Playoff races show value of long-term view
When I was named manager of the Astros in the fall of 1996, I was asked if I would model my style after any of the seven managers I played for. I said that I would not, that I felt like it was important to be myself. But I also mentioned that there was one manager who I observed as a broadcaster who would probably influence my style. That manager was Buck Rodgers of the Expos.
At one time during his tenure, the Expos won 10 or 15 extra-inning games in a row. Sure, there had to be an element of luck in it. But there was also a method. Buck most often eschewed the use of pinch-hitters and relief pitchers until late in the game. When the Astros got into close games with his teams, we had often expended most of our reserves by the ninth inning and he usually had most of his available.
My many years of observation led me to the belief that many lopsided games become close in the end no matter what the managers do. So my philosophy as a manager was a lot like Buck's. I preferred to save my bullets.
This thought, I think, is relevant today. A month ago, it appeared that there would be no Wild Card race in the National League for the first time in my memory. The Braves were so far in front that they appeared to be a shoo-in. But now, they are not.
At least part of it can be attributed to their bullpen. Throughout the summer, it appeared that Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters were unassailable. They never seemed to come up short. And because of it, the Braves essentially turned the game into a six-inning affair. If they had the lead after six, it was over.
But now, all three pitchers have more than 70 appearances and the workload is showing. It's hard to blame manager Fredi Gonzalez for overusing them. Who wouldn't, the way they were pitching? Well, Buck Rodgers for one, and possibly Larry Dierker.
While most folks understand the importance of "dancing with the one that brung you," you can't dance with someone who has a broken leg.
A month ago, in the Junior Circuit, it looked like both the Yankees and Red Sox would make the playoffs. But the Red Sox, for different reasons, have tapered off, while the Rays and Angels have come on. Now there are good Wild Card races in both leagues.
Despite my belief that most lopsided games will draw close in the end, and the companion belief that most races will also tighten over the course of the season, I could not have predicted what would happen in the Wild Card races this year.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20. And now that the races have indeed tightened up, I can say that I should have known it all along.
The problem is that it is hard to take the long view when the short view is in your face. I don't blame Fredi Gonzalez. Most managers would have done the exact same thing. And the Braves are still in front and could win the World Series.
But what is apparent is that you have to play the whole season. While I did not support the Wild Card format when it was introduced, I am a big supporter of it now. It is so easy to abandon your baseball team when your favorite college or professional football team is playing meaningful games and the freshness of those seasons is upon you.
But perhaps the most enduring quality of baseball, the fact that you can't play prevent defense and run out the clock can apply to the season itself. It looks like that has happened again this year.
Larry Dierker played in the Major Leagues for 14 seasons and guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.