Commentary

Early lessons helped Scioscia succeed

Updated: March 28, 2010, 11:59 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The best manager in baseball didn't learn everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but he had absorbed the big lessons within months after leaving high school.

The lessons from the summer of '76 came in bitter pills.

The first one was administered by Mike Scioscia's mother, Florence, who worked as a Philadelphia schoolteacher for 30 years. She never entirely forgave her youngest son for choosing a game over an education.

The first-round pick of the Dodgers, Scioscia signed a pro contract and left a full-ride offer from Clemson sitting on the table.

[+] EnlargeMike Scioscia
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesDodgers catcher Mike Scioscia plays the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium in July 1987.

On his way out the door, the 17-year-old stopped to listen to a few words from his mom. He's been mentioning them more and more as his star has risen in baseball in recent years.

"She told me when I was leaving, 'Hey Michael, if you want to be a leader, the first person you have to lead is yourself.' That's all she said to me," Scioscia said.

Florence Scioscia died seven years later, at the age of 60. She had given up on her son's higher education when the Dodgers ordered Scioscia to play winter ball in 1979 and 1980.

Scioscia never finished college, but he has brought a studious approach to the game for 35 years. His son, Matt, now is a promising junior catcher at Notre Dame.

"I don't care if he hits .600 this year, he's getting his degree," Scioscia said. "I don't care if it takes 'til he's 50, he's getting it."

Lesson No. 2 came at him later in that summer of '76. It was Scioscia's first game in rookie ball with the Bellingham Dodgers. They were in Walla Walla, Wash., to play the Padres affiliate. The game was moving fast, too fast.

It started making him dizzy.

He had to catch Dave Stewart's 95 mph fastball. Rudy Law and Max Venable were on that team. The cocky Italian kid from Philadelphia suddenly didn't feel so sure of himself.

"I thought I was pretty good. I went out there for the first game and I thought, 'I'm the worst kid on this field.'" Scioscia said. "'Both teams.'"

Lunch-pail mentality

If you ask around about Scioscia, there's one thing everybody talks about: his preparation. He learned the importance of it that day in Walla Walla. It was nurtured as a young man through exposure to men like Johnny Roseboro, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax and Del Crandall in the heyday of the Dodgers.

"I'm certainly not surprised that he turned the Anaheim Angels into what they are, because the type of game they play is the type of game we grew up on," said Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, who moved through the Dodgers' chain a step ahead of Scioscia. "From the opening bell, take it to them. Pitch and catch the ball. Do the fundamental things."

That brings us back to Scioscia, the manager. And there's that question again: Is he the best in the game at what he does?

Entering his 11th season, he has two manager of the year awards on the shelf of his Westlake Village home. He's third in longevity among big league managers. When ESPN's Jayson Stark recently polled baseball executives, his name came up more than anybody else's.

One of the managers who has been at it longer than Scioscia, Bobby Cox, has said he'll retire after this season. That would leave Scioscia second in tenure to Tony La Russa in St. Louis.

Like Cox, Scioscia, 51, has won just one World Series after a bushel of playoff appearances.

Scioscia's teams have lost in the first round of the playoffs three times. They have fallen one step short of the World Series twice.

"I'm not worried about vindicating any career. I love this game, and we keep moving forward," Scioscia said. "We feel we're going to win that second championship and it's going to feel better than the first."

Maybe the best way to gauge a leader is to see how he handles crises. Three of them -- a team fumbling itself out of the race in April, a player who challenges the chain of command and the random death of a young player -- give a telling snapshot of Scioscia's decade with the Angels.

Crisis One: Freefalling in '02

A lot of people remember Troy Percival throwing up his arms, Darin Erstad snatching the ball out of the air. They recall Garret Anderson smacking that double, Scott Spiezio lifting that home run inside the pole.

Those were the glorious memories from October.

Fewer people remember the turmoil of April. The Angels looked dead in the water, 10½ games behind the burgeoning young Oakland A's by the end of the first month, off to a dreadful 6-14 start. It wasn't as if Scioscia was a respected stalwart at that point. His teams had gone 157-167 in his first two seasons; this after general manager Bill Stoneman took a chance on a guy who had managed a total of one season at Triple-A.

Managers have been fired after better starts, but Stoneman said he never felt tempted to turn things over at the top. He did start asking himself some difficult questions.

"Do we have to make a bunch of changes to our players or our coaches? Was it the manager's fault?" Stoneman said. "It was none of it. We had talented players and a good group guiding the players. You just had to be patient."

Scioscia can be maddeningly resistant to change, as inert as a boulder if he thinks he's right. He remembers an endless series of meetings that April and early May, his staff trying to figure out how a good group of players could play so poorly.

Eventually, they did virtually nothing. By the end of the season, the Angels rode a hot offense and a blistering bullpen to the franchise's first World Series title.

If Scioscia was stubborn before, 2002 doubled it.

