When I was a child, I would ask my father why the Indians fired the manager, who after all, never threw a pitch, swung a bat or flashed a glove.
My dad would explain that getting rid of the manager was a bedrock principle of baseball; if a team continually lost it was easier to blame the manager than the executives who made the real mistakes (often the manager’s boss, who was not going to fire himself).
Now, I am old and skeptical, and I can no longer discuss this with my father. If he were still around, I know he would be as accepting of the practice as he was decades ago, because that’s the way it’s always been, probably always will be, not just in baseball, but in NFL, NBA, NHL and the lingerie football league.
Everyone who knows the difference between the seams on a baseball and a yellow submarine understands why the Tribe parted ways with Manny Acta on Thursday: The club was in a downward spiral, somebody (besides pitching coach Scott Radinsky had to pay the price), and as you looked around for a fall guy, the manager was lit up like a Christmas tree.
General Manager Chris Antonetti denied the Indians’ deep thinkers were making Acta the scapegoat. In his mind, he was telling the truth. While knowing full well that no manager could wreak the kind of havoc necessary to cause the Tribe’s sudden collapse, he could tell himself that the first step in rebuilding fan trust was making a change in the manager’s office.
When a team goes south, the first person the fans blame is the skipper. Even Mike Hargrove, who is the closest thing to being a beloved manager in Cleveland, took the heat from the customers when the Tribe stumbled through a bad three weeks.
Besides custom and practice in the industry, there are a couple of other things that make it easier to fire the manager than 25 players, the ancient rationalization for axing the skipper that probably was first uttered 100 years ago by an owner.
Managers make relatively little money, and they usually have no more than two years left on their contracts when they get the pink slip. Yet the image of owners Larry and Paul Dolan has sunk so low that I heard many in the media speculate that Acta would not be fired because he was owed about $1 million for next year.
In the past few days, I’ve heard lots of speculation that Terry Francona would be too expensive for the Dolans. Nonsense. Even if they paid him $4 million per season, it wouldn’t be much more than a tiny bump in the payroll.
The other problem for managers on the brink is that they lack a constituency. If the front office and the owner no longer have the skipper’s back, he’s done. Fans almost never stick up for a manager in trouble (many Red Sox fans even turned on Francona last year), so Antonetti didn’t have to worry about a backlash among the partisans when Acta was dismissed.
Then there’s the bogus excuse of not being able to fire 25 players. When that alternative is offered up — club executives would have you believe it’s the only alternative — fans actually buy it. Even a last-place team has a core of at least a dozen players it wants to keep.
But can you fire 13 players? Maybe not in one season, but you can expect a turnover rate of 10, maybe more. Check out how many new faces show up on the Tribe’s roster at the end of spring training.
I never thought it was a good idea to automatically fire the manager as a first step to making a club better. I didn’t like it when I was kid (my father would just look at me and shrug), and I don’t like it now.
For one thing, owners and GMs treat the manager as if he were a chess piece to be manipulated until their queen gets cornered, then they give him up. For another, firing the manager seldom works. I don’t think I have to recite chapter and verse to demonstrate the truth of that statement.
There’s another old baseball saying that’s as accurate as it gets: A team is only as good as the talent on the field. A manager can slightly enhance his club’s ability to win or pull it slightly in the other direction. He is almost never the primary reason for success or failure.
I don’t think that Indians President Mark Shapiro or Antonetti go along with the conventional thinking about managers being throw-aways. Both men have a higher regard for the pressures and nuances of the job, and they treat managers as if they were (I’m biting my tongue here) real people, who use their salaries to take care of their families. That is, most skippers probably have only one Escalade, not a fleet, as do at least a few of the players they are trying to manage.
Shapiro, when he was still the GM, probably would not have fired Eric Wedge, but the Dolans took matters into their own hands. Shapiro felt that Wedge was the same competent manager or better than when he was hired seven years earlier. He probably was correct. How could Wedge become such a loser after spending several seasons learning his craft?
But neither Shapiro nor Antonetti can alter the thinking of a sport that has been dealing with managers in the same way for more than 100 years. The pressure was on, they had to do something. Since the Dolans are not about to sign the winter’s top five free agents, they will buy time by hiring a new manager.
Whoever that turns out be, he has my condolences. I have known both of the current candidates, Sandy Alomar and Francona, for many years. They understand the game and are sensitive to the difficulties of keeping the clubhouse in one piece. They also are good men, but that is supposed to be irrelevant.
There aren’t many jobs more difficult than managing a baseball team, because very little is under the control of the so-called boss. That’s just the way it works, and as my dad probably would say, “You’re the last guy who’s going to change it.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.