GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The night of the day he dreamt about for years, Bryan Price lay awake in his bed, a realization of his future beginning to sink in.
Price had a nondescript career as a minor league pitcher in the 1980s and began his coaching career with the Seattle Mariners’ rookie league team in 1989. By 2001, he had worked his way up to the big leagues as the Mariners’ pitching coach, and he was hired by then-manager Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 2010 season.
In October, after Baker was fired following six seasons with the Reds, general manager Walt Jocketty gauged Price’s interest in interviewing to replace him. Price got the job four days later, and fears and doubts plagued him throughout that first night.
“I was going, ‘Boy, I just got the job. What does that mean?’” Price said. “That means I have to make the decisions that could fundamentally affect the outcome of the ballgame, and I can’t be a weak link. I’ve got to be ready for this. I can’t be the guy that disappoints.”
Living with the outcome of such decisions, many of which are made under significant pressure, is a fundamental part of being a manager. When Price reflected on his hiring this month, he knew he would have just over a month to grow into one of the most crucial, and often misunderstood, roles in baseball.
No longer is managing about sitting in a cinder block office, filling out a lineup card and substituting players in late innings. New-age thinking has begun spreading down from the front office, where many teams have begun to accept and incorporate advanced analytics into their day-to-day thinking.
For some teams, it’s also a way to infuse fresh ideas into what can be a stale clubhouse. It makes little sense for a franchise looking to break from a period of stagnation — years that likely led to a managerial change in the first place — to bring in a manager who was unsuccessful in previous stints.
“We feel that we’ve got the right man at the right time here in Washington, D.C.,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said when he introduced Williams on Nov. 1. “He’s a man that brings passion and an intensity to the game, but also brings a communication style of eloquence and intelligence, so we think that he’s got the full package.”
A changing dynamic
Walt Weiss had spent 14 years in the major leagues and seven years as a special assistant with the Colorado Rockies before he left organized baseball following the 2008 season. He wanted to spend more time with his family, and when his son Brody’s high school team needed a coach in 2012, Weiss stepped in.
That experience was all Weiss had in a managerial role before he was hired by the Rockies prior to last season. In fact, the Rockies’ search was well outside the norm; in addition to Weiss, they interviewed Williams and Jason Giambi, who played for the team the previous three seasons and has not yet retired.
“I’m not going to say there was never a doubt [that I could do it], because I had never done it before, so I think that would be false confidence or false bravado,” Weiss said. “But I don’t know if there was ever a point where I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this,’ and I don’t know if there ever will be, because there are a variety of challenges, almost daily, that you have to deal with.”
Hiring a first-time manager isn’t a particularly new trend. Of the 30 managers in place for this season, 17 are in their first gig — a number that has held approximately steady over the previous decade. In fact, of the 36 managers who have won a World Series in the past 50 years, 14 of them accomplished the feat in their first stint as a big-league manager.
The turnover in the profession is great. Only seven managers are entering at least their fifth season with a team, and 12 — including Lloyd McClendon, hired by the Seattle Mariners in November — are on at least their second managerial stint. Jim Riggleman was with his fourth team when he quit managing the Nationals in 2011; Billy Martin managed five teams over nine stints, including five with the New York Yankees, until he died in a car accident in 1989.
What is new is the hiring of managers without any coaching experience. Weiss, Ausmus, the Chicago White Sox’s Robin Ventura and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Matheny all were hired without having held any coaching responsibilities in the majors or the minors.
Matheny’s hiring might have been the most surprising. A longtime catcher who played for the Cardinals from 2000 to 2004, he was stepping in to replace Tony La Russa the season after the Cardinals won the World Series and would be managing players he once played with.
“He just trusts his players, puts us in positions to succeed as often as possible, takes no credit for the stuff he does great, [and] takes all the credit for the stuff we do bad, which for a manger to do that is selfless,” said Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, who debuted the season after Matheny left St. Louis as a player. “But he’s just a great leader. He has a quiet confidence about him that we all respect, and we want to follow that.”
For decades, the path to the manager’s office was blazed through the minor leagues, and some still take that route. Ryne Sandberg managed the Chicago Cubs’ Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A teams before being hired as the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager in September.
Rick Renteria, hired by the Cubs on Nov. 7, followed a similar trail. He spent 11 seasons in the Florida Marlins’ organization as a manager and an instructor before latching on as the San Diego Padres’ bench coach in 2011.
