- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

The saying goes that coaches or, in baseball, managers are hired to be fired.
In the case of major league baseball in April, though, when four managers got pink-slipped in the month double the record total from any previous April even the "hired to be fired" adage becomes a bit harsh.
In the modern history of the game, only Cal Ripken Sr., in 1988, got fired as quickly as Detroit Tigers skipper Phil Garner did this season after six games. Then Milwaukee canned Davey Lopes, then Colorado did the same to Buddy Bell. Kansas City's Tony Muser got the ax last Tuesday. The total is actually five if you count the spring training firing of Boston's Joe Kerrigan.
On one hand, early firings have happened before in baseball and in other sports; sometimes, it becomes apparent early in a season a team just isn't going to succeed under a given coach or manager. But with the pressure to win coming from fans, who pay high prices for tickets and concessions, and management, which pays players exorbitant salaries, coaches are faced with demanding job requirements that sometimes border on the unattainable.
The four managers fired were doomed by poor starts and small payrolls that ranked among the lowest 12 in baseball. But that didn't stop the so-called "experts" from explaining the firings by saying the managers weren't getting the most from the team or the manager's relationship with the general manager deteriorated.
Maybe another saying, as Orioles manager Mike Hargrove pointed out, is more appropriate to explain this purge of managers: "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken [stuff]."
Coaches and managers will continue to be expendable as long as winning remains at a high premium.
"The days of Tom Kelly and Jim Leyland are long gone," said ESPN analyst and former major league manager Buck Showalter, naming two top managers who held their jobs with low-payroll clubs through several losing seasons. "It's their job to win baseball games. With attendance figures being important, teams are looking for a positive jolt. The fan base wants to see you getting better. They want to see positive signs."
Attendance remains a primary focus for sports franchises, but the coaches' relationship with their players may be the overriding factor, and a poor start can strain things right away. The only thing is, when it comes time for changes to be made, it's the manager one man making a fraction of the salary his players make vs. one or more players earning millions of dollars.
"The manager isn't always the problem, but what other way is there to go?" Showalter said. "With players and guaranteed contracts the manager is a prime target, a movable thing."
So, Showalter said, managers have no choice but to acknowledge that essentially they are operating under the assumption they have a one-year contract; for Muser and Lopes, that situation was worsened both were in the final year of their respective contracts, making them more expendable.
"There are seven or eight other managers in the same situation," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told the Denver Post. "Being able to handle the job in the last year of a contract has become part of the business."
Hargrove reinforced that, saying, "Most of the time we're all a victim of our circumstances. That's part of it."
Still, the Orioles' Chris Singleton said he didn't think the firings last month were entirely unrelated. This season's situation resembled one from the 1991 season, when the Cubs fired Don Zimmer, Kansas City booted John Wathan and Baltimore fired Frank Robinson on three consecutive days beginning May 21.
"It almost seemed as if it became a domino effect after one organization had the courage to do that," Singleton said. "Once it gets rolling, they think, 'We won't be perceived as oddballs or harsh.' Like the normal type of response or reaction whether it's baseball or any other decision it's easier to make a controversial decision when other people are doing it at the same time."
So far, three teams that have fired their managers have gotten better since they made the switch, particularly the Rockies, who are 6-3 under Clint Hurdle after a 6-16 start. Still, two of those Colorado victories came on shutouts pitched by Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton. The Tigers are 10-13 since Luis Pujols replaced Garner. The Brewers are 6-10 under Jerry Royster after starting 3-12 under Davey Lopes. The Royals, however, are 0-6 since interim manager John Mizerock replaced Muser.
"It's so important for the morale of your team to get off to a good start," Toronto reliever Dan Plesac said. "It sets the tone from the beginning of the season, and especially when you have a young team, it starts to believe in itself and that it can win."
And really, winning is what it all comes down to. The Royals' Michael Tucker said a team's performance can be broken down on two levels the quality of the manager (good or poor) and the quality of player talent (good or poor) and combinations result from there.
"You have to understand they want to see what kind of start the team gets off to from a general manager's standpoint," Tucker said.
"But record speaks a lot about what decisions are made. If you're losing, you have to do the best with what you have out there."
And sometimes, the best is not enough.


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