Ex-skippers find second lease on careers
It was one of those early Spring Training days, hardly a spectator was left on the back fields of Baltimore's newly renovated Sarasota, Fla., complex. Every other Orioles coach had trickled back into the clubhouse, one by one.
Everyone but John Russell, that is.
Mandatory workouts had been over for a while by the time Russell wheeled a cart of balls to the practice-field mound. He summoned a pair of non-roster catchers and began drilling them on throws to second. Instruction periodically interrupted the repetition, which lasted for about 20 minutes.
Coach Russell has such freedom with his time these days -- freedom to focus on the individual instead of the collective, freedom to spend his time instructing players and not appeasing the media. He can leave those more daunting tasks to the manager now.
"[Orioles manager] Buck [Showalter] can talk about that," Russell joked after that day's final workout. "He's running around all these places, and I kid with him sometimes that I'm kind of glad I don't have to do that anymore."
Russell's path from former first-round Draft pick to Orioles coach most recently took a three-year detour to Pittsburgh, where he was placed in the precarious position of managing a club in total rebuilding mode. He had jumped at the chance to manage in the big leagues -- who wouldn't? -- but hardly won the respect of a city that just couldn't tolerate his even-keeled demeanor and the team's lackluster performance.
It was an apparent "no-win" situation when Russell accepted the Pirates' offer. And by the time he was dismissed on Oct. 4, 2010, Russell had, in fact, won just 186 of 485 games at the helm.
"Unless you go out and do like some teams have done and just jump the payroll up $60, $70, $80 million, it's tough," Russell said, noting he knew quite well that the process of bringing winning baseball to Pittsburgh would be just that -- a process. "It doesn't happen overnight. It was a tough chore to turn things around in a short period of time. It takes a little more time."
Time isn't a luxury Russell was afforded in Pittsburgh, where Clint Hurdle now gets the chance to manage the players Russell had been waiting on to arrive. Russell isn't naïve -- wasn't, either, when he took the job in Pittsburgh.
But now that the books are closed on his first Major League managerial gig, questions bubble to the surface. Was it worth jumping at the opportunity when he knew the road would be rocky? Or are there regrets? And will Russell ever get another managerial shot?
Russell isn't the first -- and surely won't be the last -- to take over a club deconstructing its roster in hopes of changing the organization's philosophical course. Few managers are given the chance to ride out the rough patches, as the impatience of a fan base often forces management to make a change.
The encouraging news for Russell, though, is that some do get a second opportunity.
Let go after four subpar seasons managing a rebuilding Phillies club -- yes, Philadelphia was once in that mode -- Terry Francona was content with the possibility of never managing in the Majors again. He still maintains now that he really didn't feel the need to at the time.
Not until he went to Oakland to be the A's bench coach in 2003 did Francona feel that itch again. And contrary to what you might think, he believed those 363 losses he endured in Philadelphia strengthened his résumé.
"I thought it taught me a lot of things that are important -- loyalty to the players," Francona said. "It reinforced how I feel about players, because there were some tough days there and I felt like it was my responsibility -- even when things weren't going well -- to help them. It's easy when things are going good. So although I can't say every day was fun, I appreciated my time there a lot."
There was something in Francona's time that impressed Theo Epstein, too, which prompted the Red Sox general manager to hire him after the 2003 season.
Now, little is remembered about Francona's time in Philly. That's what happens when you bring a pair of World Series championships to Boston.
Time will tell whether Manny Acta can enjoy the same second-chance success as Francona, though, in Acta's defense, the team he joined in Cleveland hardly compares to the group Francona inherited in Boston. But unique in Acta's case is that he hardly had to wait for his next shot.
Dismissed by a reeling Nationals team midway through the 2009 season, Acta was signed on to be the Indians' skipper that October. The three-year offer came after Acta posted a meager .385 winning percentage in his first big league managerial gig.
But it was no secret what was going on in Washington. And the results were hardly held as an evaluation tool for the job Acta had done.
"I knew I was going to have another opportunity," Acta said. "I just didn't know it was going to be that quick. There are only 30 of those jobs, and right now, I know there are 100 people who are ready to manage in the big leagues. I had enough good baseball people telling me that the whole industry sees more than just winning and losing. It's how you handle situations and run the ballgame. They just don't see it as the fans see it, which is based on wins and losses."
Lloyd McClendon, on the other hand, is still waiting for another call. After five losing seasons with the Pirates, McClendon immediately landed a plenty respectable position as a coach on Jim Leyland's staff in Detroit.
He has interviewed for open managerial jobs since, but has not gotten that next offer. Has the tough go in Pittsburgh hurt McClendon's ability to get another shot?
He shrugs off the question.
"I don't regret one minute of it, to be quite honest," McClendon said. "When I was let go and had a conversation with [then-Pirates GM] Dave Littlefield, I told him that I gave the Pirates everything I had every day. I thought I represented the organization to the fullest. And quite honestly, I think I got the most out of my talent."
McClendon threw out another piece of perspective, something that Francona, Acta and Russell all offered unsolicited as well. Baseball insiders, they all said, don't care all that much about wins and losses. A "no-win" situation is easily recognizable in this industry, and it hardly deters GMs from giving a guy a fresh chance under differing circumstances.
Just as McClendon was immediately hired by Leyland, Russell was hardly unemployed long either, landing a position on Showalter's staff within weeks. And that -- as much as the paths of Francona or Acta -- gives Russell hope that his managing days aren't yet over.
"The people in baseball, they realize what's going on in Pittsburgh," Russell said. "They realize it was a tough gig. I landed here with a respected baseball man in Buck. That shows, for me personally, that somebody wanted me on their staff to help this team.
"I'd like to manage again someday, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it. I'll just continue to do what I do. I enjoy this. We'll see what happens."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.