Players much tougher to manage than strike zone

Former catchers and infielders often make good managers. So why do pitchers struggle as skippers?

Originally Published: July 8, 2003
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

You can usually find them in the bullpen, or some remote back field, refining someone's grip or changing someone's arm angle. They're the ones carrying the clipboard, with the stopwatch hanging from their neck. They don't say much, their heads are often buried in a sea of charts. They are pitching coaches, and they are invaluable members of big-league teams.

Larry Rothschild
Larry Rothschild had little success as Tampa Bay's manager, but is thriving as the Cubs' pitching coach.

The only person above them, in uniform, is the manager. Yet that one last step is not an easy one, or one that is easily given. "It's the most difficult transition,'' Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "As a pitching coach, you're locked into your 11 or 12 guys. As a manager, there are 25 of them.''

George Bamberger made a successful leap from pitching coach to manager. So did Roger Craig. Recently, pitching coaches haven't been as fortunate. Ray Miller was the best pitching coach in the game, but was not a successful manager. The Phillies' Joe Kerrigan is as good a pitching coach as there is, but his short stay as Red Sox manager in 2001 didn't go well. The Cubs' Larry Rothschild is a marvelous pitching coach, but he lasted three-plus years as Devil Rays' manager (they were awful, no manager could have won with them).

"As a pitching coach, a lot of times you're communicating one-on-one,'' Rothschild said. "As a manager, it's a different responsibility. As a pitching coach, you teach people, you coach people. As a manager, you're managing people. If your propensity is teaching, it's very rewarding. But there's a lot more involved as a manager.''

Rothschild was bright, articulate and communicative as a manager, just as he is as a pitching coach. "What you hear a lot when you become a manager is 'he has changed.' '' Rothschild said. "That's not the case. Guys in their 40's, 50's and 60's usually don't change. The perception of the person changes. The communication changes, not the person.''

That perception doesn't just apply to pitching coaches turned managers, but to pitchers who become managers. Of the 30 current managers in the major leagues, not one is a former pitcher. In the last 20 years, the only former pitcher to win a World Series as a manager is Tommy Lasorda (1988). He is a Hall of Fame manager. Bob Lemon, a Hall of Fame pitcher, won a World Series as the Yankee manager in 1978. Dallas Green won the World Series with the 1980 Phillies. Larry Dierker took the Astros to the playoffs four times in five years, averaging 94 wins in those four seasons. He was fired after a 93-win season.

... Many pitchers better understand the game than position players. But this is not position player vs. pitcher. It's about understanding people.
Larry Rothschild

"The perception of a pitcher is a challenge,'' Rothschild said. "When the manager is a former pitcher, an everyday player, who gets ticked off when he's not hitting or not playing, will say 'you don't know what an everyday player goes through. You don't understand the game because you are a pitcher.' That's absurd. Please, tell me something that's real. Many pitchers better understand the game than position players. But this is not position player vs. pitcher. It's about understanding people. But perception becomes reality.''

Twelve managers today are former catchers. "Not all catchers are great managers,'' Mazzone said. "They totally believe that they are running the game. I totally believe that they are not. The pitcher is running the game. If a pitching coach becomes a manager, the most important thing he can do is find the right coaches, load things off on them. I think that's the only way to do it. If you try to do it all by yourself, forget it, you won't be very good.''

Some pitching coaches turned managers can't resist the urge to meddle too much with the pitching staff, and perhaps not devote enough time to problems on the club. Even Mazzone said "if I was the manager, I might ease on down to see who's throwing on the side.''

The good managers trust their pitching coaches, as Bobby Cox does with Mazzone, as Larry Bowa does with Kerrigan, etc. Maybe we'll see another pitching coach become a manager someday, maybe the Rangers' Orel Hershiser or the Mariners' Bryan Price. But the last seven pitchers-turned-managers who were fired -- Dierker, Rothschild, Kerrigan, Miller, Marcel Lachemann, Dallas Green and Phil Regan -- have not been hired to manage again. Most haven't even gotten a call.

"Dierker did a great job in Houston,'' said Rothschild. "And you never even hear his name mentioned when all these jobs opened.''

He's a former pitcher. Most of them don't get a second chance. Some don't get a first chance.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.

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