Faces of MLB managers seem to be getting younger every year
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media February 25, 2014 10:33PM
Updated: March 27, 2014 6:53AM
Thirty-nine seasons, 9,115 games and 4,812 victories worth of managerial experience rode off into the sunset when Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson and Dusty Baker vacated their major-league dugouts after last season.
The brain drain recalled 2011, when Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa cleaned out their offices, packing up a combined 91 years of baseball wisdom and eight world championships.
Leyland left the Detroit Tigers of his own volition. Johnson and the Washington Nationals reached a mutual understanding that it was time. Baker . . . well, Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini is an impatient, impulsive guy.
The Reds’ postseason appearance in 2013 was their third in six seasons under Baker, but they wobbled badly down the stretch, then crashed and burned in their wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Castellini clearly expected more, so Baker was let go with a year and nearly $4 million left on his contract.
The Nats were Johnson’s fifth managerial assignment, the Tigers were Leyland’s fourth and the Reds were Baker’s third. Their replacements — Matt Williams, Brad Ausmus and Bryan Price, respectively — are first-time managers.
The Cubs are following a trend with ‘‘rookie’’ Rick Renteria, just as the White Sox did with Robin Ventura in 2012. Williams, Ausmus and Price bring to 18 the number of managers who are first-timers or, in the cases of veterans Mike Scioscia, Ron Gardenhire and Joe Maddon, still with their original teams.
The practice of itinerant managers hopping from town to town and never being out of work long — think Dick Williams or Billy Martin — has gone the way of Sunday doubleheaders. Of the 30 skippers who will be running big-league dugouts on Opening Day, only the Baltimore Orioles’ Buck Showalter has been with four teams. The Cleveland Indians’ Terry Francona and the Oakland Athletics’ Bob Melvin have been with three.
Jim Fregosi, who died last week at 71, managed four teams, including the Sox for a spell in the mid-1980s after then-general manager Hawk Harrelson decided he preferred Fregosi’s big-league bona fides to
La Russa’s. Fregosi was among the last of a breed.
With so many newcomers calling the shots, game experience doesn’t seem to matter much in the age of analytics. It’s managing by the numbers.
Neither does playing ability. For every Ryne Sandberg, Don Mattingly or Kirk Gibson, there’s a Renteria, Price or Bo Porter.
A’s GM Billy Bean, the new-age thinker’s archetype, was almost dismissive of managers as he blew through Art Howe, Ken Macha and Bob Geren before lucking into Melvin three years ago. With every team in baseball adopting some version of the A’s ‘‘Moneyball’’ formula, it’s more than coincidence that they’re back atop the American League West on Melvin’s watch.
In some ways, Melvin is a prototype as a former catcher, one of 10 now managing big-league teams. A backup for most of his 10 seasons, Melvin sat, watched and learned from Sparky Anderson, Roger Craig and Frank Robinson in Detroit, San Francisco and Baltimore. He has a Cal graduate’s appreciation of analytics, but the collected old-school wisdom of Anderson, Craig and Robinson also made an impression.
What Melvin does best is get the most from his players.
That was considered Baker’s strength during the 20 seasons he managed, compiling a .528 winning percentage with seven postseason appearances and one (unsuccessful) trip to the World Series. He was surprised but not shocked when the Reds let him go. They were looking for a fall guy after their season ended with an unsatisfying thud, and Baker took the fall himself when he balked at firing some coaches.
Baker would like another shot, but he’ll be 65 in June, and he’s realistic enough to see managers getting younger (and cheaper). He turned down a couple of broadcasting overtures because he had no stomach for dispensing the criticism and second-guessing that always ate him up. Maybe later.
He’s home in Northern California, watching his son play high school ball, helping a friend coach a junior-college team and driving down to the Bay Area to catch college games, such as one Tuesday between Stanford and San Francisco.
But it feels odd not to be at spring training for only the third time since 1967.
‘‘I don’t miss packing and unpacking every few days and I don’t miss having to explain myself at least twice a day, but I could never say I don’t miss baseball,’’ Baker said. ‘‘I’m staying involved. I’m fine. I’m enjoying life.’’