Challenges abound for baseball's new skippers
Twelve leading men open their first training camps with new teams
When we lost Sparky Anderson last winter, we lost a man who had great perspective on the job that made him a legend.Thankfully, we didn't lose the words he left behind -- words that succinctly and summarily articulate the secret to success in a baseball role he deemed to be a "necessary evil." "The players make the manager," Anderson once said. "It's never the other way." They can make him, and they can break him. Because when the players struggle, the manager is the first fall guy -- be it in the complaints and criticisms directed at him by fans and the media, or by the hammer that comes down on him from the front office or ownership. It's a volatile occupation in a sport that, by the nature of its lengthy schedule, bares every strength and weakness for all to see. The way you conduct yourself in front of the cameras. How quick a hook you have with your starting pitchers. The methods you use to construct your daily lineup. How effective your words are with struggling or discontented players. On a daily basis, you are judged by factors that often go well beyond the final score. The volatility is illustrated by the Opening Day outlook for 2011. Twelve men (not "Twelve Angry Men," as the famous play is known, or at least not yet) will be in a manager's seat occupied by a different man one year ago. Part of that dramatic turnover is attributable to four men who rode the waves of managerial duties well enough to leave on their own terms. Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston got to ride off into the sunset, rather than being dismissed -- which were the fates of Ken Macha, Don Wakamatsu, John Russell, Jerry Manuel, Dave Trembley, A.J. Hinch, Fredi Gonzalez and Trey Hillman. But because one man's trash is another's treasure, the displaced skippers often turn up again. Gonzalez moved northward in the National League East from Florida to Atlanta, and is one of four familiar faces getting a new shot in a new city this year. The list of new or new-to-you managers also includes five who took over midway through 2010 and have been brought back for more, and three who will be in the hot seat for the very first time.
IN WITH THE NEW
Rookie or retread, all 12 will live or die by the same formula Anderson articulated. And to that end, all 12 have challenges in store -- as they try to get the most out of their assembled players. Here, we examine those 12 men and identify those 12 challenges.BRAND-SPANKING-NEW SKIPPERS Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers Aside from replacing a legend in Torre, inheriting a club with an underachieving young core, dealing with the distractions of ownership uncertainty, and fielding a lineup that hasn't hit very well (under his tutelage, no less), it's all fun in the sun for Donnie Baseball. Mattingly, 49, might be an icon in the Bronx, where he was one of the game's best hitters of the 1980s before back problems set in, but he's an unproven commodity in the manager's seat in L.A. He's earned respect in the industry for the knowledge and leadership he's displayed as a coach with the Yankees and Dodgers. The challenge will be adjusting to a new role -- in a place where nobody will care what Mattingly accomplished in the past if he's not winning in the present. "Am I confident?" Mattingly said. "The baseball stuff, I'm the most confident with -- dealing with stuff through the winter, communicating with the players, and making sure they understand where I'm coming from. I don't want them to be surprised. The [Arizona] Fall League helped me more than I thought. I know I've got a lot to learn. I'm not naïve." John Farrell, Toronto Blue Jays Managerial experience? Farrell has none. Management experience? Farrell has a ton. After his Major League pitching career ended in the mid-'90s, Farrell returned to his Oklahoma State roots to become a pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. His next stop was Cleveland, where he served as the Indians' director of player development for six years, overseeing a highly regarded farm system. While a rise up the front-office ranks to a GM post seemed inevitable, Farrell made a surprise move to join Terry Francona's coaching staff in Boston, where he spent the past four seasons as pitching coach, grooming and nurturing talents young and old. That's a pretty wide array of experiences that Farrell can draw upon in the dugout. The Jays have three young, but experienced, front-line starters in Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil -- and Farrell's Red Sox experience should be beneficial in getting the best out of them. His player-development experience should help him oversee the emergence of young arms like Kyle Drabek, Marc Rzepczynski, Jesse Litsch and Zach Stewart. But the 48-year-old Farrell will be challenged on the offensive side, where his experience is comparatively limited. He will attempt to change the Jays' offensive identity from a club built around power to one that is more active on the basepaths, and more accepting of a small-ball approach. "Our biggest challenge is formulating the identity of this team, [an identity] we'll need to go throughout the season," Farrell said. "No matter what team you're on, or associated with, there's an identity that evolves." Ron Roenicke, Milwaukee Brewers Rare is the first-time skipper who joins a club with serious World Series aspirations. But that's just what the Brewers have in Roenicke, who last managed in the Minors in 1999 and spent the past 11 seasons on Mike Scioscia's Angels coaching staff. Not long after hiring Roenicke, the Brew Crew reeled in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to revitalize the rotation -- and raise in-house expectations for the season ahead. So the "getting to know you" period most first-timers enjoy will be non-existent for the 54-year-old Roenicke. His challenge is to win ... right now. "I think it's both tough and