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Difference makers

The top five managers in the major leagues today

Posted: Tuesday May 23, 2006 12:36PM; Updated: Tuesday May 23, 2006 5:16PM
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Billy Martin in rare form: Game 4 of the 1976 World Series.
Billy Martin in rare form: Game 4 of the 1976 World Series.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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There is no specific formula for success for managers. Sometimes you just have to be the right man for the situation. Or, if you're Billy Martin, you just have to be borderline crazy.

A formidable talent evaluator, Martin was brilliant at taking underachieving teams and turning them into winners. But it wasn't long after they achieved success that Martin would implode. "Billy Martin proved what a powerful strategic tool paranoia is," Tom Boswell once told Ken Burns. "He believed that everyone was against him. And so he spent every waking moment figuring out how imaginary enemies could be defeated in their nefarious plots. And sometimes he not only created strategies to defend against things that would have never been done against him, but realized that those attacks were in themselves novel and would then try those attacks that he had already dreamed up a defense for."

Martin deteriorated a little bit more each time he returned to manage the Yankees. With 19 games left to play in 1985, the Yankees were 5 games behind the Blue Jays. But they were slipping, and a night after Martin allowed reliever Brian Fisher to remain in the game and take a six-run pounding, he ordered third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, a left-handed hitter, to bat right-handed in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game. Pagliarulo hadn't batted from the right side since college and promptly struck out looking. Yankees DH Don Baylor couldn't believe what he was watching from the bench. He figured Martin had a trick play on but kept waiting for the trick until he realized there wasn't one.

Say what you will about Martin's methods, but there is no denying that he was the rarest of breeds when it comes to managers: He made a difference. Martin took four franchises to the postseason. More often than not, a manager is only as good or as bad as his players -- he may add or take away value on the margin, but a bad manager with great talent is more likely to succeed than a good manager with lousy talent. Bill James had it right when he wrote, "There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager: The manager must be able to command the respect of his players. This is absolute; everything else is negotiable."

Here are five active managers who, like Casey's boy Billy Martin, make a difference for their ball clubs, five skippers who, as veteran New York baseball writer Bill Madden says, "have something intangible that just makes them leaders of men. They just have it."

Bobby Cox, Braves

In his 25th year as a big league skipper, Cox remains sharp. The Braves finished in last place in 1990, his first season in Atlanta; they've won the division title each year since, a staggering run of success. Cox is an outstanding talent evaluator: He helped build the Braves as a general manager before he took over in the dugout, and has won despite Atlanta's payroll decreasing noticeably in recent years.

One of the reasons both veterans and youngsters enjoying playing for him, says historian Bruce Markusen, is because "his strength as a manager is his ability to assign sensible roles that his players are capable of handling." It is rare to hear any of Cox's players say a bad word about him. "If you can't play for him," Fred McGriff once said, "you can't play for anyone."