Some labels are hard to shake. Get tagged as a self-promoter, or a horn dog, or a cheapskate, and that characterization is going to follow you around like a strip of toilet paper trailing from your heel. But none of those is half as tough to overcome as that most lethal of putdowns: being dismissed as a nice guy, mild but harmless. That was the situation Art Howe faced when he arrived in Oakland, Calif., late in 1995 to take over the job of A’s manager from Tony La Russa, an intense man who vibrated like a Chihuahua and often gave the impression he would bite your nose off if you did not show him sufficient respect.
How did Howe handle that? His first move was to do nothing, and I mean that literally. It was my job back then to cover the A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle, but I was gone in the off season, so the Chronicle’s slash-and-burn columnist Glenn Dickey was handed the task of writing up Howe’s arrival in town. Dickey had wrongly speculated in print earlier in the week that a likable bullshit artist named Jim Lefebvre, a former A’s hitting coach, was the leading candidate to replace La Russa. In his article announcing Howe’s hiring on the front page of the Chronicle sports section — the morning Howe arrived for his welcome press conference — Dickey went on at length about Lefebvre and made clear his low regard for Howe. He even ridiculed his hiring as “just another step toward anonymity for the A’s, once the most colorful team in baseball.”
At the end of the press conference when Dickey went up to shake Howe’s hand, Howe raised his hand to shake until he heard “Hi, I’m Glenn Dickey.” Then he dropped his hand. It was an unmistakable snub of the powerful, head-hunting columnist for all to see. In fact, four different people all told me about it later, saying “It was amazing!” or “I couldn’t believe it!”
It was a brazen, ballsy way to start his time in Oakland, and he paid for it, repeatedly. But that’s Howe. And that’s the key to his story: Howe knew just what he was risking in refusing to kiss anyone’s ass, and he would make the same decision again, even knowing the consequences, and again and again. He’s a calm nice guy on the outside, but get to know him and you find he’s tough in ways that are not at first obvious. That’s why his team made it to the playoffs, despite a wretched 8-18 start to this year’s season.
“Obviously his greatest coup is that when the team was down this year he didn’t panic, he stayed calm, and his players stood behind him,” Phil Garner, the Detroit Tigers manager, tells me in a phone interview. “He’s very solid and even-keeled. He doesn’t seem to get too high, and doesn’t seem to get too low. I don’t know if that’s the only way to be, but it’s one way. Dusty Baker gets high as a kite, and his players feed off that. Art was a good player, a sound player who did not make mistakes. That’s the way he manages, and that’s what he expects from his team. He wasn’t flashy, but he was a grinder, he did his routine every day. He had really terrific hands, very good defensively, and was very sturdy.”
Howe, 55, had a respectable career as a player, batting an unspectacular .260 over 11 major-league seasons, seven of those playing for the Houston Astros. But he was always the kind of guy you want on your side. His strength was defense, and though he’s known as a third baseman, he played only 400 of his 840 big-league games at third, and also 284 at second, 130 at first and 26 at shortstop. He was, in short, the kind of player always eager to do whatever it took to win — lying to a manager about whether he had played second base before, just to stay in the lineup, playing hurt, whatever.
Howe had some tough seasons with the A’s and his long-term job security has been in doubt as often as not. But the A’s 102-win regular season this year bumps Howe’s Oakland numbers up to a solid 497-474 mark, and he trails only La Russa (798-673) in wins for an Oakland A’s manager. (Howe was 392-418 in his five seasons managing the Astros.) Howe, in short, is right on the threshold of moving up a notch, from well-liked baseball man, widely admired but never more than that, to something else. It just might be that his managing style makes more sense now than ever, as even young players have big money at their disposal.
“One of the things that always bugged me was I would hear people say he’s such a nice guy, but he can’t be a good manager because he’s too soft,” says Howe’s wife, Betty. “They figured you needed to be more in-your-face, like a Tony La Russa.”
“Well, Art treats these guys as men. They are doing a man’s job. He corrects them, but his philosophy is not to get in their face. He calls them in the next day if he has a problem. He’s done that quite often, if he has to, and he’s gotten results. People don’t know about it. But he gets it done. I think they listen to him because they are treated with respect. It’s hard because even though you have young players, they might be making five times as much money as you are. So you’d better be able to relate to people if you’re going to last very long.”
The point is not to argue against the style of La Russa, for example. The St. Louis Cardinals manager goes to war out there, every day, and he surrounds himself with a collection of smart, colorful assistant coaches who make up a formidable brain trust. La Russa thinks everything out, and then thinks it out again a few more times. It’s probably safe to call him brilliant. But in his brilliance, La Russa may be too much for players. I remember the sad case of a player named Brent Gates, a young guy with a body like Gumby and a face that, well, you just have to describe as “elfin.” Actually, I did describe him as “elfin” one time in print, and Gates looked that word up in a dictionary, saw that it meant “fairy,” and thought I was calling him queer or something. He hated me forever after that. And yet, when La Russa decided to move Gates from second base to third, Gates actually got the word from yours truly. He looked like he was going to keel over on the spot. And though he hit .290 as a rookie, Gates is out of the game now. Many feel that La Russa was too tough on him.