great," Roenicke said. "Most times, a first-year manager does not have the opportunity to win. We have the opportunity to win. So maybe it's a little tougher coming in, but it's a great situation. The challenge now is to get these players to unite with the sole purpose of winning ballgames." One way Roenicke hopes to influence the Brewers in the win ledger is by instituting a more aggressive style of baserunning -- a stark departure from previous manager Macha and his station-to-station approach. OLD FACES IN NEW PLACES Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves So entrenched was Cox in the Braves' managerial seat for the past two decades, one would think any change would be a dramatic one. But Gonzalez, a Cox disciple who spent 2003-06 as the Braves' third-base coach, was brought in partly because he approaches the job much the same way Cox did. "Believe me," Gonzalez said, "a lot of my baseball savvy, or whatever you want to call it, a lot of it came from Bobby. If you spent four years with Picasso, you better have learned." That said, even Cox would acknowledge that the Braves, who have gone 11 seasons without a pennant, have room to grow. The 47-year-old Gonzalez's challenge, then, is to preserve the winning culture Cox established -- while not being afraid to be his own man, and handle things his own way. Gonzalez got his first chance to establish his own managerial style in Florida, where he guided the Marlins to a 276-279 record over 3 1/2 seasons. He'll best be remembered there for benching star shortstop Hanley Ramirez for lack of hustle, and not backing down when Ramirez bashed him in the media. "A lot of people were watching to see how that situation would be handled," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I thought he handled it with class and grace. He tried to handle it in-house. Unfortunately, the other party wouldn't allow it to be handled in-house. [Gonzalez] did everything Bobby would have done in that situation." Eric Wedge, Seattle Mariners The intensity the Mariners expect from Wedge in the dugout was on display during the interview process that led to him getting a shot in Seattle. General manager Jack Zduriencik has joked that Wedge -- who was dismissed by the Indians at the end of 2009 and spent a year away from the game -- was so forceful in their first interview last fall that he thought Wedge might jump across the table. But while Wedge's tough-talking, old-school attitude always came across during his seven-year tenure with the Tribe, fans, media and even players didn't always get to see Wedge's looser and lighter side. The challenge for the 43-year-old Wedge, as he takes on a Mariners team that lost 101 games last year, will be to get the most out of players who don't necessarily respond well to a militaristic approach (Milton Bradley, for starters). "I'm the manager here, not the head coach," Wedge said. "One of my jobs is to manage people. There's not an asterisk beside it that says just manage everybody that does everything right. Anybody can manage that." Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates It takes an optimist to take on the Pirates. Hurdle is surely that -- and he's facing a big hurdle with the Bucs, who have a record 18 consecutive losing seasons. Having helped orchestrate the Rockies' rise from non-entity to World Series participant with a focus on building from within, Hurdle has some experience in this area. Then again, quite a few other skippers, experienced and otherwise, have stepped into this same position preaching the same things Hurdle is preaching, and they've all come out on the losing end. But Hurdle, 53, can't pay attention to any of that -- and neither can his players. Dwelling on the missteps of the past is no way to walk confidently into the future. To that point, there's a Joe Paterno quote scribbled on a piece of paper that Hurdle keeps in his pocket. It reads, "You've got to believe deep inside yourself that you are destined to do great things." If he can get his Pirates players to believe that, Hurdle will be on the right track. "We're not going to get caught up in other people's opinions," Hurdle said. "We'll listen. I think we're going to challenge ourselves much more than anyone outside of the clubhouse." Terry Collins, New York Mets This is a transitional year for the Mets. To lead the transition, newly installed GM Sandy Alderson tabbed the 61-year-old Collins over fan favorite Wally Backman. It was, to some, an odd choice. Not just because Collins hasn't managed in the bigs since 1999, but also because his previous two stints -- with the Astros from 1994-96 and the Angels from 1997-99 -- ended in clubhouse disharmony. His time in Anaheim ended on a particularly sour note. But Collins rebuilt his reputation in the Dodgers system -- first as a Minor League field coordinator, then as the club's director of player development -- and in three years as a manager in Japan. He was the Mets' Minor League field coordinator last season. While there are many challenges associated with the Mets gig -- from the various puzzle pieces on the roster to those vaunted division rivals in Philadelphia -- Collins' biggest might be demonstrating that the Type A personality that led to clubhouse strife in his previous two managerial stints has been refined enough to keep the peace this time around. "I've lived my whole life with expectations," Collins said. "I expect a lot out of myself. I expect a lot out of my teams, and we're going to work toward that." BACK AGAIN FROM 2010 Buck Showalter, Baltimore Orioles It's interesting to note that this is the third time in the past 20 years that MLB has seen at least 12 new managers from one season to the next. The previous two times were in 1992 and 2003 -- and in both of those instances, Showalter was involved. He was a first-time skipper with the Yankees in '92, and the newly installed leader of the Rangers in '03. So, yeah, the 54-year-old Showalter's been around the block a little bit. And last August, he brought