As the Mets are resistant to do the obvious and relieve manager Mickey Callaway of his duties, it is difficult to know the justification of retaining him.
His salary is minuscule compared to name managers.
General manager Brodie Van Wagenen is under siege himself for roster deficiencies and did not hire Callaway.
The pitching coach and bullpen coach have already been fired with the relievers pitching at least as badly as they did before, if not worse.
Jeff Wilpon is a target of ridicule for his perceived role in this burgeoning debacle.
And even if they do make a change, there’s no guarantee that they will make the obvious and right move in hiring Joe Girardi.
It’s a trendy shield for teams to assert that managers are largely irrelevant to the overall results of a team and most subscribe to it. This protects them from firing people, paying them not to work and avoids caving to public pressure to hire the decreasing number of “proven” managers who are going to demand a big salary and expect autonomy on the field.
With front offices becoming so immersed in every aspect of how a team is run from top to bottom, the line that general managers never crossed no longer exists. Owners regularly crossed that line with calls to the manager’s office with various orders, but they were the owners. Today’s GMs are younger, hungry for attention, convinced that they know better than the emotional and reactive field staff, and do not want anything to sabotage their algorithms of optimal moves.
The days of Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver, Davey Johnson, Dick Williams and Joe Torre – managers in the truest sense of the word with their own belief systems, preferred style of play and personalities – are gone. The preference is to have a disposable, replaceable and faceless automaton who will carry out the orders of the front office, be the public face of the franchise, not deviate from the plan and play the part of manager rather than be the manager. None of those mentioned would even get a managing job today, except in cases where the owner ordered the hiring over protestations of the front office. They would have problems relating to players who expect to be coddled and know they have the power and could not stand the dissection of every single decision they made with public criticisms from an exponential number of outlets who would never be forced to face them in person.
The altered landscape is aptly described at the end of Casino when Robert De Niro as Sam Rothstein laments how times changed with the corporations taking over Las Vegas:
In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s checking into an airport. And if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it’s all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number.
There’s a clear parallel between this perspective and how baseball teams are run.
Billy Beane is cast as the first GM who was publicly portrayed as running the team from the front office. It was Beane who wanted a manager to follow orders. It was Beane who allowed this desire to be out there for all to see. And it was Beane who repeatedly downplayed the importance of managers by discarding them to be replaced by “another guy.” It didn’t matter who.
When he elevated his close friend Bob Geren to the manager’s chair, the Athletics were embarking on another retooling. Geren was the epitome of mediocrity. A vanilla personality who maintained the same blank look on his face regardless of what was happening around him, he certainly fit the role of “some guy” standing at the corner of the dugout and epitomizing the factotum. The results on the field were just as bland as Geren. Never better than .500; never worse than 12 games below .500. They were blah. He was blah.
Eventually, with players complaining about Geren’s communication failures, the team floundering and – perhaps most importantly – Beane’s image reaching fluke status, Geren was dismissed.
Beane steadfastly refused “name” managers in his previous hires with Ken Macha and Geren. This time, however, he did bring in a known entity in Bob Melvin. This was a tacit admission that the model from which he had been working was not a good one. Still, he clung to the tenets when explaining why he dismissed Geren by ignoring player complaints as though they were irrelevant and blaming the media and the speculation infecting the franchise.
Beane’s actions and the aftermath of those actions do not match the rhetoric and that was clearly intentional. He clung to the narrative while deviating from it making it obvious that he knew the other way was not working and was not going to work with a team that did not have the spending power to put a self-sustaining product on the field.
Whereas Geren did not have the resume to protest Beane’s orders and was known to be one of his closest friends, with whom could the players confide if there were issues with the front office? Who had their backs?
Melvin had two previous jobs as manager. In the first, he inherited Lou Piniella’s Mariners as they were just beginning their downward slide. He won 93 games in his first season and the entire club came apart in his second, losing 99 games. He was fired. The next year, he came in second to Wally Backman for the job to manage the Diamondbacks. When Backman was found to have lied on his job application, he was fired and Melvin took over. After four full seasons including one division title and an NLDS win, he was fired 29 games in to the 2009 season as he resisted front office interference and GM Josh Byrnes famously said he wanted someone who provided “organizational advocacy.” Ironically, the person tabbed to replace Melvin and for whom any chance of success was detonated with those two words as he was viewed as a spy, was AJ Hinch – currently considered one of baseball’s best managers with the Astros.
There is no doubt that Hinch’s experience in Arizona is a reason he is now successful in Houston.
The A’s played better under Melvin after he replaced Geren. Then, the next year, they won the first of back-to-back division titles and made the playoffs in the third year as a Wild Card.
Was it the players? Was it the manager? Was it the front office realizing that maybe it was time to give the manager a bit more freedom and respect than they did before? Was it a combination?
Experience. History. Knowing when to push back against the front office. All are key parts of managing that will never change, especially if the team is not the Yankees or Dodgers and does not have the money and personnel to gloss over a nameless, faceless manager who does what he’s told. For most teams, the season hinges on 15 or 20 games where the manager makes the difference. If he’s losing games due to his ineptitude, then it’s time to make that move to hire a person who has a clue.
It benefits the players to have a manager they respect; one who has a salary large enough that he won’t be dumped just to hire the same guy with a different name and face; one who can speak to the media without sounding as if he’s a hostage reading from a script; and one who will make the decisions he feels are in the team’s best interests in the short and long-term rather than because he was ordered to by guys in suits and polos in the front office suite. Even if the players disagree with the manager, a track record gives a certain amount of leeway. “At least he knows what he’s doing” is as good a reason as any to hire a manager who has done it before.
To continually present the manager’s job as meaningless while maintaining the veneer of an all-powerful and all-knowing front office is cannibalistic and destructive.
So many front offices either don’t understand this or are too paranoid and egomaniacal to admit to any level of weakness. But the players know. It would help if front offices did too. Maybe the Mets will learn this before someone else hires Girardi and they take the first step toward fixing what ails them with the simple act of hiring a manager who knows what the hell he’s doing.