Why managing is harder than ever

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Saturday, July 4, 2015

On a glorious day in Cooperstown, New York, last July, three storied managers stood on a podium and were celebrated for their excellence. Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa gave speeches reflecting on their journeys and thanked all the players, coaches, family members and others who helped make it possible.

For their successors -- men who carry the banner for the managerial profession with the 30 major league teams -- the act of making it through the day without a crisis seems to qualify as an achievement. If the summer of 2014 was a high point for the profession, the first three months of the 2015 season have been a steaming pile of indignity and pending unemployment.

Consider the all-around carnage that MLB managers have been subjected to since Opening Day:

In spring training, the Milwaukee Brewers exercised manager Ron Roenicke's contract option for 2016. Six weeks later, with the team off to an MLB-worst 7-18 start, the Brewers fired Roenicke and replaced him with Craig Counsell, who had never managed at any level.

Two weeks into the season, Miami owner Jeffrey Loria was antsy about the team's performance and ready to place the blame on manager Mike Redmond. After the Marlins were nearly no-hit by Atlanta's Shelby Miller to fall to 16-22, the team fired Redmond and replaced him with general manager Dan Jennings -- whose coaching experience consisted of a stint with the Davidson High School Warriors in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1980s.

Cincinnati's Bryan Price, stressed out over a poor start and unhappy with a line of questioning about injuries, vented in a daily media session in April. Within an hour or two, the transcript and accompanying audio were shared online with a precise F-bomb count (77), and Price was trending on Twitter.

With the Detroit Tigers mired in a seven-game losing streak in early June, general manager Dave Dombrowski publicly came to the defense of manager Brad Ausmus. "If people are laying this on Brad's shoes, that's not fair,'' Dombrowski told the Detroit News.

The San Diego Padres began the season with high expectations after a slew of acquisitions by new general manager A.J. Preller. With the team muddling along at 32-33, the Padres fired Bud Black and replaced him with interim manager Pat Murphy.

John Farrell, who managed the Boston Red Sox to a World Series victory in 2013, has come under fire for the team's losing record and periodic bouts of dysfunctionality. Owner John Henry temporarily quelled the furor by giving a vote of confidence to GM Ben Cherington and Farrell, but speculation about Farrell's job status flared anew after third baseman Pablo Sandoval was busted for using his Instagram account during a recent in-game bathroom visit.

Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Fame player who managed six years in the minors in the quest for a big-league job, walked into the Phillies' executive offices on Friday morning and submitted his resignation to the shock of club officials. Sandberg had become worn down by losing and didn't want to get in the way as the Phillies prepared to bring in Andy MacPhail to run the organization moving forward.

An ongoing clash between Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Mike Scioscia ended Tuesday, with Dipoto cleaning out his desk and resigning. Although it was the rare case of a manager winning a power struggle with an executive, industry sources think the episode will increase the pressure on Scioscia to produce in Anaheim. The Angels owe Scioscia $6 million in each of the next three seasons, but it's difficult to envision him lasting through the 2018 season if he can't produce a deep October run or a World Series victory soon.

The steady stream of comings, goings and other calamities reflects a harsh reality: Baseball managers are more disposable than ever, and the tension has ratcheted up as a result.

Disposable commodities

Consider the ongoing flux within the profession. Not long ago, Ned Yost was considered damaged goods after being fired by Milwaukee in September of a pennant race, and Buck Showalter took a hiatus with ESPN to get past his reputation as a micromanager who wore out his welcome at each stop. Now, Yost (hired by Kansas City in May 2010) and Showalter (who joined the Baltimore Orioles three months later) are regarded as monuments to stability. Only Scioscia, the San Francisco Giants' Bruce Bochy and the New York Yankees' Joe Girardi have longer continuous tenures with their current teams.

Insecurity is rampant among managers in the modern era. When interventionist owners converse daily with the general manager, it's natural for the manager to feel as if he's on an island. And as more front offices try to dictate on-field decisions, the concept of the strong-willed, independent-minded skipper is becoming pass.

"You can say what you want, but there are lineups coming from up top,'' said Atlanta outfielder Jonny Gomes. "I'm not sure who's going to admit to that or not. But it happens.''