"Nobody was happy about being 6-14, but there wasn't a guy who didn't think we were going to turn it around and be a force in our division," Scioscia said. "Those guys proved it."

Crisis Two: Insubordination in '04

The box score from the Angels' Sept. 25, 2004, game against the Oakland A's says "Jose Guillen, LF." On the next line, it says "Alfredo Amezaga, PR-2B."

A box score is a beautiful, concise snapshot of a ballgame, but sometimes it fails miserably to tell the story. Scioscia still won't talk about what happened after that game. Various reports suggest he and Guillen got into a shoving match. Some have said Guillen made an explicit gesture to Scioscia in the clubhouse to spark a confrontation.

Everyone in the building -- more than 43,000 -- and those watching on TV witnessed Guillen's on-field explosion when Scioscia took him out of the game. He raised his hands as if to ask "Why." He slammed equipment in the dugout, yelling to anyone who would listen.

[+] EnlargeScioscia
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireMike Scioscia has two manager of the year awards as he enters his 11th season on the job.

Scioscia and Stoneman have enough old-school in them that they weren't going to let it slide, and they huddled after the game. They each lost sleep that night pondering the next move, but both suspected what it would be.

The next day, they met with Guillen in Scioscia's office and delivered the sentence: an eight-game suspension without pay and no postseason roster spot. Guillen was batting .294 with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs, crucial production for a team beset by injuries. The players' association filed a grievance and the Angels later had to pay Guillen. Less than two months later, Stoneman traded him for Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis.

Around baseball, Scioscia's definitive justice earned him applause for his willingness to stand up to a prominent player. The sport is in an era in which players usually earn more than their bosses, and sometimes carry more clout in the clubhouse.

"This sounds silly, but I used to stand up in the middle of the room in spring training and say, 'Take a good look here. There's one king in this room, and you're looking at him," said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, one of Scioscia's mentors. "'It's now, tomorrow and always will be.' I think we have allowed it to change, but not Mike. He's the boss."

One of two current Angels who were on that team, reliever Scot Shields, said the message was sent.

"He doesn't care who you are on the team. Jose was arguably our MVP that year," Shields said. "Play the game the right way, everything will be fine. Don't play the game the right way, he's going to have a problem."

The Angels were Guillen's sixth team. He has since played for three more.

Crisis Three: Tragedy in '09

Those first two tests were like pop quizzes compared to April 9, 2009, the morning Nick Adenhart died.

"You talk about tough situations. To me, the Adenhart situation was as tough as they get," Stoneman said.

Scioscia replays in his mind all the time. After the 22-year-old had pitched six scoreless innings against the A's, his first confident stride into a major league career, he was walking past Scioscia's office after being interviewed by the media.

Adenhart would never walk back through those clubhouse doors. He and two friends died in a car crash after celebrating that night when their car was hit by a man charged with drunk driving and running a red light.

"You always remember the last words you say to somebody in a situation like that," Scioscia said. "He was walking out. I said, 'Hey, great job.'"

The look on Adenhart's face that night reminded Scioscia of a photo he saw at the memorial service. In the picture, Adenhart pumped his fist after striking out a batter at the age of 16.

"You could see how proud he was. That's the way he walked off the field that night," Scioscia said. "He experienced some great things in a short life. That gave me a little bit of peace, to know he was making his family proud."

Scioscia maintained a stoic demeanor through 2009, the season clouded by the early tragedy. The Angels offered what support they could to Adenhart's devastated family. They wrote them letters. Several players attended his memorial service. It's been nearly a year since the event, and Scioscia only now feels comfortable talking about how it impacted him.

"I don't know if it changes you, but I'll tell you what, man, it's an eye-opener for all of us about how fragile things are," he said. "I don't think it changed me as a manager as much as it made me appreciate Matt and [daughter] Taylor and [wife] Anne. That was never about us as a team, but about a family losing a son."

The aftermath

Having survived every crisis that came his way, Scioscia's future with the Angels appears to be virtually limitless. His contract runs through the 2018 season. If he makes it through the contract, he would turn 60 the next month.

Anderson managed for 27 years. He said he hopes Scioscia lasts nearly as long.

"In our business, you run across people who you just love to work around and then you run across dogs," Anderson said. "This one here happens to be one of the best people I've been around in all my career."

Scioscia said he fell in love with managing in the instructional league with the Dodgers in 1998. By the time he was managing Triple-A Albuquerque the following year, he realized he wanted to do it as a career. Turmoil in the ownership and management of the Dodgers -- "it was like a washing machine over there," Scioscia said -- meant his opportunity came 30 miles from where he had played.

He admits the stresses of the job have gotten to him at times over the past decade, but he said he has no thoughts of leaving it behind.

"This is the next best thing to playing," Scioscia said. "Yeah, there are tough times, but it's baseball and you love it."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter or send him a question for his mailbag.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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