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Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Former hurler has instinctive feel for the game

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Harry Ralston "Bud" Black won 121 major league games on the strength of what most people considered an average fastball and changeup. His success was largely a tribute to his ability to outthink hitters and outcompete them.

If Black had enough free time to indulge his passion for golf, friends say he has the potential to be a scratch player. That's a tribute to his hand-eye coordination, course management skills and the same competitive instincts that he displayed as a pitcher.

Bud Black, center, Mike Napoli, left, and Jered Weaver
Black, center, has won two rings -- as a pitcher with the Royals in 1985 and as a pitching coach with the Angels in 2002.
"He was the same on the golf course as he is on the mound. He could go from happy-go-lucky to flat-out locked in," said Jeff Brantley, Black's former San Francisco teammate and frequent golf partner. "Let's put it this way: He doesn't like buying the drinks after the 18th hole."

Black has the same gleam in his eye as he prepares to succeed Bruce Bochy as San Diego Padres manager. As he focuses on winning games, maybe he can debunk a few stereotypes along the way.

The notion that only position players make good managers ranks up there with other narrow-minded baseball precepts -- like the one that says only Red Sox and Cubs fans know what it means to suffer, or that Dodger Stadium is the only big league park that serves a decent hot dog.

The skeptics believe there are more Ray Millers than Tommy Lasordas out there. Last summer, when ESPN.com surveyed 60 players, coaches, managers and executives on which active players would make good managers one day, only two pitchers -- Greg Maddux and Woody Williams -- received even a smidge of support.

"This is not a negative thing, but I just don't think pitchers are baseball players," said former Braves catcher Todd Pratt, displaying the same anti-pitcher bias as many of his position-player brethren.

Even though Padres CEO Sandy Alderson is known as an innovator, the club didn't hire Black to start a trend. Black had been on front office radar screens for years, turning down opportunities to interview for managing jobs with the Red Sox and Dodgers because he didn't want to uproot his family from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., in suburban San Diego.

As San Diego general manager Kevin Towers points out, the Padres played to their organizational strength by hiring Black. They're always going to emphasize pitching at Petco Park, and the 2007 version will run out a starting rotation of Maddux, Jake Peavy, Chris Young, David Wells and Clay Hensley, backed up by one of the league's strongest bullpens.

Still, it would be a disservice to Black to dismiss him as a one-trick pony. When Black worked as a special assistant to Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, he participated in organizational meetings and developed an appreciation for the decisions that help shape rosters. During Black's tenure as Angels pitching coach, manager Mike Scioscia treated him more like an extra bench coach than a pitching guru.

When Towers called Angels GM Bill Stoneman for insight during the hiring process, Stoneman told him that Black's career path is strictly a function of his own aspirations.

"Bill told me, 'If Bud wanted to be a GM, he could be a GM. If he wanted to be a manager, he could be a manager. And he could handle himself very well even if he was sitting down with the board members and the ownership of your club,'" Towers said. "He's very well-rounded."

It's a testament to Black's versatility that he has always been a trusted, respected voice in the clubhouse. As a player, he had the credibility to transcend factions based on race, age, cultural differences or position on the field. He was a media go-to guy and a player with the self-confidence to express opinions that others might not.

"There wasn't one guy on the team who didn't respect what he had to say," said Brantley, who played with Black in San Francisco from 1991 through '93. "Most people who know Buddy think he's a laid-back, San Diego kind of guy who doesn't get his feathers ruffled too much. I think of him as more of an 'encourager' who picks people up and focuses on the positive. Professional athletes respond to that."

Black's competitive side comes out when he's lining up a putt or one of his pitchers is getting squeezed. Shapiro saw that side when Black played for the Indians in 1995, then went to work for the organization as a front office aide and pitching coach.

Along with Black's intelligence, sense of humor and ability to communicate, that competitive streak helps round out the portfolio.

"I think it drives him to manage," Shapiro said. "He wants to be in the line of fire. He wants to be able to make decisions and be in the middle of the competition."

At age 49, Black has come to the right place.

Among the six other managers either making their major league debuts or going to new clubs this season, here are the most intriguing story lines:

1. Lou Piniella, Cubs

Piniella, 18th on the all-time managerial win list with 1,519, can pass Lasorda and Dick Williams and move into 16th place if he leads the Cubs to a .500 season.

Given Piniella's track record, his three-year, $10 million contract and the Cubs' winter spending binge, Chicago fans are obviously hoping for more. If Piniella can bring a championship to Wrigley Field to complement his title in Cincinnati, he will give his Hall of Fame chances a significant boost.

2. Bruce Bochy, Giants

Cold Plate Special: Mike Hargrove
For every new managing hire who wants to make a positive impression in his new town, there's a corresponding manager under pressure to produce if he wants to keep his job. Among that unfortunate fraternity, no one faces more early scrutiny than Hargrove.

While the Mariners have improved from 63 to 78 wins in Hargrove's first two seasons, club chairman Howard Lincoln ramped up the stakes after the 2006 season finale when he observed that GM Bill Bavasi and Hargrove are both on the "hot seat.''

Translation: Another 23-32 record at the end of May, and Hargrove might have a lot of time to work on his golf game this summer.

When the Padres allowed Bochy to leave after 12 years, four division titles and a World Series appearance, the most prominent knock against him was that he spent too much time indulging veterans at the expense of developing young players.

The good news: Bochy's new club has barely any young players. Scan the Giants' projected starting lineup, and 31-year-old Pedro Feliz is the resident youngster at third.

Last year, Felipe Alou grew sick of answering questions about Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Babe Ruth. This year, Bochy will be subjected to similar grilling as Bonds approaches Hank Aaron. That's assuming the Giants sign Bonds. If they bail, Bochy will be peppered with questions about Bonds' absence from the moment the Giants assemble in Scottsdale for spring training.

3. Ron Washington, Rangers

Washington developed a strong following as third base coach and infield instructor in Oakland, where the players learned to love him for his earthiness, candor and willingness to get down in the trenches. He wasn't an early front-runner in Texas, but blew away the Rangers during the interview process and received the thumbs up from owner Tom Hicks and the Texas front office.

Washington will run a looser ship than predecessor Buck Showalter, but it remains to be seen if he can make the transition from good cop to authority figure in Arlington.

4. Bob Geren, Athletics

Oakland general manager Billy Beane has a reputation for being tough on managers. This time, it'll be his best friend and the best man at his wedding on the firing line. Geren, a bullpen and bench coach with Oakland since 2003, has promised that he'll be his own man and not just an extension of the front office. Art Howe and Ken Macha might tell him that's easier said than done.

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Marlins

Gonzalez is considered more of a people person than his predecessor, Joe Girardi. He comes highly recommended by Bobby Cox, and he is familiar with Florida's young talent from his tenure as a minor league manager with the Marlins.

Florida has a strong nucleus of young pitching, but it will be a challenge for Gonzalez to equal or surpass the 78 wins that earned Girardi the NL Manager of the Year award.

6. Manny Acta, Nationals

Let's see: The Nationals finished last in the NL East with a 71-91 record last year, and so far this winter they've acquired Chris Snelling in a trade with Seattle and signed free agents Travis Lee, Tony Womack, Ray King, Jerome Williams, Brandon Claussen and D'Angelo Jimenez.

It's fair to say that Acta, signed to a two-year contract with two club options, will not be burdened with excessive expectations.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.