Commentary

Managing in today's game one tall task

Low job security and an overall lack of respect make for an often difficult existence

Originally Published: July 1, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

"If everyone in this country had to manage a major league team, there would be no need for Social Security -- the job takes 10 to 15 years off your life. I've seen it do some strange things to people. If you don't smoke, you will. If you don't drink, you will. And if you do drink, you'll stop."
-- Rich Donnelly, a major league coach for more than 30 years.

Managing in the major leagues is a really hard job. It has always been difficult, but it has never been harder than it is now. Three managers have been fired this season: Kansas City's Trey Hillman, Baltimore's Dave Trembley and Florida's Fredi Gonzalez. By season's end, as many as 10 more could be out of a job, depending on how things go the next three months.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonFredi Gonzalez is one of three managers who have already been fired this season.

Atlanta's Bobby Cox and Toronto's Cito Gaston plan to retire at the end of the 2010 season. The Dodgers' Joe Torre is deciding whether he wants to return to the team next season, and there are indications he will leave due to the club's uncertain ownership situation. Interim managers in Baltimore (Juan Samuel) and Florida (Edwin Rodriguez) are likely to be replaced. St. Louis' Tony La Russa, Cincinnati's Dusty Baker, Texas' Ron Washington, Milwaukee's Ken Macha and the Chicago Cubs' Lou Piniella are the final year of their contracts. Five others have been under fire, some of them briefly, this season: the Chicago White Sox's Ozzie Guillen, Pittsburgh's John Russell, Arizona's A.J. Hinch, Seattle's Don Wakamatsu and the New York Mets' Jerry Manuel.

"There's no doubt it's much harder now. It wasn't like this 40 years ago," said Cox, 69, a future Hall of Famer.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said only a few managers, such as Cox, La Russa and the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Scioscia, are "validated" by their tremendous success and tremendous support in their organization.

"For the rest of us," Riggleman said, "it is tougher to manage today than ever."

Ned Yost was fired two years ago in Milwaukee with less than three weeks to go in the regular season, a decision made by an impatient owner, not the general manager. Now Yost is the Royals' manager, replacing Hillman, who was also fired by an impatient owner.

When told how difficult the job is these days, Yost recently was typically upbeat.

"Today I went to Walter Reed [Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.] to visit the troops," he said. "I talked to a soldier who got his foot blown off by a land mine in Afghanistan. I asked him, 'When you're over there, do you have to watch every step you take, looking for mines?' He said, 'No, you can't operate that way. You have to understand that every step might be your last.'"

Yost paused -- he didn't want to correlate managing with being a soldier in Afghanistan -- then said, "It's the same idea with managing. You have to know each day could be your last."

The job is so much harder today because the pressure to win is greater than ever. There's no time for rebuilding. It's either win, or you're fired.

Owners think they know baseball, but they don't. They think they can run a baseball team like they run their other businesses, and it doesn't work that way. One owner said this spring that his goal for the season was "5-7-7." Asked what that meant, he said it was winning the first round of the playoffs in five games, the second round in seven and the World Series in seven. Asked if it wouldn't be easier to go 3-4-4, the owner said, "No, you can't make enough money doing that."

General managers, some of whom didn't even play baseball in high school, like to tell the manager -- who might be a 15-year major leaguer -- how to manage these days. The new breed of general managers are mostly brilliant, are highly competent, can run a spreadsheet and have every piece of salary and statistical data at their ready. But they don't have the same feel for the game, or the same look at the game, as a manager who has been in uniform for the past 30 years.

"We have the new style general manager and maverick owners," said Cox, speaking in general terms, not about the Braves. "What you're getting from upstairs [the GM] is, 'Here's how I would have done that.' Or, 'Here's the lineup.' And … the computers don't lie."

The media, which have become so large and so intrusive in the last 20 years, take up so much of a manager's time and energy. Plus the players, with their money, fame and sense of entitlement, think they're in charge. Frank Robinson, who managed five teams over 16 years, said in his final year of managing, "Think they're in charge? They are in charge."

When Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez loafed after a ball earlier this season, he initially refused to acknowledge his mistake and disrespected the man who benched him, manager Fredi Gonzalez, saying, "What does he know? He never played in the major leagues."

Gonzalez may have won that battle, but he was fired by the Marlins less than a month after the incident.

"Some guys today don't respect authority," Riggleman said. "When you and I grew up, when you walked in a classroom, you sat and were quiet. Whether it was a teacher, a principal or a policeman, there was automatic respect for authority. Now you have to earn it. There are going to be battles along the way. And you're not going to win all of them."

Frank Robinson Think they're in charge? They are in charge.

-- Former manager Frank Robinson on the overall attitude of the modern player

It didn't used to be that way. Twenty-five years ago, the manager was the boss. When he spoke, players listened. He wasn't interested in their feelings. He would blast a player publicly or bench him. In the case of Billy Martin, he pulled Reggie Jackson off the field in the middle of an inning because he felt Jackson didn't hustle. That kind of stuff almost never happens today.

This spring, the Orioles told center fielder Adam Jones that he needed to play a little deeper, that too many balls had gone over his head in 2009.

Jones response: "I'll think about it."

I'll think about it? If he said that to Ralph Houk 30 years ago, Jones would've been headed to the minor leagues that day. How long would Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who would go a month at times without even talking to some of his players, last in today's game?

"About five minutes," Williams said.

Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, one of perhaps the three greatest managers of all time, had no interest in making friends with his players and had no problem blasting them publicly. But he always played the ones that gave him the best chance to win, no matter what. When a former Orioles outfielder, Pat Kelly, decided to join the ministry while he was still a player, he waited for the right time, a poignant moment, to tell Weaver of his plan.

"Earl, I'm going to walk with the Lord," he said.

"I'd rather you walked with the bases loaded!" Weaver said.

Today, managers do whatever it takes to get through to today's players. Two winters ago, Hillman invited all his infielders to his house for two days of infield drills (Hillman has a field in his backyard), followed by a nightly cookout. Wakamatsu meets individually with his players every spring to figure out who they are and how to best communicate with them. When asked how he was so successful getting through to Mariners pitcher Erik Bedard, Wakamatsu said, "I took him fishing."

Every day of every spring training, Scioscia holds a morning meeting -- Torii Hunter calls it the Mike Scioscia Comedy Hour -- in which players are assigned tasks, then have to perform those tasks in front of the team, all in the name of having fun and building relationships. Scioscia is a tremendous manager, one of the best in the game, which is why he is signed through 2018.

But he is the aberrant manager. Most are working year to year, knowing today might be their last day as a manager. It is a difficult existence, but it's all they know, and it's what they love. It is why, as soon as they get fired, they want to manage again.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.