The ax

Five baseball managers have felt the blade since Opening Day. Coincidence, or is something going on?

By King Kaufman
Published June 6, 2002 7:34PM (EDT)

Buck Martinez became the fifth manager to lose his job this young baseball season when the Toronto Blue Jays fired him this week, ending a deathwatch that had begun in November. He's actually the sixth to go if you count Joe Kerrigan, dispatched by the new Boston Red Sox owners in spring training.

Martinez was as good as gone when the Jays hired J.P. Ricciardi as their general manager over the off-season. New bosses tend to want their own guy running the team anyway, and Ricciardi made no secret of the fact that he didn't think much of Martinez, a fan favorite in Toronto as a player and broadcaster who had no managerial or coaching experience before being hired prior to last season. Toronto was a reasonably respectable 80-82 in 2001, but the Jays were off to an awful 20-33 start, even after a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers that immediately preceded Martinez's firing, which immediately preceded every newspaper in North America running this headline: "Buck stops here."

After a record four managers were felled in April, I began talking to current and former skippers around baseball about whether that was a mere historical blip or something had really changed in baseball. Are teams pulling the trigger on managers more quickly than they used to? And if so, why?

The consensus answers among those few willing to talk to me about it: Yes, and money.

"There's more pressure because there's more money involved," said Jim Lefebvre, the hitting coach for the Cincinnati Reds, who managed the Seattle Mariners in 1989-91, the Chicago Cubs in 1992-93 and the Milwaukee Brewers for part of the '99 season. "People expect teams to come out of the blocks quicker, expect to perform better, so there's more pressure on managers today. Now, we know one of the reasons why is the salaries."

Lefebvre pointed out how many teams are already more than 10 games out of first, with, at the time we talked, slightly less than a third of the season gone. Through Tuesday's games, a little past the one-third mark of the season, eight of the 30 teams were that far out. "There's just teams that can't stay up with the Joneses [because they can't afford to pay high salaries]. And if you do have money, there's more pressure," he said. "Different organizations as you go around have made big investments in teams, money to get the teams going. And when they're not going, they have a tendency to fire people quicker."

Nobody's been fired any quicker in the modern era -- meaning since 1900 -- than Phil Garner got fired by Detroit this year. The Tigers came out of the chute 0-6, and that was it for Garner, tying the dubious record held by the late Cal Ripken Sr., fired by the Baltimore Orioles six winless games into the 1988 season.

It seems ridiculous to judge a manager based on six games, which is less than 4 percent of the season. By way of comparison, at a similar point in the NFL season, it's early in the third quarter of the opening game.

Without specifically addressing the Garner firing, Bing Devine, who as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals built the nucleus of that club's mid-'60s championship teams, said that with all the money involved, teams can't afford to risk having the fans think the season is a lost cause.

"I think they don't want to wait too long and they hope to recoup and they figure that the one way to make an impression with the public that they're doing something is -- to do something," he said. "There's so many clubs that, really, they're paying more in salaries than they want to, and if they don't get some quick action, whether they should or not, they decide to just jump and do something."

Reds manager Bob Boone, who has also managed the Kansas City Royals, agreed. "When your team's doing bad, with the advanced media that we have now, call-in shows, you know, the manager takes the heat for any losses. They always have. But you can't change players, so there's one place you go," he said.

The thing about this year's firings is that they've worked, after a fashion. All four teams that fired their manager in April -- the Tigers, Brewers, Colorado Rockies and Royals -- have played better since the managerial change than they did before it. That's not necessarily saying much, though. The Tigers are 21-28 since their 0-6 start; the Brewers were 3-12 when Davey Lopes was fired, 18-24 since; and the Royals were 8-15 when Tony Muser got the ax, 13-18 since.

Only the Rockies have become a winning team since firing their manager in April. (The Red Sox, after switching managers in the spring, are off to their best start in years.) Colorado was 6-16 when Buddy Bell was dismissed. They immediately went on a six-game winning streak, won 21 of their first 30 games under new manager Clint Hurdle, the best 30-game stretch in franchise history, and after Wednesday afternoon's game they were 25-13 since the switch. The Rockies were in fifth place, eight games out of first at Bell's firing. Wednesday morning they were in fourth place, five and a half out and very much alive.

And Hurdle doesn't want to take credit. "We were due to play better," he told the New York Times over the weekend. "We played so poorly we got a good man fired."

Nobody in the managing fraternity likes to see managers fired, good man or no.

"A managerial firing is distasteful to me anytime," said Florida Marlins skipper Jeff Torborg, who's also helmed the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets and Montreal Expos in an off-and-on managerial career that dates to 1977. "The fans want to see players play, they don't come to see managers manage or umpires umpire, obviously, but sometimes it's distressing because these guys have paid their dues for a long time in the game and they wouldn't be where they were if they didn't know what they were doing."

Torborg said he thinks teams' trigger fingers have gotten a little too itchy. "I've been fired a couple of times, and I realize that it's a very uncomfortable situation to be in," he said. "I love the game, so when I was telecasting, I never tried to second-guess the manager, I just tried to enjoy what the game brought. Maybe that would be helpful for the administrations of a lot of these clubs."

Maybe so, but don't hold your breath. As Boone pointed out, the administrations themselves are under the gun.

"The general manager position used to be as stable as anything in the game, and that's not stable anymore," Boone said. "The game's always something that's been in flux, and all aspects of how the game's played, the hitting, the pitching, everything's been cyclical. But I don't think you'll see too many Walter Alstons anymore," a reference to the man who managed the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1954 to 1976.

In other words, look for the firings to continue. At some point, Hal McRae will take the fall for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, baseball's worst team, who had a 15-game losing streak in April and May, and through Tuesday had lost five straight and 10 of 12 on the way to an 18-38 record. The Rays are so bad that McRae, also a former Royals manager, by the way, said he figured the Blue Jays fired Martinez when they did, after three straight wins, because the Jays were about to host Tampa Bay for four games. "They had to do it. Looking at this series, they didn't want him to have a seven-game winning streak," McRae said.

Larry Bowa's Philadelphia Phillies expected to be in the hunt in the National League East. After a poor start, they went on a seven-game winning streak, but since then have faded again, losing 14 of 21 through Tuesday. No team has taken control of the East, so the Phillies were only eight games out, but their downward drift and Bowa's mercurial personality, not popular among his players, probably mean his days are numbered.

And who's to say what will happen in Cleveland? Are Charlie Manuel's Indians the team that won 10 straight in the opening weeks and eight out of 10 through Sunday, or the one that went 9-25 in between and got pounded by the Minnesota Twins 23-2 Tuesday?

There's no doubt about the makeup of Jerry Narron's Texas Rangers, occupying the cellar of the American League West. The only question is how much of this year's losing he'll be around for.

"It's not a real stable position, if you're looking for a career," Boone laughed, adding that managers can't think about the fact that their eventual firing is all but assured. "You go out -- and it's a tremendous opportunity, there's only 30 of these positions in the world -- and you do the best that you possibly can, day in and day out."

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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