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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Say It Won't Be So, Ed Wade

It's an election year, so I suppose it's appropriate to talk about the environment. When you think of the environment, in many states you think of recycling. You take your used newspapers, cans, glass and plastic containers and put them in a big receptacle and leave them on the curb. Once a week, your refuse hauler comes to take them away. I haven't had a chance to google this, but I think that I read somewhere that not all of these recycling efforts make money. Nonetheless, recycling is a noble thing. Or else, I'm sure, at some point our descendants all will be living in houses built on landfill.

And, in this election year, the issues of jobs has come up too, specifically the threat of jobs being outsourced to other countries. That is, other countries wil reasonably well educated work forces whose cost of living is so much lower that American companies decide to enhance their gross margins and mollify Wall Street by sending your help desk work to Bangalore. Which means, of course, that the workers in the U.S. who lose their jobs to Beijing and Bucharest need to get additional training, re-training, so that they can tackle jobs that are necessary here and that are not as vulnerable to threats from workers in other markets. That's, of course, another type of recycling, and a very noble proposition too.

This, though, is a sports blog, not a political blog, and you may be wondering what the connection is to the sports world. So here's the segue: it's one thing to re-train workers who lose their jobs to operations in India and China. It's another thing to fill your baseball team's managerial vacancy with guys who have had their chances and just haven't gotten the job done.

At least, for the most part. As with many situations in life, you cannot paint with a broad brush and come up with a one-size-fits-all rule. Because, if you did, the Yankees wouldn't have Joe Torre at the helm now, and they most certainly wouldn't have hired him in 1996. The reason: he had a losing record as a manager in stints with the Braves and the Mets. So, if you took my overall proposition literally, the response in the Bronx in 1996 would have been no Torre.

But Joe Torre is the exception, not the rule. And, with manaers, it's hard to find the exceptions, because it's hard to figure out how much difference a manager makes to a team (according to the stat guys, not nearly as much as, for example, a football coach). Managers don't have to come up with game plans and plays, don't have to decide what defense to play, when to press, whether to use the run to set up the pass, or vice versa, whether to emphasize the three-point shot or a post-up offense.

But I still would surmises that Joe Torre notwithstanding, it's not the best idea to recycle most managers. For example, let's look at the Philadelphia Phillies, who are in the midst of a process to hire a new manager. The Phillies' brass believes that the home nine is on the verge of making the playoffs, so they don't want to go for a new face, a potentially great manager (assuming, according to Phillies' skeptics, that the ownership and front office would know that manager if he came up and bit them on the rear end). Instead, they have offered up that they want a veteran manager who can help take this team to the next level.

So instead of looking for the new new thing, they're looking retro. They've interviewed Don Baylor (who looked old, tired, overweight and out of style at his post-interviewe press conference and who, the last time I checked, has never managed a team to a post-season appearance) and Charlie Manuel (who looks more robust in four year-old photos during his 2 and a half year tenure with the Indians as recently as four years ago than he does only four years later) and who is a buddy of the Phillies' Jim Thome, and Buddy Bell, another former manager who is the father of the Phillies' oft-injured third baseman David Bell, and whose career managerial record is, well, just awful (his teams got no higher than a third-place finish in his six years of managing). They're also due to talk with Grady Little, who made a glaring mistake last year that, in fairness, should not foreclose him from future managerial opportunities (he averaged 94 wins a season in Boston and was a successful and well-respected minor-league manager before that in the Braves' organization).

And, believe it or not, they are scheduled to interview former Phillies' manager Jim Fregosi, who had a rather lousy career in Philadelphia with the notable exception of the 1993 season, in which he guided Macho Row to the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. I believe that was Fregosi's only winning season in his six or so in Philadelphia, and he had many losing seasons as a manager with the Angels before that. Yes, the same Jim Fregosi that insulted the Phillies' fans on WIP, the sports-talk radio station in Philadelphia.

Before I go into the reasons why hiring Jim Fregosi again is a bad idea, I want to note that I have nothing personal against Jim Fregosi. I have never met him, I think he's a reasonably bright guy, I think he's handled the historical misfortune of being known as the guy the Mets traded Nolan Ryan for rather graciously, and I think that he looked somewhat unhealthy wearing his plastic/rubber jacket in the Phillies' dugout on hot days in the summertime.

The thought of the return of Jim Fregosi leaves most Phillies' fans speechless. They'll recover from the disappointment of this season. They'll recover from the sacking of Larry Bowa, the disappointment of the new stadium (in that its dimensions are only slightly larger than those of your middle schooler's Babe Ruth team), the unclutch hitting of Mike Lieberthal and Jim Thome, the sophomore jinx of Marlon Byrd and even Kevin Millwood's public disappearing act.

