In the Line Of Fire
The Cubs' Don Baylor was the latest to go down in a tough season for managers
Who could blame White Sox manager Jerry Manuel if his skin began to crawl last week? On Friday his crosstown counterpart, Don Baylor, was fired by the Cubs. The next day Manuel, whose team was picked by many to win the American League Central but stumbled to a 42-46 record in the first half, received the dreaded vote of confidence from general manager Ken Williams—one that sounded a lot like the statement Andy MacPhail made in support of his manager seven weeks before Baylor was sacked. "The success of the manager is largely based on the production of the players, and the players have not performed to their capabilities," Williams said. "I have not wavered in my confidence [in] Jerry and his staff."
These days it doesn't take much more than a three-game losing streak to make the manager of a sub-.500 club worry about his job security. Baylor was the sixth skipper to be axed this season (seventh if you count Boston's Joe Kerrigan, who was replaced by Grady Little during spring training). The knocks against Baylor were the usual ones: an inability to communicate with his players, the perception that the team was underachieving and the need for a new direction.
Will the change spark the Cubs, who went into the All-Star break in fifth place in the NL Central, 12� games behind the Cardinals? Probably not (chart, below). After Buddy Bell was fired as Colorado's manager in April, the Rockies won 24 of their first 34 games under new skipper Clint Hurdle, then went 12-20 heading into the All-Star break. The Brewers, 3-12 when Davey Lopes was fired in April, won their first four under Jerry Royster, then went 26-43.
If new managers make so little difference in the standings, why make the change? "The basic [criterion] for changing a manager is simple: when the talent on the field does not equal the amount of victories in the standings," says MacPhail, who also stepped aside as G.M. in favor of assistant Jim Hendry but remains the team's president and CEO.
Firing the manager is the easiest way to start overhauling a team, but it is also a signal to players that the front office is ready to make other changes down the line. Does bringing in a new manager midyear make players play harder the rest of the season? "I don't think so," says Expos first baseman Andres Galarraga. "But it's a wake-up call for everybody."
Montreal's Brad Wilkerson
Life Is Good At the Top
First the Expos traded for Indians ace Bartolo Colon, then last weekend general manager Omar Minaya tried to hammer out a deal for Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd and righthander Ryan Dempster without increasing Montreal's $39 million payroll. (Minaya hadn't given up as of Monday.) But lost in all the buzz around the G.M.'s furious negotiations was one of the main reasons why the club felt confident enough to make a postseason push—the play of rookie outfielder Brad Wilkerson.
The Expos started the season 25-26, but since moving Wilkerson into the leadoff spot on May 29, they were 21-15 and at the All-Star break trailed the Diamondbacks by five games in the National League wild-card race. After homering in three straight games against the Phillies last week, he led all NL first-year players in hits (77), runs (51), walks (39) and total bases (125), and his .288 average was second best. Wilkerson's nine outfield assists were tied for second best in the majors. "He gets better every day," says one advance scout. "It's amazing how much improvement he's made."
Montreal drafted Wilkerson, who was an All-America at Florida, with the 33rd pick in 1998. His advance through the minors was slowed by a torn left rotator cuff that required surgery after the 2000 season, and then he hit .205 in 47 games with Montreal last year. But he won the starting leftfield job this spring, and after centerfielder Peter Bergeron was demoted in May, Wilkerson was shifted to center.