Coming out of the All-Star break, the rough halfway marker of the major league season, two managers have been given the heave-ho: Bob Brenly of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Jimy Williams of the Houston Astros.
When they fired Brenly, the D-backs were fifteen games out of the National League West divisional race (29-50, .367) and just coming off a club-record eleven-game losing streak. The World Series championship the manager brought to Arizona in 2001, his first year at the helm, was long forgotten. Brenly—who left Arizona with an overall record of 303-262 (.536)—was replaced on an interim basis by third-base coach Al Pedrique, a managerial novice in the majors.
Williams left the Astros at a disappointing 44-44, 10.5 games off the pace in the NL Central. Over almost twelve seasons as a big-league skipper with Toronto, Boston and Houston, Williams compiled a 910-790 (.535) record. He’s been replaced by Phil Garner, whose record over ten-odd seasons in Milwaukee and Detroit stands at 708-802 (.469).
I’ve always been convinced that manager is the most overrated post in baseball. Which doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or that any rotisserie player could fill in a lineup card and run game strategy. Just that, from a starting point of competence—and one has to concede as much to both Brenly and Williams—a dismissed manager is merely the fall guy for players who aren’t fulfilling expectations, whether reasonable or otherwise.
Let’s accept that neither man suddenly got stupid. Ultimately, both are victims of circumstance.
In Brenly’s case, the Diamondbacks are an aging and fading squad that lost one of its two pitching aces (Curt Schilling) to free agency before the season began. Their decline was predictable and impending.
The Astros’ underachievement is a surprise, though. After adding pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens in the off-season, they were tagged as World Series contenders. However, Pettitte has been hampered by injuries and is a disappointing 5-2 (4.40). Clemens (11-3, 2.62) has exceeded all expectations, even starting the 2004 All-Star game, but the Astros’ offence has been distinctly underwhelming.
Williams has yet to live down his pivotal decision during the 2001 playoffs, when as manager of the Red Sox he chose to leave ace Pedro Martinez in to face one batter too many. At the time, it was a coin-flip situation. Martinez was running low on gas, but he was indisputably the Sox’s best pitcher. It’s now obvious to Monday morning quarterbacks that Martinez should have been relieved, but I remember at the time agreeing with Williams’ decision to go with his best when faced with the toughest situation.
Williams’ tenure with the Sox ended along with Boston’s World Series hopes. I suspect he’ll carry that stigma for the rest of his career—the managerial equivalent of Bill Buckner. With every subsequent disputable choice, fans nod knowingly: he’s the guy who went too long with Pedro.
When firing a manager, the precedent to which executives aspire is the 2003 Florida Marlins. The team fired Jeff Torborg while foundering with a 16-22 record, and replacement Jack McKeon went on to lead the club to the world championship.
That was a lightning strike. A similar electricity could yet jolt Houston; theoretically, they have the talent to go on a tear and put together a season-salvaging second half.
The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, face continued decline until young talent steps up to replace the old guard and reinvigorate a franchise that has put all its eggs in a basket that hatched three years ago.
Firing the manager is the time-honoured response to poor performance, if for no other reason than to prove the cliché that you can’t fire all the players. The next head likely to roll belongs to Lee Mazzilli in Baltimore (39-50, .438). For the first time in years, the Orioles went on an off-season spending spree and so were expected to play respectably, if not to contend, in the overpowering AL East.
The new acquisitions have certainly done their parts. Shortstop Miguel Tejada (.307, 15 HR, 76 RBI) made the All-Star team, and catcher Javy Lopez (.313, 12 HR, 42 RBI) and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (.247, 13 HR, 53 RBI) have justified their salaries.
As with all losing teams, though, those who aren’t contributing overshadow those who are. The most disappointing Oriole is starter Sidney Ponson, who leads the majors in losses (3-12, 6.29). For years, he’s been an ace in waiting, but year after year he falls short. But since the people who chose to bring him back from San Francisco as a free agent during the off-season are the ones who appoint the manager, Mazzilli stands to pay the price.
The good news is that nobody believes a dismissed manager is incapable of handling the job. Though the position is quickly lost, second chances abound here as in no other profession.