Tracy leading with quiet grace
Midseason managerial switch helped Rox eye playoffs
There was a moment nearly four months ago when Jim Tracy wondered if he should take the job as interim manager of the Colorado Rockies. During an impromptu meeting, general manager Dan O'Dowd told his then-bench coach that manager Clint Hurdle had been relieved of his duties.O'Dowd wanted Tracy to manage the team for the remainder of the season. Tracy, whose tenures as manager of the Dodgers and Pirates had ended as the result of changes in each organization, asked O'Dowd for an hour to make the decision.
"He said I could have 60 [minutes], but not 61," Tracy recalled in a recent exclusive interview in his office at Chase Field, "because he needed a manager for the game that night."Considering his recent history, the opportunity gave Tracy pause. "My interest was that I really wanted another opportunity to manage in the big leagues," Tracy said. "At no time in my career do I feel like I've failed. In fact, I know I haven't. So I thought about the possibility that if this club wasn't any better, if it continued to play in the manner in which it had, would I have sealed my fate that this would be it? That this would be my last managing job?" Tracy thought about it and threw all caution to the wind, setting up the very real possibility that the Rockies could make the playoffs and that he could win the Manager of the Year Award in the National League for orchestrating the unlikely turnaround.
Jim Tracy's managerial record
Since that conversation on May 29, the Rockies are 30 games over .500 (70-40). And no in-season managerial change has had this kind of impact since Jack McKeon replaced the Marlins' Jeff Torborg 38 games into the 2003 season. Those Marlins were 16-22 and in fourth place in the NL East under Torborg, but with McKeon at the helm, they went on to win the Wild Card and eventually defeated the Yankees in the World Series.After 46 games this season under Hurdle, the Rockies were 18-28 and in fifth place in the NL West. Under Tracy, the Rockies have a two-game lead over the Braves in the NL Wild Card race.
That success, plus the influence of Tracy, led Jason Giambi to join the Rockies after being released by the A's."Guys who played for [Tracy] really loved him," Giambi said. "Since I've played for him, I rank him up there in baseball minds as good as anybody. He works the games really well. He has a great feel for it." There are obvious similarities between the '03 Marlins and current Rockies. By all accounts, the players had stopped listening to Hurdle and Torborg. Both men were replaced by managers who were a calming presence in the clubhouse. McKeon and Tracy are decidedly taciturn in their approaches, although the veteran McKeon was 72 at the time, while Tracy is just 53. The big difference was that Hurdle had led the Rockies into a World Series loss to the Red Sox only two years ago. Torborg never had that kind of success with the Marlins. It made the decision for O'Dowd that much tougher. "It was more about Clint than anything," O'Dowd said in a recent telephone interview from his office in Denver. "We had seven-plus years of working together. He's a dear friend of mine. A few things had taken place. One, the players had stopped listening to some of the things he was trying to get across. That's a dynamic that doesn't happen over a short period of time. "And No. 2, I saw the pain he was going through in our industry when a club is not playing well and you're in the last year of a contract. I was under the same watch he was and I thought it was tearing him up inside." O'Dowd is still under the same watch and so is Tracy. The two men are nearing the ends of their respective contracts, a situation that O'Dowd said won't be addressed until the offseason. Considering the turnaround, it's hard to believe that they won't be re-signed for 2010. "You just never know," said O'Dowd, whose job seemed in jeopardy once before, when the Rox got off to a rocky start at the beginning of their 2007 pennant-winning season. "It's an unpredictable game. I have no control over that at all. I've had no conversations with ownership about my own situation. I've told Jim directly that we have to wait until the end of the season. It would cause too much of a distraction."
Tracy said he's fine with that. He's confidently going about his business. He took the job because of a continuity in the Rockies organization that fits his own belief system. The Rockies place a huge premium on high-quality individuals that mesh, from the front office on down to the field.Tracy has had his fill of fluctuating situations. In Los Angeles, he was caught in the ownership change from FOX to Frank and Jamie McCourt, plus a merry-go-round of general managers. In Pittsburgh, it was very much the same. Ownership changed from Kevin McClatchy to Bob Nutting with the requisite switches in club presidencies and GMs. In Colorado, ownership and style are very much in place. "I had the opportunity of being with these guys from Day 1 of Spring Training and had a real good pulse as to how this organization functioned," Tracy said. "I came to the conclusion that because of the talent I saw on the field, that this club was underachieving. Did I think we'd be playing at the pace of 30 games over .500? No! I'd be lying to you if I said that. But I thought I could get this club to play a little bit better with a different mental approach. I thought I could do that." Tracy was hired as bench coach last offseason with Hurdle's blessing, which came in a telephone call instigated by the then-manager. Tracy said he wouldn't have taken the job if he was considered to be a manager-in-waiting. Aside from the twin job losses over a very short period time, Tracy also lived through the slow death of his father from prostate cancer. He needed a bit of calm in his own life. He had spent the 2008 season following his ball-playing sons on the road or at his home outside Cincinnati, watching as many Major League games as he could on TV to stay in touch with the industry. Without the right job, he was prepared to do the same thing again this year. O'Dowd asked Tracy to run Spring Training and aired out what was expected of him under Hurdle. "We went out and interviewed a lot of candidates for the [coaching] job," O'Dowd said. "Jim was by far the best candidate. I knew that and Clint knew that. We actually talked about Clint's situation with Jim right up front. We were very forthright that Clint's evaluation had nothing to do with Jim at all. We didn't want him walking on eggshells about the issue. We wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with it." As it turned out, the opposite proved to be the case when Tracy was tabbed to replace Hurdle. In the first blush, Tracy made several subtle changes. He planted Ian Stewart at third base. He made sure Jason Hammel was comfortable as a starter. But mostly, Tracy brought instant stability. And when the Rockies won 17 out of 18 from June 4-22, they were on their way.
"It's been an absolute pleasure playing for him," said the 27-year-old Hammel, who made 28 starts in his first three seasons, all in Tampa Bay, one fewer than he has registered this year for the Rockies. "He brings a lot of experience to the table. The way he goes about his business and the expectations he puts on the board, it keeps a nice calm in the clubhouse, but it also keeps guys competitive. He's a good role model."Tracy, of course, couldn't have predicted all this when he asked for his 60 minutes to make that life-altering decision four months ago. As O'Dowd said, these type of in-season changes usually don't have that kind of positive results. For example, the Nationals are 26-42 since Jim Riggleman replaced Manny Acta as manager at the All-Star break. They have 103 losses overall. "With the history of managerial changes that happen during the season, there's no elixir that things are going to turn around," O'Dowd said. "They usually don't work out very well." This time they obviously did. Tracy and the Rockies are the big beneficiaries of it.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.