general, top-notch pitching coaches have a history of struggling as managers, perhaps because they’re not as in tune with other aspects of the game, like base running, hitting and fielding.

Let’s consider a few examples of pitching coaches who did not pan out as team leaders. George Bamberger was one of the game’s great pitching coaches with the Orioles, but had only mild success as a manager with the Brewers before flopping with the Mets and then floundering in a return trip to Milwaukee. Ray Miller was a phenomenal pitching coach with the Orioles, but a failed manager in Minnesota and Baltimore.

A bushel of other good pitching coaches struggled to sub-.500 records as managers. The group includes Joe Kerrigan (who managed in Boston), Marcel Lachemann (Angels), Phil Regan (Orioles) and Larry Rothschild (Devil Rays). Those failures do not necessarily mean that Farrell will be a flop, too, but right now he looks like he has a better chance of being grouped in this category, rather than having the success of a Roger Craig (Giants), a Bob Lemon (Yankees), or a Buck Rodgers (Angels and Expos), all of whom made terrific transitions from pitching coaches to managerial gurus.

To make matters worse, the Red Sox would have to compensate the Blue Jays with a prospect or two if Farrell decides he wants to leave Toronto and sign with Boston. They wouldn’t be top-level prospects, but they would likely be of Grade-B or Grade-C quality. Would that make any sense at all for the Red Sox, given his so-so record with the Blue Jays?

No, if I were the Red Sox, I would stay away from Farrell. They would be far better off giving a shot to the underrated Pete Mackanin, whom they interviewed last year and is now completely free after being fired from the Phillies’ coaching staff. Organized and disciplined, Mackanin has had two wonderful stints as an interim manager in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but somehow has never received a full time managing offer. It’s about time that such an offer came his way.

Or how about Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Fame player who has paid heavy dues as a minor league skipper in the Cubs and Phillies organizations? (For what it’s worth, Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Frank Robinson and Yogi Berra never managed a single day in the minor leagues.)

Sandberg was just promoted to the Phillies’ major league staff, but I’d have to believe that if the Red Sox came calling, the Phillies would not stand in his way. The Philllies contend they have made no promise to Sandberg that he will be Charlie Manuel’s successor. What I know is this: Sandberg is smart, a good instructor, a teacher of fundamentals, and just enough of a throwback to know how to discipline his players without tormenting them like a Billy Martin or a Leo Durocher.

Sandberg would also bring instant credibility to the Red Sox. After all, many of today’s players (sadly) have no respect for managers who never played in the major leagues. They will know Sandberg played, and that he played at a Hall of Fame level…

The Rockies also have a managerial opening after Jim Tracy announced his resignation this week. After a miserable season, the Rockies are not a hotly desired destination, but they will have their share of candidates. One of them is apparently bench coach Tom Runnells, who was an abject failure as manager of the Expos back in the 1990s. That’s the same Runnells who showed up to spring training wearing military fatigues, as a way of indicating that he meant to instill discipline his players. The military stunt succeeded in making Runnells something of a laughing-stock; many of the players lost respect for him that day.

Perhaps Runnells, a former utility infielder who is from Colorado, has grown from the experience, but he would seem to be an odd choice. He hasn’t managed in the majors for 20 years. His first go-round was hardly a success. Why would the Rockies turn to Runnells at this juncture?

Another candidate is Stu Cole, who spent this past season as the manager at Colorado Springs, the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate. Cole is perhaps best remembered as being the manager of the Tulsa Drillers at the time of a terrible tragedy, when his first base coach, Mike Coolbaugh, died after being struck by a line drive. Cole has certainly paid his dues; he has managed in Colorado’s system for the last 12 years, working his way up from the Tri-City Dust Devils, his first team back in 2001.

Runnells and Cole appear to be the favorites, but the most interesting name that’s been mentioned is Jason Giambi, who is still technically an active player but says he would retire if given the job. Giambi is personable and upbeat, but has no coaching experience whatsoever and has the stain of steroids attached to him.

Although a fine player and smart hitter for much of his career, Giambi has never struck me as the cerebral type. He just doesn’t seem like a natural to become a manager. It seems unlikely that he would follow Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura as the next man to emerge in a big league dugout without prior experience at any level…

A sad note

The world of sports writing lost a good man this week with the passing of Bill Jauss. A longtime reporter—and a good one at that—for the Chicago Tribune, Jauss achieved nationwide fame as one of the four regular members of “The Sportswriters on TV,” a staple of cable television a generation ago. Jauss, Bill Gleason, Rick Telander and Ben Bentley played off each other beautifully as they argued, with humor and anger, the most relevant sports issues of the day. Gleason provided an old school viewpoint, Telander offered a more modern approach, and Jauss often swung between the two camps.

Always enthusiastic and ever passionate, Jauss gave the show a special energy, making it must-see TV in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He came across as a regular guy who loved sports, which was exactly what he was.

Jauss, the father of former Mets bench coach Dave Jauss, died from natural causes on Wednesday at 81. He was one of the people who made me especially grateful to my parents for bringing cable television to our house in the ’80s.

As Bill Gleason might have said, “Good job, Jauss.”

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    I wonder if Cleveland management just didn’t know what to expect with Francona. That he wouldn’t be so willing and affordable. Either that or Acta told management to defecate or vacate the commode.

    I remember Jauss wrote for Baseball Digest a lot, too. Sorry to hear of his passing.

  2. Bob said...

    Sorry to hear about “Jaussy,” as he was sometimes called on that classic show. That program showed that passion over sports didn’t require vitriol or pigheadedness.

    Best sports show ever, in my book. Thanks so much for bringing it to the attention of those not in the know, Bruce.

    As for this other thing: The Indians possibly contending in the A.L. Central… in 2014? I see some young position players to like (Cabrera, Kipnis, Brantley, Santana) and Choo is a sturdy veteran. But the starting pitching is so bad—in the majors and upper minors—that it’s hard for me to picture even a .500 team emerging until at least 2015.

    I’d like Cleveland to be good, but I just don’t see it. What am I missing, sir?

  3. kevin said...

    ray miller, a phenomenal pitching coach?
    puhlease.
    he developed one very good pitcher, ever.
    he broke more pitchers than than the back stretch at belmont has broken horses’ legs.
    he was hired twice as a coach, and kept around as drinking, smoking, buddy for the hirer.
    even the pirates’ gm in 1990, asked ‘why is this guy here?’.

  4. Dennis said...

    Though Tracy was an incompetent field manager, I liked that he had the guts to walk away from $1.4 million rather than be Dan O’dowd’s and Bill Gievet’s piss boy. Gievet was in charge of talent development and you can see how well that has worked out.  So, O’Dowd put him in charge of Major League Operations, with authority over player selection, etc.  And put his desk a few feet from the manager’s office.  No competent, self-respecting manager in his right mind would take the Rockies job.  Maybe that’s why they’re talking to Runnels.  After all, he is the bench coach for a team that just lost 98 games.

  5. Bruce Markusen said...

    Oh, Kevin’s back. I’m sorry, Kevin, but your take on Ray Miller is some kind of personal attack that is not based on the actual record. Four young pitchers developed very well under Miller in the late 1970s: Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Dennis Martinez and Tippy Martinez. Steve Stone had his best year pitching for Miller, the year that he won 20 and picked up the Cy Young.

    The Orioles obviously have a different thought on Miller. In 2010, they named Miller to their Hall of Fame.

    And this is a guy who was brought back each time only because he was a “drinking and smoking buddy?”

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