- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

Felipe Alou held a news release as he sat in the visitor’s clubhouse at Miami’s Pro Player Stadium on May 6. He had bad news: San Francisco Giants closer Robb Nen was out for the year with a torn rotator cuff.

“I have to trust the people who are saving games for us now,” Alou said of his team’s future without Nen, the team’s all-time leader in saves. “And I have to trust God. I really trust God.”

And trust is what Giants owner Peter Magowan and general manager Brian Sabean displayed when they hired Alou last fall.

It takes a unique man — strong, confident and wise — to take over a team that reached Game 7 in the 2002 World Series only to lose to the Anaheim Angels. And not every manager is sure enough of himself to follow a popular and successful manager like Dusty Baker. However, Magowan and Sabean felt Alou, a member of the Giants family who came up through the organization and played alongside Willie Mays for six seasons in San Francisco, was their man.

So far he’s proven them right.

Despite the loss of Nen, Alou led the Giants to a 13-1 start and has had San Francisco in at least a share of first place in the National League West every day this season. After yesterday’s games, the Giants and Dodgers were tied at 44-30.

Alou knows the strategies and the numbers of the game. In fact, it’s unlikely anyone knows the game better. He was a three-time All-Star who played 17 major-league seasons, primarily with the Giants and the Atlanta Braves. He spent 12 seasons managing in the minor leagues and then 10 with the Montreal Expos.

But the tools Alou uses to manage a baseball team are faith, trust and respect. At times he may sound like a new-age guru, except he is 68 years old.

“I try to find as much as I can about the player as a man,” Alou said. “To me, the first and most important thing is what kind of man they are and then the player. You find ways to identify the man, at least a little bit, you have a shot at getting the trust of the player, too.

“There are players who don’t trust management, for whatever reason. I am not a very friendly man. I don’t have a lot of buddies. But I respect a man, and I am willing to make the circle a little wider and create more room for a guy on a team in which we all can get along and live together.”

“Widening the circle” is not a term likely to be found in any baseball book, but it is an idea that has worked well for Alou. Despite a losing record (691-717) with the Expos, he is viewed as one of the savviest and most respected managers in the game.

The record hasn’t hurt Alou’s reputation because he always has been credited with getting the most out of a difficult situation. The Expos traded away young, homegrown talent year after year — Delino DeShields, John Wetteland, Larry Walker and Alou’s son, Moises. Year after year Montreal led the league in empty seats and always was on the brink of moving out of town.

If anything, Alou was seen as a manager who could work with new players and develop young talent.

Orioles first baseman David Segui emerged as an everyday player after he was traded from the New York Mets to Montreal in 1995.

“He was the first manager who showed confidence in me and put me in every day,” Segui said. “A lot of players’ careers have blossomed under him, and that’s no coincidence. He is one of the most knowledgeable baseball men in the game. He treats players as professionals. As long as you play hard every day and carry yourself in a professional manner, you will have no problem with him and will thrive under him.”

Alou was fired in 2001 shortly after new owner Jeffrey Loria took over the Expos. Alou had an offer to manage the Boston Red Sox a few months later but didn’t think it was a good fit. He passed on the Boston job and stayed in the game as a bench coach for Detroit Tigers manager Luis Pujols.

Alou, despite his age, was not going to jump at the first job available. He knew his strengths and weaknesses and wanted to find the job that felt right. There were times when Alou thought he may never get another chance to manage, but he was patient.

Jim Beattie, the Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations who worked with Alou as general manager of the Expos from 1995 to 2001, believed Alou was a perfect fit for the Giants. The changes San Francisco went through — the loss of free agent Jeff Kent and the addition of second baseman Ray Durham, third baseman Edgardo Alfonso and outfielder Jose Cruz — seemed to play to Alou’s strength.

“One of his great talents is taking teams that have gone through changes every year and turning them into winners again.” Beattie said. “He was always faced with that in Montreal. He has the same thing in San Francisco but with more veteran players. A lot of times when you bring in new veteran players, you’re not quite sure how they are going to mesh. That’s one of his great skills.”

