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He has all the job security of the chief of state of a Central American Republic. He's often denounced by fans, reviled in the press and criticized by his own employees. The rewards in his line of work are limited and go to only a few, and yet innumerable grown men, some of sound mind, aspire to be managers of major league baseball teams.
Managers are, as the bromide has it, hired to be fired. And, most likely, hired again by someone else. The 1981 season will be no different; 10 managers will be starting their first full season in a new office. Don Zimmer, canned by the Red Sox, has been signed on by the Texas Rangers, who dropped Pat Corrales after last season. Ralph Houk, formerly of the Yankees and Tigers, jeopardizes his remarkable record of never having been fired by coming out of retirement to replace Zimmer in Boston. Gene Michael, who was general manager of the Yankees last year, is the manager this year, succeeding Dick Howser, who was let go for having lost to Kansas City in the American League playoffs. Maury Wills, who replaced the fired Darrell Johnson during the 1980 season, will be Seattle's skipper from the start in 1981. Wills is the major league's third black manager. The first, Frank Robinson, was dismissed four years ago by Cleveland, but he's back this year with San Francisco, which fired Dave Bristol in December. Big Frank Howard moves from the Milwaukee coaching staff to the San Diego manager's job, replacing Jerry Coleman. Whitey Herzog, sent packing by the Royals in 1979, took over as manager of the Cardinals last year after Ken Boyer was discharged in midseason. And Joe Amalfitano opens with the Cubs, who hired him after firing Preston Gomez last July.
George Bamberger in Milwaukee and Gene Mauch in Minnesota beat the system by simply quitting last year, Bamberger for retirement, Mauch for the golf course; Mauch subsequently took a front-office job with the Angels. But not many are nimble enough to escape the chopping block. Of the 26 managers who began the 1979 season, only eight are still with the same teams, although three others—Herzog, Zimmer and Dave Garcia, late of California and currently of Cleveland—are with other clubs.
And then there are the managers who never seem to win much, but still keep materializing. Those in the revolving-door crowd—Bristol (four teams) and Gomez (three) spring to mind—get fired every time they're hired, but they continue to get hired anyway. This would lend some support to the theory of Montreal's reserve first baseman. Tommy Hutton, who says, "The best way to become a major league manager is to get fired first." The truth is that many owners and general managers are loath to gamble on untested "talent." "The game is run by oldtime baseball people," says Angel Relief Pitcher Dave LaRoche. "So the people they keep hiring are oldtime baseball people. It's their last claim to yesteryear. It's a very little fraternity. I guess it's more like the Supreme Court. It's tough to get in, but once you're there, you've got a job for life...somewhere."
"Different teams are looking for different capabilities in a manager," says Cleveland President Gabe Paul. "One might be looking for a disciplinarian, for instance. That same man might have been fired by another team for being too tough. Some manager might be fired for reasons that have nothing to do with his qualities as a manager. Some are fired because they're outspoken."
Workaday folk cringe at the thought of being fired, but managers accept it as a condition of employment. But why? California scout Bill Rigney, like so many of his hooked confreres, has never lost his enthusiasm for managing, which he did at various times for the Giants, Angels and Twins. "To give a club something it never had before is the manager's gift," he says. "The manager is the most important cog in a multimillion-dollar machine."
In this era of baseball labor strife, if there is one thing owners and players are likely to agree upon, it's that Rigney is wrong. Owners tend to regard the manager as a necessary encumbrance, someone who may have public-relations value and who can serve as a convenient scapegoat in hard times. The players seem to feel the manager should graciously step aside and let them play ball. "The ideal manager," in the opinion of Montreal Pitcher Bill Lee, "is the manager who doesn't manage."
"The manager is overrated," says Cub Infielder Mike Tyson. "He puts nine men out there and makes three or four major moves a game. The rest is luck. He makes a move and if it works, he looks like a king. If it doesn't, he looks like a bum." There are even managers who downgrade managing. "I have always thought managers are the most overrated things in baseball," says Detroit skipper Sparky Anderson, onetime peerless leader of the world champion Reds. "The game is basically very simple. If you get good players, you win. I've never seen a manager win a pennant. Players win pennants."
"Good players are not the most important thing," says Twins owner Calvin Griffith, paraphrasing someone else. "They're the only thing."
It's said that a good manager may get his team between five and 10 more wins a year than a middling skipper would, and a bad manager may cost his team even more games than that. If these numbers seem lower than you would expect, it may be that when it comes to tactics there are no managerial secrets, only managerial styles. While the ability to "build" a team, to "motivate," to make the best use of one's roster may be most important in determining a manager's long-term success, his "moves" often do affect his club's short-term fortunes. The good manager will make the right substitution, inserting a pinch hitter, reliever or defensive specialist at just the right juncture, or will employ the appropriate tactic—sacrifice, steal, intentional walk, whatever—at the most opportune moment. The bad manager will find that he wasted his best pinch hitter in the third inning or overworked his best reliever the night before. He might also use the right tactic at the wrong time or ignore it entirely.