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Players remain key to success

Special to

May 4

So many managers have been fired so quickly, it raises a legitimate question: just how important is a manager to a team's success?

In the NFL, coaches are stars. Television coverage of college basketball is mostly about coaches, and little about players. And there are nights when the television cameras seem to catch each manager's every grimace.

Billy Beane
Billy Beane, right, and Art Howe have developed a winning tradition in Oakland over the last several years.

But while managers are important, winning in baseball is about two things: players and the organizations that find, develop and keep those players.

"I think the most important thing is selecting the right roster, having the right players in place the majority of the time and setting the tone," says Boston manager Grady Little, whose mastery of interpersonal skills have been a major factor in freeing the Red Sox players to play their individual games, unfettered.

Yankees manager Joe Torre clearly sets a tone and presence with the Yankees; he simply didn't have very good teams -- or management -- in his other three managerial jobs with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

"The lineup is important," says one GM. "Today, the preparation by a manager and his coaching staff is vital. The decisions like when to hit and run or try to steal or pitch out are there to be made. But for me there are two major parts of his job: handling the pitching staff and handling the clubhouse. He's got to have instincts for when to take out pitchers, how not to overuse the bullpen, how to get matchups and things like that. And getting the players to play hard is of utmost importance.

"But," adds the GM, "what he does has to fit into the context of the organization."

"When teams lose or just struggle," says Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, "sometimes the players tune out the manager, or the coaches. That happens. That's when changes have to be made. Managers do get beaten down by losing, as do players. But the important thing is for the organization as a whole to maintain continuity."

Royals GM Allard Baird tried to save his former manager, Tony Muser, because he felt that in the context of the development of the Royals organization, Muser had worked well with the minor-league and development people.

"No one outside will ever understand and appreciate all the things Tony did for this organization," says Baird. "He'd do anything for us. He'd go right after Christmas to our Dominican Academy, and when he got home, he sent a big-screen TV so the kids could have it for recreation. Our ownership has allowed us to do some things in our minor-league and scouting programs that eventually will pay off, but unfortunately the losing at the big-league level wore down."

As much as anyone, Baird knows that Roberto Hernandez and Chuck Knoblauch are not solutions, they are footbridges to the point where the Royals can begin developing talent on the level of Minnesota and Oakland, other small-market teams.

But look at Minnesota and Oakland. The Twins have had continuity from the time the 1987-92 team broke up. GM Terry Ryan and former manager Tom Kelly had a consistent minor-league philosophy. They had patience.

"I'll never forget one time they were in Kansas City when Torii Hunter was a rookie," says Baird. "Hunter got picked off in the eighth inning when he was the tying run. I looked up 20 minutes after the game and there was Kelly on the mound, Ron Gardenhire at third and Hunter at first. It was a classroom, minutes after a road loss. That to me defined the Twins."

Now, after some hard times and a lot of work, Minnesota not only has a contending major-league team, but in its organization has potential impact young players like Mike Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, Mike Restovich and Justin Morneau.

There is no question that A's GM Billy Beane has been one of the most creative and successful general managers, but he is the first to admit that one of the reasons the A's have performed so well with so little revenue is that their organizational philosophy has been in place for more than 15 years.

"It's a tremendous credit to (former A's GM) Sandy (Alderson), because he set this up in the '80s. He developed a well-defined offensive philosophy. Our development people have been in place. We lost Grady Fuson as scouting director, but we had Eric Kubota, who'd worked with Grady for nearly a decade, to step in. (Manager) Art Howe works very well in this system, because he understands it."

Atlanta was built because Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder instituted an organizational philosophy, stuck by it for five bad years, then when it began to reap benefits, brought in John Schuerholz to put it over the edge with more than a decade of excellence.

Houston is another example of a mid-market franchise with continuity in its organization, from scouting director David Lakey's staff, to their Venezuelan operation to the minor-league people. Larry Lucchino and Kevin Towers set it up right in San Diego, and, like the Indians with The Jake, when the Padres go into their park in 2004, they should reap the benefits of several years of working with a strong organizational philosophy.

"You have to make long-range choices, and you have to have the guts to say no," says Alderson. "There is often a lot of media and fan pressure 'to do something.' But sometimes doing something cosmetic on the major-league level has far worse consequences than doing the right thing where the fans don't notice it."

The Brewers and Pirates tried to "do something" as they moved into their new ballparks, and ended up with a bunch of Jeffrey Hammonds and Derek Bell contracts; after five years, it was clear that Pittsburgh had to start over, with new GM Dave Littlefield, this time with a vision that owner Kevin McClatchy may or may not stick with. Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski came in and decided that former GM Randy Smith's scheme wasn't going to work, and while Smith's major-league moves and contracts may have been suspect, we may learn that he was two years from developing a decent young team, but that the lack of good drafts the three years prior to his taking over in '96 crippled him.

Tampa Bay was set back by a failed attempt to grab the market with Greg Vaughn, Wilson Alvarez, et al, and may have set back its organization two years. Baltimore has been disjointed because the owner doesn't have the patience for continuity. Toronto owner Paul Godfrey realized that all the short-term, cosmetic deals with the Jays had led to a seven-year average of 77 wins -- mediocrity, in any country -- and now has asked GM J.P. Ricciardi to come in and try to raze the salary level to build back the winning tradition.

Do managers make a difference? Of course. Right now, the Phillies, with a talented, young team and a warehouse of terrific arms, are wondering if Larry Bowa's volcanic personality can develop this team. The problem there is that while players believe that Bowa claims credit for victories and showers blame on the players for losses, he is so popular in Philadelphia that he cannot and will not be fired. Which brings up two issues: whether or not the players will maximize performance for him, and whether Bowa's popularity in the end will drive the fans to despise the product, which is suicidal, short-term business.

Great players make great managers. Then there are people like Mark McLemore, Shawon Dunston, Frank Menechino, Carlos Baerga and Craig Counsell whose energy and personalities not only outweigh their statistics, but take on the mantles of assistants to the manager, and make the managing of the clubhouse easier.

But it's all about players. That's why Earl Weaver may well have been the best manager of the last quarter century.

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