Managing To Be Lucky
If there’s any encompassing storyline to the World Series so far, it wouldn’t have anything to do with the players; or the “worst-to-first” aspect of the Rays; or the historical ineptitude of the Phillies, but it would be a question from observers directed toward the decisions made by both managers as they’re being made; and that question—-What the hell’s he doing?—-overshadows just about everything else.
The questionable strategic maneuverings of both managers—-Phillies manager Charlie Manuel’s decision not to pinch hit for Pedro Feliz against Dan Wheeler in the sixth inning (for the record, I probably would’ve let Feliz hit as well); and Rays manager Joe Maddon’s odd lineup choices and bullpen selections—-are rife for second guessing not just because of their failures, but because there’s no iron-clad explanation for what they’re doing. Manuel didn’t DH Pat Burrell in game one because Burrell doesn’t like to DH; Maddon inserted Ben Zobrist in right field for reasons no one seems to know—-it’s like they’re picking strategies out of the air and using the oft-used and nonsensical reason of “going with my gut” as a way to put an end to the queries of what they were thinking.
All of this made me think back to former big league manager Davey Johnson’s book about the 1985 season managing the Mets when Johnson recounted his experience playing for the Orioles and Hank Bauer in the mid-1960s. The book itself isn’t all that great (it’s another in a long line of biographies in which the subject—-Johnson—-claimed to have been misquoted even though he was credited and one would assume paid as a co-author); but it does have some useful bits about what it’s like to be in the big leagues as a player and manager. Johnson didn’t think much of Bauer’s managerial skills even though he was at the helm when the Orioles beat the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale Dodgers in a four-game sweep in the 1966 World Series. Here’s Johnson’s assessment of Bauer:
Hank wasn’t a very good manager. In ’66 he had been lucky. Everything he did worked. He would bat Chico Salmon, a right-hander, against a right-handed pitcher, and Salmon would double. Moe Drawbowsky, a good but not a great relief pitcher, would come in and strike out six in a row in the World Series. Frank Robinson would drive in runs or make a great catch so often it was unreal. Hank could do no wrong that year.
The next year, the confusion began. The pitching staff went to pieces, and his moves started to go sour. Hank was just hanging on, waiting for the ax to fall. (Bats, by Davey Johnson and Peter Golenbock; page 116; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986.)
Now Johnson doesn’t hide the fact that he didn’t get along all that well with Bauer, but Bauer’s Orioles collapsed to seventh place in 1967 and he was fired at mid-season in 1968. He took over the burgeoning dynasty of the Oakland Athletics in 1969 and brought that young team in second place before Charlie Finley fired him after one season.
There are some interesting things about Bauer. He managed the Orioles for five years and the first three were excellent, culminating with that World Series win; then the players appeared to stop listening to him and things slowly fell apart. The downfall didn’t have much to do with talent because the foundation of the Earl Weaver-Orioles teams was in place then and they were very, very young; it could’ve been that Bauer, a Marine tough-guy, wore down his players with his style, but that argument could be counteracted by Weaver being just as much of a disciplinarian. Weaver lasted from 1968 until 1982 and then returned for 1985-87 because he was a great (not good, great) strategic manager from whom there was always an explanation for his decisions.
This also begs the question of whether the players are tolerating a manager’s style while it’s working even if they don’t think he knows what he’s doing, and once his luck runs out, the players bail physically and mentally. I can’t believe that Johnson was the only player on that team who wasn’t impressed with Bauer’s strategic acumen, and once his luck ran out, it ran out and he had to go. In the record books though, Weaver and Bauer have the exact same number of World Series wins to their credit—-one. Weaver’s in the Hall of Fame and Bauer never managed in the big leagues after being fired by Finley even though he was only 46. He managed a couple of years in the minors, doing quite well, became a scout and then opened a liquor store in Kansas. (That wouldn’t happen today. Bauer would absolutely and deservedly get another job as manager, probably soon after the firing by Finley.) Bauer was obviously doing something right to have all that success, but that doesn’t make him a good strategic manager and who’s to say which is more important?
How much does luck have to do with a manager winning? With the better luck of not having to continually run into the Yankees or getting past some inferior teams in the playoffs, Bobby Cox and the Braves would have at least three more titles from their long run in the 90s and early 2000s; Tony La Russa would have won a couple more World Series than the two he’s won; Billy Martin, another great manager, would’ve won more than his lone title.
If he wins three more games, Joe Maddon will have the same number of World Series titles as Bobby Cox, Earl Weaver and Billy Martin and I’m convinced that Maddon just makes things up as he goes along without reason, but it’s working somehow. I picked the Phillies to win this series, but judging from the first two games, whoever wins is going to win because some unsung player is going to do something spectacular and make the manager look like a genius even though it’ll be clear to those that know something about
strategy that he didn’t make his moves for any viable reason, he just sort of did it, and it worked well enough to win him a World Series and make him a championship manager even though by all other standard basis of judgment, he wasn’t all that smart, he was just very, very lucky.
Lucky to have a clueless home plate umpire in Kerwin Danley in game two; lucky to have an unheralded player run into a pitch and hit it out of the park; lucky to have journeymen relievers get a couple of big outs; lucky, lucky, lucky. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good and if there’s an example of that it’s going to be the Rays’ highlight video of 2008, because I can think of no other reason that Joe Maddon has managed to get his team this far after watching him do everything possible to run them off the rails and still having them win.