Boles, 47, is no space cadet. He is bright, open and honest. He has a master's degree in educational administration and is a former grammar school teacher who once aspired to be a principal. Now he is the principal for 25 players who have badly underachieved this season, which led to the firing of former manager Rene Lachemann on July 7. "But we're not dealing with who threw the first snowball," Boles says. "It's a little more complex now."
Boles played at Lewis University, a Division II school in Romeoville, Ill., and was later head coach at St. Xavier University in Chicago (from 1973 to '79) and at Louisville (from '80 to '81). He went to work in the White Sox system as a minor league manager in 1981. There he got to know Tony La Russa, then the White Sox manager and the leader of a group of White Sox managers, coaches and executives called the Brain Rain. During rain delays in spring training the group would gather in the clubhouse and talk about nothing but baseball, mostly strategy, for hours. "It's not like we looked forward to rain," says Boles, "but it was fun." Says La Russa, "I always learned something from John Boles."
Baseball knowledge is one thing, but now more than ever, managing is about getting the most out of players, commanding their respect. Boles managed 5½ seasons in the minor leagues and in winter ball, but much of his career has been spent in player development, and until July 11 he had never worn a major league uniform. Without a major league background, a manager can have credibility problems among today's players. After the '85 season Boles was a leading candidate for the third base coaching job with the White Sox, but Ken Harrelson, then Chicago's general manager, was against it, saying Boles wasn't a "big league guy." In his wallet Boles still carries the tattered newspaper clipping, with yellow highlighting on Harrelson's quote.
Boles is big league now. At week's end his team had won six of its last seven games, improving his record to 7-4. And his players are responding to his leadership. "It's early, but what he has done is right and fair," says pitcher Al Leiter. "He's trying to unify us. With simple things, like everyone stretching together, and everyone standing on the top step of the dugout for the anthem. Plus, he says, 'If you don't play hard, forget the fine—you just won't play.' That hits home."
It wasn't entirely Lachemann's fault that the Marlins were 39-47 and 14 games behind the Braves in the National League East when he was canned. But the team was the lowest-scoring outfit in the game, and Lachemann got a reputation for managing too cautiously, playing the same lineup almost every night. Perhaps his players got a little too comfortable. Boles has used his bench more, and there's an uneasiness on the team now, which might be a good thing.
Boles says he is not awed by the job or uncomfortable with it. He was happy as the Marlins' vice president of player development and twice turned down the managing job before taking it this time around. "I've been in umpteen major league camps," he says. "I've been on the field every day for 20 years, I never sat behind a desk. My business is to train managers. And I've been around some good ones, too: Buck Rodgers, Jim Leyland, Tony La Russa. You don't have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer for some of that to rub off. Hey, Bill Walsh never played in the NFL but he was a great coach."
Boles's appointment is not without precedent either. Earl Weaver, who is being inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager on Aug. 4, spent only 80 games in a major league uniform as a coach before being named manager of the Orioles in 1968. Joe McCarthy, another Hall of Fame manager, never spent a day in a big league uniform before he was named skipper of the Cubs in 1926. Boles might not become another Weaver or McCarthy, but he's more than just a bug-eyed manager. "Once the laughing dies down about my eyes," Boles says, "I'm sure people will start laughing about some other part of my anatomy."
The Indians and Orioles did Eddie Murray a favor on Sunday when they worked a trade that sent him to Baltimore in exchange for lefthander Kent Mercker, and now Murray may fulfill his fervent wish: to hit his 500th home run for the Orioles, the team for which he started his brilliant career in 1977. The deal was made at the behest of owner Peter Angelos, who wanted to see Murray end his career in an Orioles uniform. But privately the move was not embraced by Baltimore's general manager, Pat Gillick, or its manager, Davey Johnson.
There was a good chance that if the Orioles hadn't expressed interest in Murray, Cleveland might have released him. At age 40 he is no longer able to play the field and, with only 12 homers at week's end, he is no longer hitting with the authority that enabled him to hit 491 home runs through last weekend. Most of his at bats recently have gone to Jeromy Burnitz, who hit a pair of homers on Sunday. It didn't help that Murray had been angry at Cleveland general manager John Hart all season because he felt that Hart lowballed him in contract negotiations last winter, paying him $2 million for 1996, a $1 million pay cut.