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When a major league baseball team fires its manager, the reasons given usually go something like this: We needed a change; the fans demanded it; the manager could no longer communicate with his players. When the Oakland A's dismissed Steve Boros in May, the manager's failing was more narrowly defined: He wasn't "tough enough."
Newspapers across the country solemnly reported this canard. The shortcoming most mentioned was that the A's skipper didn't sufficiently "stand up for his players"; that is, he didn't kick dirt on umpires or get thrown out of games. It was also revealed that Boros had read more than 100 books, cover to cover, and had other wimpy interests.
Real men don't eat quiche. Tough guys don't dance. And so on.
I read the accounts and smiled.
Six years ago, on a warm summer afternoon in Kansas City, I stood behind the cage at Royals Stadium watching the first rounds of batting practice. The stadium gates hadn't yet been opened; it was that pleasant interlude when the voices dominating the ball park belong to ballplayers and coaches.
Boros was the Royals' first-base coach then. He stood just up the third-base line, hitting infield grounders but watching the cage, too. Whitey Herzog, the manager, had ordered the Royals to practice their bunting, which had been poor. Every player who stepped into the cage dropped two bunts—one down each baseline—to a teammate standing a few yards away.
Every player, that is, before Amos Otis, the Royals' graceful but enigmatic centerfielder. When Otis walked into the cage, he waved off the player waiting to field his bunts and started swinging away at pitches. "Two bunts," reminded Pete LaCock, a backup first baseman, who was waiting his turn. Otis ignored him, swinging hard at another pitch.
That's when Boros came forward. He stepped inside the third-base line, perhaps 10 feet from home plate, and put his bat on the dirt at his feet as a target for Otis. "Come on, Otie, regulars got to do it, too, Boros said. He waited, hatless and bare-handed.
Otis didn't acknowledge his coach's presence. The pitch came, and Otis, a righthand hitter, rifled a line drive to rightfield. Someone behind the cage said "Jesus!" But Boros didn't flinch. He calmly picked up the bat and put it down in front of the plate. This time Boros bent over, his hands on his knees, his head up. Again he waited, wordlessly.
"Get out of the way," Otis said.