Gomes, who has played for Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, Bob Melvin, Farrell and Fredi Gonzalez during an 11-year career and aspires to manage himself one day, has seen a seismic change in the use of analytics and the way lineups are constructed. Platoons are more commonplace these days, and it's no longer unusual for the best hitter on a team to hit second -- or the pitcher to bat eighth.

The advent of shifts has also led to radical changes in strategy. Managers who aren't open-minded or receptive to the new world will get left behind in a multitude of ways.

"It's different than change,'' Gomes said. "It's a whole new baseball game. I remember Joe Maddon taking Aubrey Huff from third base and moving him to left field in 2006 so the Rays had four outfielders against David Ortiz, and everyone was in an uproar. Now you see four or five things on an everyday basis that weren't even an option in 2000.

"A few years ago, how many No. 3-4 hitters were asked to bunt to beat the shift? Now you have to understand that's an option. On defense, do you want your third baseman to go all the way across and play rover when you shift, or play straight up? That's an option, and you have to know these new scenarios.''

Managers have to embrace the new dynamic in a changing era of roster construction. In the good old days, the Davey Johnsons and Lou Piniellas were the best fits for contending clubs, and younger, more patient managers were hired to run developing teams. Now some managers have to perform the most delicate of balancing acts. Consider Maddon's challenge with the 2015 Cubs, who signed Jon Lester to a $155 million contract over the winter and have introduced mega-prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to the mix this past spring.

"Every team is allowing players to develop in the big leagues,'' Gomes said. "That didn't used to be the case. If you made a rookie mistake, it was: 'Gone. Go back to the minors and work on it.' If you couldn't get a bunt down, or you went from first to third with your head down and got thrown out? 'Gone. Go work on it.' Now the attitude is, 'We have to work with this kid and teach him.' These kids are so good, there's more give-and-take than there was in the past.''

Life in the Twitter age is challenging

As change reigns supreme, media scrutiny has increased to a suffocating degree. Ned Yost was vilified on a daily basis until the Royals made it to the World Series in 2014 and got off to a hot start this season. The criticism is more muted now, but you can still find a Fire Ned Yost page on Facebook and a @YostBeGone page on Twitter. They're ready to be fired up at a moment's notice when the Royals encounter their next six-game losing streak.

Arizona's Chip Hale spent more than a decade as a minor-league manager and big-league coach before landing his gig with the Diamondbacks. He's found that the media relations duties in his new role are a significant adjustment, even though he's not bombarded to nearly the same degree as his managerial peers in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and other hyper-intense media markets.

"You try to be honest and open, but you don't want to give out information that's going to help the other side or hurt a kid,'' Hale said. "Or you might be talking about making moves when guys below [in the minors] haven't heard yet. We've made mistakes like that. It happens to everybody, and I think some guys just get frustrated with it.''

The managers who endure have personalities that allow them to maintain an even keel and communicate across all spectrums. Although Sandberg arrived in Philadelphia with instant credibility, his introverted personal style and difficulties relating to the players contributed greatly to his demise.

When Tony La Russa reels off the attributes for a successful manager, he cites the ability to teach, a grasp of baseball strategy, creativity, the guts to make tough decisions and the ability to represent the organization in a positive light as a public goodwill ambassador. But nothing drives success, in La Russa's estimation, more than the ability to navigate a clubhouse.

Old-fashioned as it sounds, managing baseball players remains very much a people business.

"You can have the greatest strategist in the history of baseball with a blah personality where players don't respond to them,'' La Russa said. "And you'll have another guy where players are like, 'Point me in this direction,' and they go flying. Even if they have to learn slowly, the team with the enthusiasm will beat you every time.

"In all professional sports, your No. 1 requirement is creating relationships. That way, the players will listen to you when you talk to them about playing as a team. Otherwise, all they're thinking about is themselves.

"In the old days it was all about the power of the position. You were the manager and you said, 'We're going to do this,' and the players said, 'Yes sir.' Now it's your responsibility to earn their respect and trust. Then you personalize it by showing that you care about them. It's really about back-to-basic values.''

Talent permitting, the managers who pass the emotional test enhance their chances of winning games and earning a long-term paycheck. Those who fail eventually return to coaching or summers at home working the grill on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. In a profession that grows more challenging by the year, it's survival of the fittest.

Related Video