Cooperstown Confidential: three firingsby Bruce Markusen
June 17, 2011
Bob Geren became the first managerial casualty of the 2011 season, but one has to wonder why general manager Billy Beane didn’t engineer his firing sooner. During Geren’s first three seasons in Oakland, the A’s failed to finish above third place in the four-team American League West, with no more than 76 wins in a season.
Last year, the A’s showed progress under Geren, winning half of their games to place second behind the Rangers. Thanks to some wintertime acquisitions, the 2011 A’s looked improved enough to be a legitimate contender for the AL West throne. Yet, they have been pinned in last place for much of the first third of the season.
Several players, most notably veteran left-hander Brian Fuentes, have criticized Geren’s communications ability, some going as far as to call it “nonexistent.” And according to some Bay Area reports, the Oakland clubhouse was on the verge of revolt, a testament to just how dissatisfied the majority of the players were with Geren’s leadership.
Under Geren, the 2011 A’s had the best pitching in the American League, much like they did in 2010. In contrast, the offense has been dreadfully disappointing. With their offseason acquisitions of outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham and veteran DH Hideki Matsui, the A’s were hoping to have a bolstered offense that ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack.
It hasn’t happened. At this writing, the A’s are ranked third from last in the league in both runs scored and on-base percentage. Their problems go beyond the difficulties of hitting at the expansive McAfee Coliseum, with its vast prairie-like amount of foul territory. Most of the Oakland players are underperforming offensively, with the exception of shortstop Cliff Pennington, who is hardly an offensive bulwark even on his best day. At some point, the manager has to take some of the blame for prolonged underachievement.
The counterargument to this might be pinning the blame on hitting coach Gerald Perry. Perhaps Beane should have fired Perry simultaneously with Geren. But the manager cannot be completely absolved either. I believe that teams sometime reflect the manager and his philosophical style of play. As a player, Geren was a weak-hitting catcher who had very little plate discipline and hardly ever drew a walk. On the 2011 A’s only first baseman Daric Barton has exhibited any kind of patience at the plate. No one else on the team has drawn even as many as 25 walks on the season. In too many ways, the 2011 A’s have hit like so many Bob Gerens.
Then there are the other criticisms of Geren, in particular the complaints of Fuentes about a lack of communication. Even former A’s, like Huston Street and Rob Bowen, joined in on the chorus, describing Geren as thoroughly unpleasant. (“For me personally,“ said Street, “he was my least favorite person I have ever encountered in sports from age 6 to 27.) On the one hand, I think Fuentes was trying to divert attention from his own failures as a closer, but his complaints were symptomatic of a larger problem.
Whether a strict disciplinarian or laid back and lenient, a manager has to talk to his players, let them know what their roles are, and repeatedly remind them of what is expected. Instead, Geren usually posted his lineups very late and without discussion, leaving his players surprised at their exclusion from that day’s game.
Geren seemingly managed with such a hands-off approach that he rarely talked to his ballclub, instead choosing to communicate through his coaches, in much the same way that some NFL head coaches do. That approach might work in football, but it doesn’t in baseball, not when players, coaches and managers live with each other day after day, game after game, all within the confines of limited spaces like the dugout, the clubhouse, and the team plane. Furthermore, players look to managers as the ultimate boss, unlike the NFL, where offensive and defensive coordinators are often viewed as major authority figures.
Such shortcomings were enough to justify Geren’s firing, but he exacerbated the problem with his listless public persona. Like too many managers of recent vintage—Ned Yost, John Russell and Ken Macha come to mind—Geren sat stone-faced on the bench, rarely showing emotion, and generally looking stiff and indifferent. He didn’t have to wave pompons or stomp his feet, but when your team has played as poorly as the A’s have, it might have helped to show some fire, some anger, some displeasure with what was transpiring.
My goodness, a manager has to act as if he has a pulse. By acting so aloof and apathetic, Geren was sending a not-so-subtle message to his players that their poor play did not matter. That’s not a good vibe to be giving off, not when you’re ten to 15 games below .500.
Too many times I’ve been infuriated by those teams that make their managers scapegoats for their players’ lack of effort and absence of professionalism. But this is not one of those times. By all accounts, Geren performed unacceptably as Oakland’s manager, a position that was given to him largely because of his strong friendship with Beane. He reminded no one of Tony LaRussa, Billy Martin or Dick Williams, the three best managers in the history of the Oakland franchise. In fact, Geren did so poorly that it’s quite likely that he’ll never have a chance to manage a major league team again…
While Geren’s firing was justifiable, the ousting of two batting coaches in other locales seems much more debatable. The Rangers fired Thad Bosley, coincidentally a former batting coach with Oakland, and the Marlins cut ties with relative unknown John Mallee.
Bosley was let go despite the fact that Texas was fourth in the American League in both runs and on-base percentage at the time, despite not having Josh Hamilton for several weeks. So why was Bosley axed? Much as with Geren, the Rangers cited a lack of communication between Bosley and his players. Hamilton, in particular, was critical of Bosley, saying that “he just didn’t fit with us.“ (This is now the second time that Hamilton has knocked one of the Rangers’ coaches, the first time involving third base coach Dave Anderson and an ill-fated decision to send Hamilton home.)
Manager Ron Washington had attempted to intervene and alleviate the situation, but the disconnect between Bosley and the players persisted. Perhaps it was a clash of personalities, or perhaps it was a case of a generational gap. Bosley played in the 1970s and '80s and seemed to have trouble relating to today’s player. Still, based on pure production, the Rangers might have been better served by keeping Bosley in the dugout a little longer.
The firing of Mallee seemed justified on the surface—Florida was in the midst of a terrible offensive slump at the time—but the Marlins players reacted as if the front office had stabbed them between their shoulder blades. Four players came out vehemently in support of Mallee, who had worked 11 years in the Marlins’ organization: outfielders Logan Morrison, Chris Coghlan and Mike Stanton and first baseman Gaby Sanchez. All worked with Mallee when he was a batting coach in the Marlins’ minor league system.
None was more outraged than Morrison, who pointed the finger directly at owner Jeffrey Loria for overriding his general manager and making the move on his own. Always outspoken, Morrison claimed that Marlins hitters will be less relaxed and more angered without the popular Mallee, an unfavorable combination to say the least. Given the players’ reaction, Loria should have butted out and left any coaching decisions up to general manager Larry Beinfest and manager Edwin Rodriguez. Like Bosley, Mallee deserved a longer stint as his team’s batting instructor.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.