A former infielder, Renteria tried to address his weaknesses by filling out his staff with coaches of different backgrounds. Among those he hired was Jose Castro, who will help the Cubs with scouting and defense. Castro was Renteria’s mentor in 1998, when Renteria began managing with the Brevard County Manatees.
“If you have people that are supporting you, it makes it a little easier,” Renteria said. “It’s still difficult because you’re still learning who you are. You’re still trying to put yourself, and what you bring to the table, into that position. I think the biggest thing I always brought, quite frankly, was a positive attitude and it’s kind of served me well.”
No weak links
Ventura was 17 games into his first season with the White Sox in 2012 when he faced a classic managerial dilemma. His team was trailing the Oakland Athletics by two runs in the ninth inning, and with two outs and a runner on first, Ventura tabbed Adam Dunn to pinch hit for Alex Rios.
Based solely on the matchup, Ventura thought Dunn, a lefty, stood a better chance than Rios against the Athletics’ right-handed closer, Grant Balfour. Rios was 0-for-3 with a strikeout that night, but entered with an 11-game hitting streak and had three hits in each of the previous two games.
“Coming out of [spring training], I thought he was probably our best hitter,” Ventura said.
“But, he was scuffling at the time” — and the manager paused, shaking his head — “and I knew it when I did it.”
Dunn took the first two pitches from Balfour before a pair of strikes knotted the count at 2-2. On the fifth pitch, Dunn lunged at a 91-mph fastball low and outside. The Athletics won.
Ventura immediately apologized to Rios and promised he would never make a similar mistake.
Earning respect from players may be the most crucial part of a manager’s longevity, and such respect can be affected by more than game management. If a manager loses the clubhouse, he likely will lose his job.
“I think that part of it gets overlooked a lot,” said Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija. “As long as you can relate with your players and you’re putting your players first, and you have their backs, everything’s going to go pretty smoothly.
“Obviously, everybody wants to play, everyone wants to start, everyone wants to be one of the guys, but what it all comes down to is when you respect your manager and you respect his decision, then you go out and give everything for him, it usually promotes a winning clubhouse.”
Even small details can help. After Renteria was hired, he tried to make his phone calls to his new players as personal as possible. When Williams arrived at Nationals spring training in Viera, Fla., in February, he tried to enhance his players’ accountability by writing motivational phrases on the clubhouse schedule.
“He obviously likes to have his thumbprint on everything that’s going on,” said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. “He’s very scheduled with what he’s doing in spring training. Because of that, it has been a really crisp camp, been a little more of a workload than we’ve had in the past.”
Houston Astros manager Bo Porter, the former Nationals third base coach, also had no managerial experience when he was hired prior to last season. He quickly learned the importance of being patient: The Astros had the worst record in the majors at 51-111.
“When you have a track record, sometimes, it helps; if this player is struggling, you have something to resort back to,” Porter said. “But our group last year, not many of them had a track record. They were just arriving at the major-league level trying to establish themselves, so the growing pains, from a manager’s standpoint — you have to allow that to take its course.”
History has shown that not every new manager will win, and logic dictates it’s impossible.
Ventura believes the pattern of hiring inexperienced managers ultimately will be just part of the normal cycle of baseball. When one of these teams moves in a different direction, it seems reasonable that the next manager would be someone with significant experience.
The White Sox regressed in 2013, finishing with 63 wins — their fewest in a full season since 1970. Matheny guided the Cardinals to 97 wins and a World Series appearance in his second year.
“We’ve had some success despite a lack of experience, so I think that’s probably a model,” Matheny said. “That was the hope when I was given this position, and I’m pretty sure these other organizations are thinking the same thing.”
That makes it hard to ever get complacent.
Price acknowledged that his weakness is in his experience. He doesn’t command respect like Ventura, a two-time all-star who won six Gold Gloves. He is not Williams, who played with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent and Curt Schilling.
He was a nondescript, 27-year-old minor league pitcher who was recovering from two elbow surgeries, had never prepared a resume and couldn’t fathom a life without baseball. It was because of his naivete and his innocence that Price first turned to coaching.
“I was a minor-league pitcher,” Price said. “I understand what my strengths and weaknesses are but that room represents what I believe in, as far as the importance of character, the importance of accountability, the importance of being optimistic, the ability to be honest with the players and the ability to make yourself available on behalf of the players. This has to be a selfless position.”
• Brian McNally and Mike Harris contributed to this report.