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ROOM AT THE TOP
Bil Gilbert
March 31, 1975
When a big-league manager gets fired, why does he always seem to get another job the next day? Well, say the owners, there is just no substitute for experience
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March 31, 1975

Room At The Top

When a big-league manager gets fired, why does he always seem to get another job the next day? Well, say the owners, there is just no substitute for experience

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Counting himself, whom he has twice hired and twice fired as coach of the Phoenix Suns, Jerry Colangelo has changed coaches six times during his seven years as the Phoenix general manager. He says, "Let's face it. There are times, and I don't want to get specific, when who ought to be fired is a player or a lot of players. But if you do that everyone is going to start screaming about how much you paid for them or who you gave up in a trade to get them. So the coach is fired."

Another reason managers and coaches are so eminently dispensable is that though they may have been around a long time, there is still considerable doubt about what useful purpose, if any, they serve other than functioning as blame-takers. The confusion is often apparent even in the beginning of a sporting relationship. For example, an owner will introduce his new manager as one who combines the strategic sense of Robert E. Lee with the determination of Ulysses S. Grant and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. If he is any kind of manager, the new leader will reply, "You all know I can't hit the old ball anymore (or pass it or dribble it, as the case may be), so whatever we accomplish, the players will have to accomplish. But I have a few ideas and I think we can accomplish a lot with the great material in this organization."

But both parties speak with forked tongue. In his heart of hearts the owner feels that with the talent he has so astutely acquired his Aunt Martha could coach the club to a championship. The manager believes that if the collection of hot dogs and hamburgers can just manage to stay close until the seventh inning or fourth quarter, he will come up with some stratagem that will compensate for their lack of ability. All of which is fine until times get hard. Then the roles are reversed. The owner begins thinking, and shortly hinting, that a good coach would, by threats, fines, inspiration, positive thinking or one-on-one counseling, force his fine athletes to hit, pass or dribble more efficiently. The manager or coach has begun to think and say, "Isn't there anyone here who can play the game?"

Long ago the Chicago Cubs reached (not for the first or last time) such a moment of truth. Going into the 1932 season their manager was Rogers Hornsby, who by midseason had the Cubbies in contention. On an Eastern swing he was asked by a New York writer one of those astute baseball questions: Were the Chicagos good for the pennant? "How can I win with that lousy outfield they've given me?" Hornsby said. A week or so later (everything was slower in the old days) Cub Owner Bill Veeck Sr. fired Hornsby.

Mayo Smith, one of the 14 managers the Detroit Tigers have employed during the past 20 years, reacted similarly in much the same situation. Having heard a lot about how the Tigers would be doing wondrous things if it were not for their lousy manager, Smith finally retaliated, "They [and he seemed to include fans, press and front office in the collective pronoun] would not know a baseball player from a Japanese aviator." Smith, of course, was fired.

When it comes to what managers and coaches know, those in a position to employ them do not tend to place a lot of value on technical skills, such as instructional ability and shrewdness. A front-office man hanging around the baseball winter meetings said, "There are three, no, four, managers—Gene Mauch, Billy Martin, Dick Williams and Earl Weaver—whom everybody likes. Those are the guys anybody would hire given a chance. Then there are two or three incompetents. The rest all know the same things about the game, manage the same way. Except for their names they are the same and it doesn't make much difference which one of them you have."

"Who are the two or three dogs?"

"I don't want to mention any names. We might want to hire one of them sometime."

Those who believe that coaches and managers make an appreciable contribution to winning or losing (the belief is by no means universal) tend to rate their value as about the same as that of a good relief pitcher, a backup quarterback or a third forward.

"When it comes to the X and O stuff, one coach in this league knows just about as much or as little as every other one," says Colangelo, the Phoenix G.M., "but one guy will do a helluva job with one club, move over to another and flop. He is trying just as hard, knows just as much, but doesn't fit in with the organization or the players. A coach is like a catalyst in some kind of chemical mixture. You are always trying to find just the right mix of coach and players, which is basically why there is so much hiring and firing. It's trying new catalysts."

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