And they have forgiven and forgotten a lot of woes during the rather uninspiring history of the franchise -- the running out of town of Richie Allen, the failure to sign their first African-American player until 10 years after the Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson, the trade of a young Ferguson Jenkins, the horrific losing seasons that ran from the late teens until the late 40's, and even, perhaps, the rather dreadful record the team has had under the stewardship of Dave Montgomery, team president. A new stadium and a higher payroll made up, at least temporarily, for a lot of past sins.

But there's only so much a group of fans can take. And this group of fans suffered from one of the worst collapses in professional sports' history, when the 1964 team blew a 6 game lead with 12 games to play. When then-manager Gene Mauch, the best manager never to get to the World Series, so they argued, pitched Jim Bunning and Chris Short every other start down the stretch and faded down the stretch like a Yugo in a NASCAR race would have. That is the one event that they have perhaps forgiven, but it will forever remain the one event that they will never forget.

That one hurt.

And that group of knowledgeable, loyal fans, has been hurt a lot.

They would go to a cow pasture to watch a winner, and in 1993 the Vet was on its slow, tired slide into oblivion. The Phillies caught lightning in a bottle that year, they were a fun team with great role players, and it was a magical season. All that said, it will remain to be seen whether they'll continue to go to a palace to watch their home team if management doesn't fix the palpable ills this team has and if management hires the wrong manager to skipper this team.

If they hire Charlie Manuel, people might be okay because he's Jim Thome's buddy, he had a decent record in Cleveland, and people like Jim Thome. If they hire Grady Little, people might gasp that the team that gave you the 1964 Phillies hired another guy from that mold in Little, but ultimately they'd probably see the light and embrace him at least a little. If they hired Bob Brenly, whom I do not believe is a candidate, they would rationalize it that here's the guy who managed the 2001 Diamondbacks to a World Championship, but they'd probably quickly remind you that the D-Backs had the Big Unit and Curt Schillilng then, and they'll point out that Randy Wolf and Eric Milton don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of National League hitters. They'll publicly wish Brenly the best of luck in the world.

And in all these cases, some will be happy, and others will not be. But they'd still cross their fingers and go to the ball park.

But if the Phillies were somehow to hire Jim Fregosi, whom a local paper indicated is "highly respected" in the front office, the same Jim Fregosi who has had four managerial gigs in his career, the fans will have blood in their eyes. The media will have a field day, and even if the Eagles remain undefeated by the time this announcement is made, those who are baseball fans will call into the local talk shows and scream at the top of their lungs that the decision is madness, it is lunacy. And, like the character Howard Beale from the movie "Network," they will open their windows and shout at the top of their lungs, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

And they'd be perfectly justified.

Because while retro jerseys may be the rage among pro athletes, the hip-hop crowd and front-end of the baby boom lawyers and accountants whose wives gave them "Dream Week" as a 55th birthday present, retro managers like Fregosi will have the same effect of serving a palate cleanser of Ipecac at a five-star restaurant such as Philadelphia's famed Le Bec Fin.

I've read about Armageddon scenarios, probably watched a late-night movie about them, and never have given them much stock, especially after having read about all of the Y2K doomsday scenarios that never happened. And, of course, I've always hoped and prayed that something like that would never happen.

But now I wouldn't be so sure, at least in a baseball context. Because if the Phillies were to determine that Jim Fregosi is the guy to lead this current crop of players to the World Series, the noise from the City of Brotherly Love will be pure cacophony. Part of the noise will be middle-aged fans singing "We're Not Gonna Take It Any More," part of it will be the rippling chant of "Fire Ed Wade", and part of it will be of formerly loyal fans ripping up their mailers from the hometown team soliciting them to re-up for season tickets.

Because Jim Fregosi had his chance. Because Jim Fregosi had one or two good years in more than a dozen of managing. Because Jim Fregosi doesn't bring anything new to the table. Because it's hard to fathom that Jim Fregosi will be to the 2005 Phillies what Jack McKeon was to the 2003 Florida Marlins.

In 1993 the Phillies did catch lightning in a bottle with Jim Fregosi as their skipper. But it says here that that type of lightning doesn't strike twice.

Front offices everywhere have the right to recycle managers as often as they want.

Some are worthy of recycling. Some deserve a second (and even third) chance, because the circumstances they first faced just weren't the right ones.

But some are not.

And if the Phillies' front office recycles Jim Fregosi (a rather unheard of feat of bringing back a manager they fired years ago), they will do so at their peril.

And they'll blow away all of the renewed faith that they worked so hard to create with the building of the new park, the signing of Jim Thome and the trade for Billy Wagner.

Eagles' fans in the 1960's yelled "Joe Must Go" with so much vigor that they ran Coach Joe Kuharich out of town.

I can only imagine what they'll chant on Opening Day if Jim Fregosi is the manager.

That is, if they show up in the first place.


Blogger Ben Fulton said...

A few years ago Bill James suggested a formula for "Expected Wins" in a season, consisting of two parts the previous season, one part the season before, and one part a .500 season. You can rate a manager by comparing Expected Wins to Actual Wins. I wonder which of these would rate highest in that measure?

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