Billy Sample remembers the firing watch in New York. Day after day in spring 1985, the Yankees trooped into the clubhouse after a loss. Yogi Berra was still in the manager's office, Billy Martin was waiting in the wings and George Steinbrenner was in the owner's box directing the drama.
"They had Yogi fired from Day 1 in spring training," Sample said. "They had it in place. We got off to a 6-10 start, and that was all they needed. It was like watching a four-hour movie and you couldn't leave to go to the bathroom."
Finally, Steinbrenner made the switch, dumping Berra for Martin. The players relaxed and began to win. For the only time in Sample's eight-year playing career, a managerial change during the season actually ignited a team. The Yankees finished 97-64 under Martin, but failed to overtake the Toronto Blue Jays in the race for the American League East title.
"In most cases, when you make a change early, you're trying to absolve yourself of the season," said Sample, a commentator for ESPN. "So what do you do? You wipe out the manager and start anew."
When the Orioles hired Johnny Oates to replace Frank Robinson as manager yesterday, they followed a baseball tradition. After employing six managers in their first 28 seasons, the Orioles have had five managers since 1985.
But does firing a manager in the midst of a season make a difference?
"Not really," Sample said. "It's really up to the personnel, the players. If you don't have the horses, you don't win, and that's really an understatement."
* Since World War II, 40 managers have been fired 50 games into the season or earlier.
* Two of the 40 teams went on to win pennants.
* Ten teams went on to winning records, and 13 finished in last place.
Still, the tradition continues. Already, four managers have been ousted before Memorial Day, three in the past three days.
"If a corporation was run like some baseball teams were run, it would be out of control," Texas Rangers general manager Tom Grieve said. "Fortunately, those decisions to fire managers quickly aren't often made. You need the patience to succeed or fail."
Since 1986, Grieve and the Rangers have stuck with one manager, Bobby Valentine. Grieve remembers that during his playing career in Texas, the Rangers routinely hired and fired managers to the team's detriment. Grieve played for Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Frank Lucchesi and Billy Hunter.
"Too many times, the manager is fired to disguise the lack of performance by somebody else," Grieve said. "From my perspective, that's unfair for the manager. But, let's face it, that's the way it goes. That's the way it is done in baseball."
San Francisco general manager Al Rosen recently has warded off criticism leveled at his manager, Roger Craig. The Giants are in last place in the National League West, but Rosen said it would be ridiculous to pin the blame on Craig.
"I never felt the manager should be a scapegoat, but that is obviously what happens when a player or a team goes bad," Rosen said. "I can't fault Roger Craig that my third baseman has 18 RBI and is hitting .200, or a young catcher is barely over .200, or a shortstop is barely over .100 or an outfielder, a lifetime .290 to .300 hitter, is hitting .210."
But conditions can warrant a managerial change.
"When it's obvious that the talent on the field is better than the performance being shown, and the manager is not getting the most out of the players, or he has lost respect of the players, then there is nothing else to do," Grieve said.
Grieve said the trigger is being pushed quicker in an era featuring high salaries and even higher franchise fees.
"I've seen owners," Grieve said. "They're high-strung, wealthy, impatient people who don't like going to the country club and have people making fun of their team. They're used to making quick decisions. It's a lot harder to do that in baseball than in other walks of business."
Rarely does a switch work. But when it does, it's wonderful. In 1982, the Brewers decided to send Buck Rodgers home after a 23-24 start. Harvey Kuenn took over and guided the team to a 95-67 finish and the American League East title.
"It was just a matter of a talented club and a manager fitting in with a cast of players," said Brewers general manager Harry Dalton. "I knew Buck Rodgers could manage, but Harvey Kuenn just had the right touch. For whatever reason, the club was underachieving."
But even an attitude readjustment can't help a wretched team. Consider the 1988 Orioles. After an 0-6 start, manager Cal Ripken Sr. was given the quickest hook in major-league history. Robinson took over, and the team finished 54-107. The next season, the Orioles rebounded under Robinson with a 87-75 record and nearly won the American League East.
"Gee, just three years ago, Frank had a higher position in the organization than just about anyone there, and then two years ago they almost won a division with him managing," Sample said. "Now, the top brass is making decisions for Frank. Strange."