Before Jim Essian got the call, he was put on hold.
At 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21, Essian, the manager of the Chicago Cubs' Triple A Iowa team, was sitting in his office in Des Moines and talking on the phone with farm director Bill Harford. Just then, the Iowa trainer, Brian McCann, stuck his head in the door and told Essian he had heard that Don Zimmer had been fired as the Cubs' manager. That was news to Harford, who told Essian he was putting him on hold to take another call. The other call was from Cub general manager Jim Frey, who was looking for Essian. Harford got back on the line and told Essian he was to fly immediately to New York, where the Cubs were about to start a three-game series with the Mets. In that game of phone tag, Essian was it. After the five-hour trip from Des Moines, a sleepless night and a 3�-hour interview with Frey and club president Don Grenesko, Essian was named the new Cub manager.
Actually, he was the Cubs' fourth manager in two days. There was Zimmer, of course, who was shot down on Tuesday with the team in last place at 18-19. While Essian was in the air on Tuesday night, interim manager Joe Altobelli wrote out the lineup card at Shea Stadium. But Altobelli was ejected in the fifth inning for arguing with umpire Steve Rippley, and coach Chuck Cottier ran the club for the last four innings of the 8-6 loss.
In fact, the whole managerial job market was hopping last week. On the day the Cubs hired Essian, the last-place Kansas City Royals fired John Wathan and named coach Bob Schaefer as their interim manager. "I'm working on a multi-hour contract," said Schaefer. Last Thursday the Baltimore Orioles, also in last place in their division, kicked Frank Robinson upstairs and made coach Johnny Oates the manager. The following day, the Royals made Hal McRae baseball's fifth black manager and the fourth manager to have his son play for him. (Nobody seemed to notice, though, that Essian is baseball's first manager of Armenian descent.)
The hirings and firings came so fast and furious that The National sports daily ran a chart of prospective job-seekers, along with their current status, and included California Angel manager Doug Rader and Cleveland Indians manager John McNamara, both of whom were mistakenly listed as being between jobs. Then again, maybe The National knew something. The four firings so far this year—the Phillies replaced Nick Leyva with Jim Fregosi on April 23—put baseball on a pace similar to 1988's, when there were 12 managerial changes.
Among the managers rumored as possible sacrificial lambs last week were McNamara, Rader, Roger Craig of the Giants, Greg Riddoch of the Padres, Buck Rodgers of the Expos, Bud Harrelson of the Mets, Tom Kelly of the Twins, Tom Trebelhorn of the Brewers and Stump Merrill of the Yankees. The managerial instability was such that the Yankees' silent partner, George Steinbrenner, of all people, was moved to say, "I think costs are driving [teams] to do a lot of things. I don't know if [changing managers] is the answer."
Essian certainly looked like the answer last week. Through Sunday, the Cubs were 5-0 under their new manager and had climbed over the Expos and the Phillies into a virtual tie for third with the Mets, only four games behind the first-place Pirates.
Essian, the fourth of 13 children, grew up in the Detroit area as a Tiger fan. Unfortunately, Detroit was one of the few teams he didn't catch for in his 12-year major league career. At one time or another, he has belonged to the Phillies (who traded him to Atlanta for Oates), the Braves, the White Sox (twice), the Athletics (twice), the Mariners and the Indians. Always known for his fiery temperament, Essian went directly from catching to managing, starting with an independent Florida State League team in 1985. The Cubs hired him to manage their Class A Winston-Salem club the next year, and he won the Carolina League championship. He has since managed first-place clubs at Double A Pittsfield (Mass.) and Triple A Iowa. It was at Pittsfield that he caught Frey's eye. "He had a scrambling club because there wasn't a whole lot of talent," says Frey. "He had the players very active, and he took risks. He could handle pitchers, run a game."
In the off-season the Cubs acquired leftfielder George Bell and bullpen stopper Dave Smith, and they were the consensus choice to win the National League East. But Smith blew some saves early in the season, and Bell was adjusting to a new league, and on May 10 the Cubs were floundering at 14-14. That was when Zimmer read an article in the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, in which Grenesko was 'quoted as saying, "The performance of Don Zimmer will be evaluated at the end of the season...just like any other employee of the club." Zimmer took offense and told his wife, Jean, that he was going to demand that he be given a new contract by July 1. She told him she didn't think that was a good idea.
Zimmer delivered the ultimatum anyway, and when Grenesko said, "Do you realize what you are jeopardizing here?" Zimmer replied, "You sound like my wife." Ten days after the meeting, Zimmer was fired. Giving him the bad news was Frey, his old high school teammate at Western Hills in Cincinnati. "I've had a lot of heartaches and disappointments in baseball," says Frey. "This was the most unpleasant time of all."