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Few manage on their own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Atlanta Braves hadn't won a thing in seven years when they installed Bobby Cox as manager 65 games into the 1990 season.

They haven't finished a full season out of first place since.

So a manager must be pretty important to a baseball franchise, right?

Well, consider an alternative example from Orioles history. Earl Weaver was a genius, pretty much any baseball person will tell you. He went through 15 seasons and three generations of talent without guiding a loser and retired after the 1982 Orioles won 94 games.

So the fiery wizard is replaced with a low-key chap named Joe Altobelli, and the 1983 team does what? Only wins the World Series.

The rest of the sport's history hardly helps clarify the importance (or lack thereof) of the eternally scrutinized species baseball manager. There have been consistent winners, others with a flair for the quick turnaround and still others -- many, many others -- who left little impression at all.

Some franchises' fortunes have turned on managerial hires. Others have rolled along, winning or losing, through two, three, four different field leaders.

There's only one semi-certain rule when a team makes a switch, as the Orioles did Thursday, dispatching Lee Mazzilli for Sam Perlozzo after less than two seasons: Don't expect miracles.

Said Weaver, "You have to have good ballplayers to win ballgames."

Summing up the reality of managers, baseball [See Managers, 5c] [Managers, from Page 1c] historian Bill James once wrote: "Occasionally there is a John McGraw, a Casey Stengel, a Sparky Anderson -- and for every [one] of those there are two hundred of the others, the ones who work a lifetime for one moment in the shadows next to glory."

Even the best do little more than make a good team a bit better, said Steven Goldman, author of Forging Genius, a recent book on Stengel.

"They can take the players they're given and by deploying them in a clever way, swing the pennant race not by 10-20 games but by a few games," Goldman said.

Some say the majority of managers remain anonymous because the role isn't that important -- more like the branch director at a bank than the chairman of the board. It's a theory proffered in Moneyball, Michael Lewis' book on the Oakland Athletics.

"In what other business," former Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson asked, "do you leave the fate of the organization to a middle manager?"

Alderson poses the question while discussing why he let Tony La Russa walk in favor of the more pedestrian Art Howe. Alderson said Howe was brought in "to implement the ideas of the front office, not his own."

It's in the talent

Moneyball logic says that La Russa, now managing the St. Louis Cardinals, can obsess all he wants about defensive shifts and the hit and run, but he wins because Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds are in his lineup every day.

Many current and former baseball men, however, say such thinking is terribly incomplete.

Weaver, for example, saw himself as a key talent evaluator. His general manager provided him with a 40-man roster, but then he had to pick the 25 best players and figure the best ways to use them. He also gave advice on trades and signings.

"I think you've gotta lean on each other," he said when asked the ideal relationship between a front office and manager. "The manager, he knows best what the team needs on the field, and it's up to the GM to get it for him."

Weaver's 'Oriole Way'

Only a handful of modern managers have been good enough and distinctive enough that franchises grew around their philosophies instead of the other way around.

Weaver was one.

Former Orioles general manager Hank Peters remembered a conversation the two had in the 1970s. Peters was curious why Weaver kept replacing slugger Lee May with light-hitting Tony Muser in the late innings. "Well, Hank," Peters recalled the manager saying, "he's on the 25-man roster, so I've got to use him."

Weaver's uncanny ability to make use of spare parts and one-trick artists led the organization to focus on its bench more than most. And the Orioles' "deep depth" became a trademark of the Weaver era.

Another trademark was the "Oriole Way," a series of rules for practice and play composed by Weaver and taught uniformly at all levels of the organization. Thus when a Bobby Grich came up to replace a Davey Johnson, the transition was seamless.

"It's a bonus when you can install your system and be around long enough to show dividends," Weaver said.

But he has no illusions that he would have been given such time if he hadn't won three straight pennants out of the box. "I think Lee Mazzilli is a good baseball man and a victim of circumstance," Weaver said. "But you gotta win."

With good talent on hand, many say, a manager needn't be more than a steady hand. Altobelli was a case in point. "We knew we had damn good players, and his job was: Don't louse it up," Peters said.

The manager's role changed over baseball's first century. Early titans Connie Mack of the Athletics and McGraw of the Giants held ownership interests, found all the players, made all the decisions on the field and in McGraw's case, monitored players' private lives and diets.

But their type faded quickly as general managers took a greater hand and field bosses became expendable goods. Only a few managers after 1950 lasted more than 10 years with one franchise -- Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda with the Dodgers, Weaver with the Orioles, Cox with the Braves, and Whitey Herzog with the Cardinals.

Winning formula

It's unclear what alchemy produces such lasting partnerships. Half the time, nobody knows when a great manager has arrived.

Stengel had a 581-742 record and one winning season in the majors when he took over the Yankees. But then, he won seven World Series in his first 10 years. So was credit due to Stengel, with his innovative platooning and management of a pitching staff, or is it just hard to lose when you've got Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford?

Weaver won a bunch of games managing in the Orioles' farm system and was considered heir apparent when he became first base coach in 1968. But when he replaced Hank Bauer, Evening Sun columnist Phil Jackman wrote: "So now another guy joins the sleepless nights brigade and Bauer gets a paid vacation. It's a good life, but short."

Even if baseball men grant surpassing wisdom to the Stengels and Weavers, they acknowledge that such wizards were blessed with great talent. As if to prove the point, Weaver posted a 126-141 mark during a brief comeback in 1985 and 1986.

For a more current example, look at Joe Torre. With Mazzilli as his best hitter on the 1980 New York Mets, he was a loser, soon to be canned. With Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera on the New York Yankees, he became a steady-handed master, immune even to owner George Steinbrenner.

The magic touch?

It's near impossible to find a manager from baseball history who consistently made magic out of muck.

Billy Martin could ignite a struggling team but was never built for the slow burn of developing a franchise. Dick Williams had a similar touch and a similar inability to stick around.

Teams tend to replace firebrand managers with easygoing guys and vice versa, James writes. The emotional shift caused by such changes can lead to bursts of good performance, he said, but rarely does it mean much in the long term.

That's why Peters laughed when asked if he'd rather start a franchise with a great general manager or a great manager. "I want the GM," he said, "because a great manager won't be worth a damn if nobody gives him talent."

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