Cards latest team to weigh value of experience in hiring manager
St. Louis needs to find a manager to replace Tony La Russa, who retired
Several teams have elected to hire first-time major league managers lately
The Chicago White Sox hired Robin Ventra even though he didn't apply for the job
Four days into their unexpected celebration of a World Series title, the St. Louis Cardinals are searching for a manager to replace the retiring Tony La Russa, a predicament they haven't had for 16 seasons.
The Cardinals are already saying they aren't going to find another La Russa, who led them to two World Series championships in the last five seasons; instead they'll spend most of November interviewing candidates and going over "multiple profiles,'' according to general manager John Mozeliak.
Deciding what profile will make a successful big league manager is an increasingly complicated task for GMs like Mozeliak. La Russa came to St. Louis with 17 seasons of managing experience, having won five division titles, three pennants and a World Series. To replace him, though, the Cardinals could go to either extreme: they could hire an available manager with a championship pedigree, like two-time World Series winner Terry Francona, or they could go for someone who's never managed in the majors before, like third-base coach Jose Oquendo, a popular former utility infielder, or Terry Pendleton, a Braves coach and former Cardinals third baseman.
Should the Cardinals elect to hire a rookie manager, they would be just the latest of a handful of teams to have gone that route in recent years. Of the 10 new managers to start last season, six -- the Blue Jays' John Farrell, the Brewers' Ron Roenicke, the Marlins' Edwin Rodrgiuez, the Cubs' Mike Quade, the Dodgers' Don Mattingly and the Diamondbacks' Kirk Gibson -- were all entering their first full major league campaign.
No move, however, was as shocking as the first managerial hire of this offseason, when the Chicago White Sox tapped Robin Ventura, 44, to replace Ozzie Guillen, even though Ventura had never coached or managed in professional baseball and had never even applied for the job.
When Ventura heard that Guillen was leaving the Chicago White Sox just days before the end of the season, he didn't think for a second that he should apply to replace his former teammate. Instead, he says, "I wondered who was going to replace him."
A few days later, he found out. A routine business dinner in Phoenix turned into a life-altering experience when White Sox general manager Ken Williams offered Ventura the job of taking over a team with a losing record and a $120 million payroll.
Ventura was blown away: "I was shocked, it just came out of leftfield. I wasn't lobbying for it. At first, I said, 'You're crazy.' But, he wasn't laughing. He was serious.
"I said, 'Now, you are really thinking outside the box.' I thought we were having a quick dinner to go over some things. It turned into a long, long discussion.''
Never mind that Ventura, who played the first 10 of his 16 major league seasons with the White Sox, had been out of baseball for six years until June, when the White Sox hired him as a special assistant to Buddy Bell in player development. Or that Ventura never thought about being a manager and that his only experience was helping as an assistant coach with a high school baseball team in Arrojo Grande, Calif.
Williams and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf liked Ventura's knowledge, expertise, character, ability to motivate and his familiarity with Chicago and are apparently not worried that Ventura has never put together a rotation or sent up a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning.
As Ventura now knows, experience isn't always at the top of a GMs list of requirements for his new manager. Most managers have earned their stripes in the minor leagues -- Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez managed 10 years in the minors while Texas' Ron Washington managed two seasons -- but Ventura's hiring with the White Sox makes him the 10th current manager to get a big-league job without previous experience in that role.
There could soon be an 11th: Ben Cherington, the Boston Red Sox' new GM, said that experience isn't a priority as he interviews replacements for Terry Francona. That's a different point of view from recently departed Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who said before he left to take over the Chicago Cubs that previous managerial experience would be preferable.
Cherington said that he doesn't want to put the team in a box by requiring experience.
"I want some one who's got a strong voice,'' Cherington said at his introductory press conference. "I want some one who cares about players, but is willing to have tough conversations with them. I want someone who can collaborate with the front office and ownership, but is willing to make an argument when he disagrees. I want someone with passion.''
There have been plenty of success stories for managers with no previous experience. Roenicke led the Brewers to the NL Central title in his first year as a manager this season. Milwaukee's opponent in the NLDS was the Arizona Diamondbacks, who had hired Gibson as their interim manager during the 2010 season despite the fact that he had never managed before. In his first full year, Gibson helped the D-backs go from 97 losses in '10 to 95 wins in '11. Even the man Ventura is replacing, Guillen, had no experience when he was hired in 2004 but he guided the White Sox to a World Series title the following season.
Opinions vary on the value of experience.
"If it were my hiring, I would feel more comfortable hiring a manager with managing experience on his resume,'' Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick said. "The most important thing for a manager is respect. Respect is credibility. Some managers have worked to have respect. With a young guy (managing), players might challenge him and say, 'What's this guy got?'''
Jack McKeon, who first managed at age 43 and returned to guide the Marlins over the last three and a half months of the 2011 season at age 80, said that experience is nice to have, but it is not necessary. He said the job is handling personalities and getting players to pull in one direction.
"A lot of people can handle the strategy of a baseball game, but a good manager has to have a vision for your team, and then able to sell it to the players. Some guys don't need experience to do that. Others do.''
McKeon worked 15 minor league seasons as a manager before he got his first job in 1973 with the Kansas City Royals.
