- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Buck Showalter of the Texas Rangers and Frank Robinson of the Washington Nationals are the two worst managers in major league baseball, according to a poll of 450 players conducted by Sports Illustrated during spring training.

That would be the same Buck Showalter who was named American League manager of the year in 2004 — he also won the award in 1994 with the Yankees — and who has the Rangers in contention in the American League West. And that’s the same Frank Robinson who has Washington atop the National League East in defiance of all those last-place predictions.

What gives?

“A popularity contest,” Robinson said.

True, neither man could be called beloved. Showalter is regarded by many as a micromanager who once criticized Ken Griffey Jr. for wearing his cap backward. Robinson, during his Hall of Fame playing career, was abrasive and a fierce competitor. Now, approaching 70, he can come across as a curmudgeon.

“I rub players the wrong way,” Robinson conceded. “I get under their skin. That doesn’t bother me. I know for a fact Buck Showalter and I are not the two worst managers in baseball.”

Robinson’s capacity to irk extends beyond players. He angered Angels manager Mike Scioscia by blowing the whistle on a pitcher hiding pine tar in his glove. On Sunday, Robinson publicly criticized Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun for the way he blocked the plate on a play that resulted in an injury to Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson.

But isn’t a manager supposed to do everything it takes to win and stand up for his players? And what about results? Robinson and Showalter are getting results. Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, among others, questioned the validity of polling athletes who carry their own agendas.

“If you’re gonna buy a car, do you talk to players?” he asked. “They’re gonna tell you to buy a car that you can’t afford.”

Everyone from the talking heads on TV to the fans in the upper deck wearing peanut shells on their shirts has an opinion about managers. The pilot of any team in any sport is going to be scrutinized, analyzed and criticized. But managers are out there every day for six months. And it looks so easy. Anyone can fill out a lineup card, right? Even Little League coaches know how to pull a double-switch.

Yet a manager’s job is done more subtly than his basketball and football counterparts, who are more hands-on. You can see Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown scribbling plays on a greaseboard and hear him screaming or telling his team that he loves them. Meanwhile, Robinson leans against the top rail of the dugout, stone-faced.

Much of a coach’s work — preparing, strategizing, dealing with players and their egos — occurs behind the scenes. It is more so with managers. Their’s is a unique title in sports.

“What a manager does is manage,” Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said. “He manages a group of 25 guys who are all different, who come at him from different perspectives. Veterans who believe they should play ahead of rookies. Rookies who believe they should play ahead of veterans. Guys who need to be reassured. Guys who need to be talked to a little more sternly.

“And the manager has to take this group of guys and get them ready to play every night. He has to figure out ways to make guys not in the starting lineup understand they are valuable.”

Communication, honesty and a mastery of tactics are oft-cited attributes of a good manager. But talent usually prevails.

“It’s a simple fact,” veteran Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff said. “Managers can make all the right moves, but if the players don’t execute, it doesn’t matter.”

Among countless examples, Exhibit A this season is Lou Piniella. When his Cincinnati Reds won a World Series and he guided Seattle to 116 victories, the fiery Piniella was considered brilliant. Now, suffering with the crummy Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Piniella is largely known for his temper tantrums. He recently ripped the Devil Rays’ owners for reneging on a promise to make the team better.

Even the Atlanta Braves’ Bobby Cox, named in the players’ poll as the “best” manager by a wide margin (it’s tough to overlook 13 straight division titles), flopped during his first spin with the Braves (1978-81). Returning to Atlanta in 1990, Cox for years handed the ball to Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But in 1979, in addition to aging knuckleballer Phil Niekro, Cox’s rotation included Eddie Solomon, Rick Matula and Tony Brizzolara. Who?

But managing is part of the equation, too. A manager’s job is to get the players to perform, and it is said a good manager is worth a tangible number of wins a year.

“A manager is judged by his work on the field,” Nationals assistant general manager Tony Siegle said. “And the results on the field are based on what he gets out of his talent.”

By that standard, Siegle said, Robinson should probably be near the top, not the bottom.

“The main criteria for me is how a manager motivates his players,” Siegle said. “Getting the most out of what he has in order to perform as good as they can. … Leadership qualities, knowledge of the game, how he runs the game, a lot of things go into the mix.”

Cox, for one, has won every year despite major personnel changes. This season, beset by injuries and playing a bunch of rookies, not to mention a 46-year-old (Julio Franco), the Braves remain competitive.

“It’s really hard to put a finger on it, but it’s how he handles himself so professionally,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. “How he respects the game of baseball so deeply. How he recognizes how difficult it is to play the game at this level and how sincerely and deeply he appreciates and admires the players who can do that.

“It’s so easy for the players to turn that respect and appreciation toward Bobby around and do anything they can to win. For the sake of winning but also for the sake of honoring him. … In this business, it’s essential for people who have success to have a healthy measure of ego. Bobby understands that personal ego is not where the focus should be. It should be on the team, the quest, the winning.”

The Nationals are winning. If anyone has a beef with the manager, it is discussed privately or the player gets shipped out. Pitcher Tomo Ohka turned his back on Robinson when he was lifted from a game and refused to hand him the ball. Coincidence or not, Ohka was traded a few days later.

Robinson always has preached “playing the game the right way,” and the Nationals are all business on the field. But for all of Robinson’s supposed rigidity, old-school ways and lack of patience with pitchers, this is one loose bunch. Whereas some managers prefer a quiet, almost morgue-like clubhouse atmosphere, the cranked-up sound system in the Nationals’ clubhouse drowns out normal conversation. Sometimes when Robinson wanders in, players make sure he catches a glimpse of the latest music video on the big-screen TV, turned up to an ear-splitting level.

“When you walk in this clubhouse you feel like you’re in the big leagues,” said second baseman Junior Spivey, who came to the Nationals from Milwaukee in the Ohka trade. “You don’t feel like you’re real tight, that you can’t do this or say that. But they know how to go about their business, how to get ready for the game.”

Still, there is no magic formula. Different teams require different methods, and a smart manager knows which buttons to push. Maybe Casey Stengel best summed up the secret to managing. On every team, he said, there are five guys who like you, five guys who hate you and the rest are undecided. The key, he said, is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.

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