Like Baker, Alou earned the respect of his players with honest communication.

“He had the respect of the players right from the start, and he showed he had respect for us by the way he communicated,” said Cruz, who is batting .255 with 11 HRs and 31 RBI. “He talks to us and lets us know what is going on. That’s all a player can ask for, for the manager to be straight with him and let him know what is going on.”

And that’s really all the team wanted, or needed, after 10 seasons under Baker.

“It’s thrilling because he’s a Giant at heart,” Sabean said when Alou was hired. “Everybody in baseball realizes what he has done in the game. He calls himself a baseball soldier in conversation. He’s more like baseball royalty to us.”

That is an apt description. Alou carries himself like royalty, confident and low key. But he is not considered soft, and there has never been the perception that players take advantage of Alou’s style.

“When a player oversteps the boundaries, everyone knows about it — his teammates, the coaching staff, the trainers, everyone,” Alou said. “If you loosen up the circle and widen it, if anyone goes out, it is way out, and it is very noticeable to everyone.”

It helps to have a clubhouse with players who can keep the team within the circle. Alou made sure he had those kind of players when he brought familiar faces to the Giants’ clubhouse — outfielder Marquis Grissom and first baseman Andres Galarraga. Both came up with the Expos, played under Alou and are considered strong, positive clubhouse influences.

“He’s the same as he was when I played for him in Montreal 10 years ago,” Grissom said. “I call his managing ‘teaching’ because he was always teaching us and developing us in Montreal, and he still stresses the fundamentals of the game and playing the game right.

“The most important thing he has, though, is respect for his players and then in turn the respect that the players have for him,” Grissom continued. “The first day of camp, when everyone had reported, he made it known that he was in charge and expected his players to play hard and be professionals. He does his job with such confidence and with such leadership, he just commands respect. We came together quickly as a team, right in the first week of spring training.”

That’s saying something.

Even though the Giants were successful under Baker, they were never quite seen as a team that “came together” very well. The tension between superstar Barry Bonds and the team’s other big bat, Kent, made it difficult for a good chemistry. Proof of the Giants’ personality conflict was a televised fistfight in the dugout between Bonds and Kent. Kent is gone, a free agent who signed with the Houston Astros. Bonds — arguably the best player in the game, with a difficult personality to match — remains, and his aura hovers over the team.

Alou said he didn’t know Bonds before arriving in San Francisco last fall, but he knew of Bonds’ difficult reputation. However, Alou didn’t make any judgments and waited to talk to Bonds.

“When I was named manager, there were two major issues, and I still believe there are some of that left,” Alou said. “One is my age. Number two issue is Barry Bonds. I had a meeting not with Barry but with the whole team. I told them I was not going to come in and change everything. Maybe in time, a couple of things. But I believe the man who was managing this club before left a tremendous legacy of understanding, respect and managing. So I didn’t come in with the attitude that I was going to change everything.

“[Bonds] has this flair and this arrogance, but that is what super athletes sometimes carry. I played with Hank Aaron, one of the most humble men I have ever met in any walk of life. But other guys like Willie Mays carried themselves with that flair. Barry Bonds is like that. He belongs in another dimension. A majority of guys like that, that is the way they act.

“Sometimes I see Barry as a guy who does not want to be contaminated with mediocrity.”

The Giants have been anything but mediocre, and Alou believes they can get back to the World Series again this year.

“At the press conference when they introduced me, I said I like my team and I had a feeling that this is the kind of group of men who could go all the way,” he said. “Somebody quoted me saying we were going to go all the way to the World Series. I said they have the ability to go all the way, but that is not saying we are going all the way. We are playing well, but I believe we can be better.”

If Felipe Alou believes it, then it is probably true. At this stage of his baseball life, the Dominican baseball guru has earned the benefit of the doubt.

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