credibility and experience to an Orioles team sorely in need of both, guiding it to a 34-23 record -- in part by drawing on his past experiences in dealing with players. "You know," Showalter said, "as you go forward, you realize how many things you reach back for." Though retooled this winter, the O's roster still has notable talent deficiencies, especially in the vaunted American League East. The job that Showalter inherited proved to be too daunting a task for several predecessors. Showalter's challenge is to be an accurate evaluator of the young players coming up in the system. He believes that if he prepares and grooms this team adequately, ownership will provide financing for the right free-agent pieces when it's time to pounce. Mike Quade, Chicago Cubs Among some fans and media members, Ryne Sandberg might have been the more popular candidate for the Cubs job. But Quade's popularity among his players is evident. The fifth-place Cubs went 24-13 in the six weeks after Quade took over for the retired Piniella. "Everyone wanted to play for him [last year]," said pitcher Jeff Samardzija, "and everyone will continue to play for him." Quade has been in the organization for nearly a decade, having served as the manager of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs from 2003-06 and as Piniella's bench coach from 2007-10. In that time, he built up trust and respect from the players. But he still has plenty to prove at this level. And his biggest challenge -- aside from the inherent challenge of taking over a club that hasn't won a World Series in 102 years (and counting) -- will be inspiring maximum effort and attention to detail from a group whose veterans have largely underachieved the past few seasons. The almost-54-year-old Quade is expected to delegate to his coaches, but he also wants to take a hands-on approach in some areas. That means working on cutoff plays, bunt defenses and other fundamentals. "I'm a teacher," Quade said. "That's really what I am. They happen to put 'manager' by my name. I still need to teach." Kirk Gibson, Arizona Diamondbacks Gibson was a fiery player in his own right during a 17-year career that included one of the game's great World Series moments, and he expects that intensity from his players. They didn't show enough after Gibson took over as manager for the dismissed Hinch in early July. They were in last place in the NL West when the move was made, and they were in last place at season's end. But newly installed GM Kevin Towers decided to keep Gibson because the two shared the belief that this D-backs team needs to be tougher, and needs to develop leaders. Gibson, 53, has made it clear he has no tolerance for distractions, which is why he's banned pellet guns and toy airplanes from the clubhouse, and has instituted a cutoff point for cell-phone use and TV watching before games. "We've talked about changing the culture," Gibson said. "We just have to have a different picture of who we are, who the Diamondbacks are, and it's a process to change that." The obvious challenge for Gibson will be instituting this increased discipline without alienating his players over the course of a 162-game season -- because there is a fine line between keeping your players tuned in and getting tuned out. Edwin Rodriguez, Florida Marlins The managerial position in the Majors is tenuous by nature, but even more so in Miami. From the day the Marlins announced they'd retained Rodriguez -- who took over for the dismissed Gonzalez last summer -- as their skipper for 2011, the speculation has been that they'll replace him with a more high-profile name when they move into their new ballpark in 2012. The decision by the White Sox to extend Ozzie Guillen's contract through 2012 might dull some of that speculation, as Guillen was often listed as a potential candidate to take over the Fish. But that doesn't completely erase the somewhat unstable nature of the situation the 50-year-old Rodriguez is in. Rodriguez's challenge is to take this young and intriguing Marlins team to the next level, while knowing nothing is guaranteed to him. He did a decent job of that last season, guiding the Marlins to a 46-46 record after he was summoned from Triple-A New Orleans in June. "I'm going to deal with the situation the same way that I dealt with it last year," Rodriguez said. "When they called me up back in June, it was a one-day deal, a one-week deal, and so I just concentrated on the task at hand." Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals: Having taken over last May 14, when Hillman was ousted, this is the 56-year-old Yost's first chance to put his stamp on the Royals in spring camp -- and that can go a long way toward establishing a working model. But where some might view any opportunity to lead a long-established loser as an opportunity to establish a winning attitude, a la Hurdle in Pittsburgh, Yost doesn't feel that's necessary here. "I don't think there's any mindset issues on our club," he said. "Our kids are ready to win, they're dying to win. I don't think that's any huge hurdle that they have to get over." What the Royals, who went 55-72 under Yost last season, lack is proven talent -- in all facets. Yost's biggest challenge will be piecing together a rotation in the wake of the Greinke trade, and ensuring the Royals make the major developmental strides necessary to get in a position to contend in 2012. The strength of the upper levels of the Royals' farm system is well-documented. This is a team that could have a wave of Major League-ready talent on the horizon. But for now, Yost and his staff must preach, teach and be patient. Patience did not pay off for Yost in his last managerial job. He spent six years helping the Brewers rise out of the cellar and into playoff contention before his stunning dismissal in September 2008, just before the club's first playoff berth in 26 years. And if that doesn't sum up the unstable nature of the job, nothing does.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.