"I learned from my mistakes in the minor leagues,'' McKeon said. "I learned that you couldn't manage with your heart. If your best pitcher is on the mound, and he's struggling, you can leave him in there because he's won 18 or 19 games for you.
"You have to do what's best for the team. And I learned you couldn't worry about the little things, whether a guy's wearing a chain or his socks are too high. Just play the game.''
Don Mattingly, a former Yankees first baseman who played 14 seasons, worked as a bench coach under Joe Torre, but that was only part of the reason Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti hired Mattingly for 2011 after Torre retired. Colletti said that some times managers with experience are too set in their ways and can't adjust to the team. He was also impressed with Mattingly's baseball journey.
"Life experience is important,'' Colletti said. "He was successful after being a 19th-round draft pick and growing up in Evansville, Ind. That's not easy. We knew his work ethic.''
Colletti liked how Mattingly held the Dodgers together in 2011 despite a steady stream of injuries, lack of run production and the distraction of owner Frank McCourt's personal and financial problems. The Dodgers fell under .500 in late April and stayed there until September, when they won six series and finished with a winning record.
"They didn't let down and I credit Don and his staff for that,'' Colletti said. "I saw a lot of improvement in Don Mattingly in a tough season for us.''
Mattingly said he learned time management during this first season.
"You have to have time for yourself, to plan and be ready,'' Mattingly says. "Then, it's your job to be around for everyone else. I love this job. The players responded well, and I know I can get this team winning.''
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said that in a perfect world, "managing experience is a good thing to have,'' but when he interviewed Farrell, a former big-league pitcher, he saw other attributes.
Anthopoulos said that Farrell's experience as a player development director for the Indians and a pitching coach for the Red Sox gave him a good feel for the game and for player development. He thought Farrell, also a former pitching coach at Oklahoma State, was a good teacher and someone who would communicate well with the players and front office. He liked that Farrell was open-minded, willing to self-evaluate and make improvements.
"He knew strategy and while that's important, there were so many other experiences that he had that made him strong. I wasn't going to let the fact that he had never managed affect my decision.''
Managers who been in Ventura's position say the learning curve for a rookie manager is huge. They say that being a manager is more like being a company CEO than a baseball guy.
Bud Black, who pitched 15 seasons in the majors, worked as a pitching coach for the Los Angeles Angels when he interviewed for three managing jobs in San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego before the 2007 season.
Going from player to coach to manager was a big adjustment.
"You miss the daily interaction with the players on the field because you have so much more on your plate,'' said Black, who was named the NL's Manager of the Year in 2010. "You are constantly on call with ownership, the general manager, public relations, the media and the trainer. You have to be accountable to so many people.
"The game is the most fun because that's when you are in the dugout with the players and coaches competing.''
Mattingly and Black were coaches who were taking aim at a managing job. But one former manager, Larry Dierker, rose to that job in an unexpected fashion after an out-of-the-blue job offer, much like Ventura.
Dierker had been a longtime pitcher for the Astros but he had no dreams of managing. But after hearing Dierker dissect games on TV, Astros management gave him a call to see if he wanted to manage the team in 1997. They told him they liked what they heard on the broadcasts.
"I kept a list of the pitchers and extra players, and when one of them was used, I'd cross them off my list, just like a manager does in the dugout,'' Dierker said. "It forces you to think about what a manager's options are. In a sense, I was managing both teams.''
Dierker took the job and got the Astros to postseason in four of the five seasons he was their manager, but after they never got past the first round, Dierker was fired.
"Strategy is the lesser part of the job,'' Dierker said. "The larger part is managing people. That's the biggest challenge.
"You have to show that you can maneuver a lineup and have a feel for the pitching staff. You want the players to buy into your program, and if you make a lot of mistakes early, you can lose that confidence from the get-go.
"They don't have to do anything that you say. So you have to use influence and persuasion to get them to do what you want.''
Dierker loved the chance at a job he didn't think he'd ever want: "The offer came out of the blue. I thought I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try.''
Once the initial shock of the job offer wore off, Ventura had the same feeling.
After the offer was made, Reinsdorf flew to California to visit with Ventura.
Ventura discussed it with his wife, Stephanie, because he wasn't sure he wanted to uproot his four children and move to Chicago. He was comfortable, hanging out at home and playing golf.
"My family decided we could make this work,'' Ventura said. "I didn't want to take the job for all the wrong reasons. People asked why I just didn't take the job right away. I understand the enormity of it. I want to make sure I'm doing it right for the sake of the organization.''
Already, his life is more hectic. He has been assembling a coaching staff and trying to figure out who his players are. "I don't really how who is on my roster,'' he said recently.
Ventura knows he's got a stable first baseman in Paul Konerko and good pitching, but he also has some big-money players, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn, that need to be turned around after each had a poor year in 2011.
Ventura played for seven different managers and he's talked to a few of them, including his White Sox manager Jeff Torborg, who told him to be himself and not worry about inexperience.
"I get it, I totally get it,'' Ventura said. "But they hired me for what I am and what I've done and not for me to be someone I'm not. This journey is going to be a fun one to take.''
Mel Antonen, a baseball reporter in Washington, D.C., is an analyst on Sirius-XM Radio.
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