Felix Rodriguez sat staring into his clubhouse stall, pondering the latest in his string of poor relief appearances for the San Francisco Giants. He had been called from the bullpen in the eighth inning to protect a one-run lead in the May 19 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but after he walked the first two batters, manager Felipe Alou had taken him out Now Alou, seeing his dejected reliever moments after the Giants had lost 4-3, had a decision to make. Should he call the 30-year-old righthander into his office for a private talk? Or meet with him in the morning, when they were both fresh and rested? Or say nothing, to send Rodriguez the message that he wasn't worried about him? Or...Alou pulled up a chair behind Rodriguez, leaning in to talk over the pitcher's shoulder like a backseat driver.
In full view of teammates and reporters, Alou began an animated discussion with him in Spanish. "?Est�s saludable?" ("Are you healthy?") Alou asked. Rodriguez said that he was. "D�me la verdad" ("Tell me the truth"), the manager said sharply, aware that Rodriguez had kept a finger injury secret last season. Again the pitcher assured the manager that he was fine, and the two men continued their conversation in voices loud enough to be overheard. Even those who didn't speak Spanish could tell that Alou's purpose was part interrogation, part motivation. After a few minutes the manager got up and walked away, apparently satisfied. "I'm not going to throw him in the trash," he told the eavesdropping members of the media. "He's a very important part of the mix."
It was not the way Alou, 68, a grandfatherly looking manager known for his nurturing ways, normally handles such situations—but it worked. After giving up six earned runs in five appearances, Rodriguez has pitched considerably better (one earned run in 6? innings) since that clubhouse conversation. "Usually I would wait until the next day, and [the conversation] would be behind closed doors," Alou says. "But there are times as a manager when you don't want anybody to get to your player before you do. Like an infection, you want to treat it right away." But so publicly? "Well, I didn't want to talk to him like someone had died," Alou says. "You talk to a player like you feel sorry for him, and he might start feeling sorry for himself. But if I have the same situation tomorrow night, I might handle it differently. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time. If you know me, you know I go by feel."
After 47 years in baseball, including 29 in the majors as a player, coach and manager, Alou, who was hired to replace Dusty Baker last November, has quickly gotten a feel for his new club. Despite the change in skippers and the four new players in the lineup this season, the defending National League-champion Giants were on top of the NL West at week's end with a 35-20 record and a 4�-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Giants haven't spent a day out of first place this season despite making major roster changes after losing the World Series to the Anaheim Angels. San Francisco lost slugger Jeff Kent and dependable third baseman David Bell to free agency, replacing them with Ray Durham (a team-high .326 through Sunday) and Edgardo Alfonzo (.223), respectively. The Giants traded an established starter, Russ Ortiz, and added three mostly unproven pitchers—rookie righthanders Kurt Ainsworth (5-4, 3.56) and Jesse Foppert (3-4, 4.31) and second-year lefthander Damian Moss (6-3, 3.41)—to their starting rotation. Even their most important player, 38-year-old leftfielder Barry Bonds, has apparently returned to earth (.299, 13 homers, 28 RBIs) after back-to-back phenomenal years. The main reason San Francisco has made such a smooth transition despite the turnover is Alou, who has impressed observers not just with his knowledge of the game but also with his understanding of his players.
"Some managers just have the right touch," says centerfielder Marquis Grissom, 36, who played three years for Alou with the Montreal Expos and was hitting .313 as the Giants' new leadoff man. "Felipe has always had it. He already knows which guys need a pat on the back and which guys to just leave alone. You'd never guess that this is his first year with this ball club. He seems all settled in already."
At this late stage of his career Alou seems more at ease than he has been in years. The last few seasons of his 10-year tenure as manager of the Expos, which ended when he was fired on May 31, 2001, were marred by the shaky status of the franchise. After Alou turned down an offer from the Boston Red Sox and served a perfunctory stretch as a bench coach for part of last season with the Detroit Tigers, there were some who doubted his desire to manage again. San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean wasn't one of them. Alou was the only managerial candidate he interviewed. "Once we had a chance to meet with him and see that he still had as sharp a baseball mind as he ever did," Sabean says, "it was obvious that he was the right fit for us."
As the father of 10 children—16-year-old Valerie and 11-year-old Felipe Jr. with his current wife, Lucie, and eight others from three previous marriages—Alou naturally brings a father-son overtone to his relationships with his players. "You just don't want to disappoint him," says lefthander Kirk Rueter (6-1, 3.33 ERA). "It's not that you're afraid of getting chewed out, it's more that you don't want to see that look in his eyes that tells you he expected more out of you."
Alou apparently has struck the right chord with Bonds, the Giants' temperamental future Hall of Famer. "He's about the same age as my son Moises," Alou says, referring to the Chicago Cubs outfielder. "People ask how you handle Barry. The answer is you don't handle him at all. Barry and I have had some conversations, but for the most part you just allow a player like that to do his work." One afternoon last week Alou walked through the clubhouse at Pacific Bell Park, stopping for brief conversations with a few of his players. But as he passed Bonds, who was sitting in his infamous recliner reading mail, the manager merely reached out, touched his superstar on the shoulder and left his hand there for an extra beat, sensing that a silent hello was all that Bonds needed.
Alou's stature as a former All-Star and NL-pennant-winning outfielder with the Giants (1958 through '63) no doubt helped get him Bonds's respect from the start. Before the season Bonds spoke of the "great job" that Alou did in Montreal and of his desire to "make this a good team and make his job easier."