BaseballStL – George “Sparky” Anderson once said baseball managers don’t win games, they only lose them.
Anderson, who managed the Big Red Machine in the ‘70s and an incredibly talented world champion Detroit Tiger team in 1984, wasn’t bitter or feeling unappreciated.
His point was that a manager’s job is to put the best player in the best position to succeed in the right situation and let talent and fate dictate the rest. Players get the credit, managers get the blame. Leave in a struggling starter and the next hitter will homer; try to hide a poor fielder and the ball will always find him; if a runner thrown out stealing the next hitter will double. Anderson was right; As far as I know, there has never been a recorded incident in which a winning manager had a shaving cream pie slapped in his face while being interviewed following a walk-off hit.
What fans see is what a manager does in a game’s defining moment. Managers who put teams in a position to succeed most often are good managers; teams that succeed in those spots are great teams.
But strategy is the easy part. Being second-guessed by 40,000 fans and millions watching on TV is a day at the beach compared to what goes on that fans never see. How a manager handles the clubhouse and his pitching staff is what really separates good managers from great ones.
Casey Stengel said the secret to managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the ones who haven’t made up their minds. Managers are often like the parents of really spoiled children. They have to decide who plays and who doesn’t, who gets lifted for a pinch hitter or comes out for a reliever and thus, by default, who makes big money and who doesn’t.
Resentment builds quietly in bench players who have been the very best on every team on which they’ve played. Prideful starting pitchers pulled too soon resent blown leads; pull a player for better defense late and you’ve told the world he’s a liability; bench a starter who isn’t hitting and he tells everyone he can’t hit on the bench.
Just about every player on the roster is a millionaire and some of them earn the gross national product of small countries. Those with contracts that stretch years are guaranteed to be paid whether you like them or not and will probably be on the roster after you’re fired. Ask Terry Francona and John Farrell what it’s like when some of the Boston Red Sox players decided they didn’t want to play hard for them anymore. Egos must be massaged, relationships managed, buttons pushed and alliances monitored.
And so, to the point. Not every baseball decision Mike Matheny made this year produced salutary results. Not every lineup was sound or every bunt necessary. Point to whatever decision you like. But look at the whole body of work. Through injuries, surgeries, slumps, a revolving clubhouse door (remember George Kottaras?), express buses between Memphis and St. Louis, scoring droughts and assorted other calamities, the St. Louis Cardinals were never swept in a single series, never had any public clubhouse drama, never bickered, fought or argued in public view.
Players may have been unhappy at times but it never affected their play and they never stopped working hard for the division title they coveted. To keep this traveling circus on track required a steady hand and a very confident, prideful man because in the end, confidence and pride won the day.
Matheny won’t win manager of the year and will not get the credit for the Cardinals’ improbable title. People don’t want to hear how rough the water was, they just want the ship brought in safely. He did that quietly, with little drama.
It didn’t make for good theater, but it made for great results.