As summer wears on and the Boston Red Sox continue to pile up runs with their All-Star studded offense, rumblings can be heard from the fan base. The pitching staff is failing the team and something must be done, but the players can’t be fired. Dave McCullough examines the third rail of Red Sox fandom while contemplating the issues a manager faces in today’s game.
No topic has dominated July backyard cookout conversations more than Red Sox skipper John Farrell’s job security. From the 12-year-old kid down the block (“he’s doing alright, I guess”) to my 86-year-old grandmother (“he’s a bum, get rid of him!”) to everyone in-between, there is no Boston Red Sox fan without an opinion on the manager of this nine.
Of course, there is no one in uniform with less impact on the wins and losses than the manager. With just a few notable, obvious exceptions*, the effect of a modern baseball manager day to day is about equal to the backup catcher or the twelfth pitcher out of the bullpen; in-game decisions are largely of the “no-brainer” variety and player performance is always more meaningful than the hand than makes out the lineup card – or signals the bullpen. The backup catcher has more at-bats and plays more defense than the manager, and the twelfth man on the pitching staff throws more innings and gets more outs. The manager has precious few opportunities to impact the game – and even those decisions are exaggerated into meaninglessness by fans.
We fans attribute almost everything that goes “badly” to the manager, while giving credit for everything “good” – correctly – to the player. When the pinch hitter delivers a game winning hit, it was because the player put the bat on the ball. Or because the stats dictated this hitter had previous success against that pitcher. Or perhaps the team was “due for a little luck in a one run game.” But when that same player fails – and he fails at least seven out of every ten opportunities – in the view of the fans it was (almost always) because the manager made the wrong decision or called on the wrong player or ignored the data, etc.
Much of the criticism this season of John Farrell has focused on his in-game decision making, arguably the least important aspect of a manager’s skill set. The ability to manage the egos and foibles of the forty or fifty players who will be in the clubhouse throughout the season is infinitely more important. This group of players will include a few players who are self-motivated (example: Dustin Pedroia), a few who need the occasional pat-on-the-behind and confidence-boosting affirmation (example: Rick Porcello), and a few who need the same level of attention and cajoling needed by a toddler who is learning to the use the potty (example: Hanley Ramirez).
In addition, there are “grown-ass men” who need little in the way of guidance (example: David Ortiz) and the young players who are just learning how to act like, and perform like, major leaguers (example: Jackie Bradley Jr.). Oh, and some of those guys are multi-millionaires, while others are making the league-minimum – while the manager, AKA, the boss, is paid something more than the minimum and less than the average middle reliever.
Another aspect of the manager’s job that is more important than signalling the bullpen with a 3-run lead or checking the spreadsheets for which player on the bench figures to fare best against the other team’s reliever is the ability to handle the daily grind of the media. Now, no one in this day and age can “handle” the media the way Leo Durocher “handled” the press in his day. John Farrell can’t take Jared Carrabis out for drinks at the Cask N’ Flagon after the game and whisper in his ear about the “real reason” he couldn’t use a hungover reliever. No, Farrell must sit before the cameras and the recording devices and answer questions (evasively) about why that (hungover) reliever couldn’t “get loose”.
In days gone by, the manager could make excuses for player and the press was a helpful accomplice. These days, the manager cannot utter an unkind word about any player on his roster lest there be a weeks-long controversy and/or a union grievance. What worked for Leo the Lip – and his protege, Billy Martin – would get a manager fired before the clock struck midnight. (Author’s Note: Imagining how much fun it would be to have Martin managing a team in the age of Twitter was a tremendously fun, and wasteful, twenty minutes).
Ultimately, it is the management of people – the egos, the foibles, the day-to-day grind of twenty-five (to fifty) men getting paid huge amounts of money – and the management of the media responsibilities – the press conferences, the sit-down interviews with team broadcasters and PR, the fulfillment of team marketing initiatives (buy a brick!) – that determines whether or not a manager is “good” at his job:
“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
There is a lot of truth in the above clip, despite its animated origin. When things are going right for a baseball team, people aren’t sure the manager is doing anything at all. Yet, those two primary managerial responsibilities (egos and the press) only get harder to handle as the wins pile up. Is the backup catcher happy with how often he is playing and contributing to the team? Is that twelfth man on the pitching staff getting enough innings to also be content with his role, and to stay sharp in case of an injury up the chain?
Yet, when things go bad, suddenly everyone (and their grandmother!) is a baseball expert and is sure that if only John Farrell were doing his job better, the team would not be losing games. During a losing streak the manager has to face the clubhouse – and anyone unhappy with their role – as well as the media, who are always willing to heap on the misery when the opportunity arises. Farrell has to convey the same steady tone of leadership, win or lose, every day from February to (hopefully) November. The job is far from easy – even if every 12-year old in New England thinks they can evaluate the manager’s job performance. As for Grandma, she hasn’t liked anyone in the job since Walpole Joe (“I manage this nine!”) and his take-charge attitude were fired in 1991.
* Grady Little ignoring Pedro Martinez’s obvious “I’m done” in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is the ultimate in-game managerial sin. The player made clear he had given all he could and the manager stupidly asked for more.
Dave R. McCullough has written a tribue to Dave Henderson, about baseball’s long season, and about Eduardo Rodriguez’s last start with the Red Sox.
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