That is one thing Howe has never been. The question is, can he be tough when he has to be? As his wife pointed out, his style has always been to call players in quietly, a day later, to discuss a sore subject without getting the media involved. Even so, if you are around Howe for even a few days, you know he’s a man who would prefer not to make waves. He’s having too good a time, just showing up for another day of baseball.
I covered Howe during seasons when he never really needed to be tough. But times are different. General manager Billy Beane has been easily the best executive in baseball the last two seasons, and has assembled a remarkable collection of talent. When I covered the A’s, they had a hard time finding a single ace pitcher to anchor their rotation. Now they have Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, a combined 56-25 this regular season and quite possibly the best collection of three starters in baseball right now, and they are all just starting out.
I think Howe probably was too nice at times, during the years I covered him, but it’s hard to say for sure. All I know is that this season, when Howe benched mercurial young shortstop Miguel Tejada for not hustling and running out a ground ball, it was a different Howe than the man I watched. Howe not only yanked Tejada right out of the game, he told reporters just what he had done and why. It was a calculated risk, and it paid off beautifully. Tejada apologized to his teammates and seemed to gain a new maturity and consistency heading into the playoffs. Anyone who knows Howe knew it was not easy for him to lean on Tejada like that. He did it because he had to.
“Believe me, it hurt him to do that,” Betty Howe tells me. “He came home and told me, ‘I hated to do that to Miguel. I had to send a message to the team.’ He was sending a message to everyone else, ‘Not on my team.’ It really hurt him. He likes Miguel, he loves Miguel, and he knows that on top of everything else, Miguel has the language barrier.”
“The Latin players have so much pride,” Betty Howe says. “Miguel’s problem is he just gets down on himself. He hit a little rut where he was getting lax. I think it was because he wasn’t hitting like he wanted to. The one game, he did not run all the way out to first base. The second basemen fell down, and got up and threw the ball and Miguel was out. It was at a crucial time when we still had to be winning ballgames. We knew if we weren’t winning by the All-Star Game, management would probably dismantle the team. Art pulled him. When the team went out to take their defensive positions, Miguel was not at shortstop.”
“Art did it for Miguel, and he did it for the team. He called Miguel in the next day and said, ‘Miguel, you’re a team leader, and you want to be a team leader. People look to you for an example.’ He didn’t rant and rave. But he did tell him he was disappointed. To me that’s kind of Art being a father, and Miguel being a son. That’s the way Art manages, kind of like a father with a son, giving that knowledge you have and passing it along. That’s how he was with our three kids, who are all grown now. Art didn’t really rant and rave. I did. I’m the ranter and raver. That’s not to say Art doesn’t have a temper. He does have. If you push him too far, you will be very surprised. He just controls it.”
Maybe it’s not a good idea to manage a ball club for a living when you’re as comfortable with yourself as Howe is. Dusty Baker, who I happen to believe is the coolest man alive and who I would hire in a nanosecond if I ever owned a baseball team, has an edgy energy about him. Not Howe. He always looks like a man who just sunk a long, long birdie putt, and will tell you about it if you’d like to hear. He does what he does, his own way, always laconically and happily, and that drives his critics crazy and warms other people to him.
Plenty of people will probably be pointing fingers after the A’s fell to the Yankees with an error-filled effort Monday night in the Bronx. The A’s became the first team ever to win the first two games of a playoff series on the road, then end up losing the series. Worse yet, Tejada made a costly mental mistake, failing to advance to third on a Jason Giambi single to right field, a lapse that ended up costing the A’s a run and earned Tejada a spirited chewing-out from Giambi, captured by Fox Sports.
It may well be true that a more in-your-face manager would have set a tone all season that made such lapses at such a critical time unthinkable. But an edgier approach might not have let young talent flourish the way Howe’s leadership did this season. Those are questions to be thrashed out over time, starting next spring when the A’s set about trying to polish what they have over a full season. What’s clear is that, whatever criticism he might or might not face after the A’s collapse, it’s unlikely to have much effect on the way Howe does what he does.
“Baseball managers generally fall into one of two categories,” New York Post columnist Tom Keegan tells me. “The majority base decisions on what they think will enable them to keep their jobs. They make moves they can defend to the media and to their bosses, their general managers. They never enjoy managing because they are consumed by paranoia. They forever smell the GM’s breath, always envision the next unflattering headline and hear the boos from the crowd, even in their sleep.”
“And then there is Art Howe,” Keegan continues. “He falls into the second group. Even if Howe had hair, he wouldn’t be losing it from constantly worrying about his job security. He’s good at his job, he knows it, and he’s not going to let anyone convince him otherwise, even his general manager. He cares more about doing what he considers the right thing than what anybody else thinks.”