11/21/12 10:00 AM ET
New breed of managers getting results
Former big leaguers bring modern-day temperament, approach to leading players
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Robin Ventura collected six Gold Gloves along with 294 homers and 1,182 RBIs in 16 seasons. Sabermetrics disciples can inform you the stylish third baseman notched an exceptional 52.3 career WAR (wins above replacement player).
Headlined by Matheny, Ventura, Don Mattingly and Kirk Gibson, the face of Major League managers is changing. It is getting younger, fresher. These are not your grandfather's grizzled, tantrum-throwing skippers answering to "The Little General" and "Battling Billy."
A trend is developing, with owners and front offices trusting dugout leadership and responsibility to former players of stature with limited -- in some cases zero -- managerial experience.
The latest to fit the profile is Walt Weiss, the Rockies' new skipper.
A contemporary of Matheny and Ventura, Weiss was the 1988 American League Rookie of the Year as the shortstop for Oakland's notorious "Bash Brothers." Weiss played in three World Series in his 14-year career with four clubs, celebrating in 1989 with his champion A's.
Weiss was the Rockies' shortstop from 1994-97, moving into a front-office role as a special assistant to general manager Dan O'Dowd from 2002-08.
"Anybody who ever played with Walt will tell you what a great teammate he was, what a great leader he was," said Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, the Rockies' 1997 closer. "We're both big [Bruce] Springsteen fans. When I'd get in a jam, he'd come to the mound and sing one of Bruce's songs to release some tension."
Weiss, Colorado hopes, was born to run a team.
The pride of Suffern, N.Y., he takes over the Rockies on the heels of a franchise-worst 98-loss season under Jim Tracy. Weiss spent 2012 coaching Regis Jesuit High School outside Denver to a 20-6 record and the semifinals of the Class 5A state championship.
This kind of jump never would have happened in the day when managers were groomed over decades in the Minor Leagues, where, in the vast majority of cases, they'd spent all or most of their playing careers.
John Gibbons, back for a second term with the Blue Jays and their newly designed potential powerhouse, is closer to the old school than the new breed of former stars. Gibbons, a catcher, played a total of 18 games for the 1984 and '86 Mets behind Hall of Famer Gary Carter.
The move to employing former stars on the top step of the dugout has been gradually coming, owing to the successes of the likes of Gil Hodges, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, Jim Fregosi, Don Baylor, Felipe Alou and Davey Johnson.
Shattering the long-held myth that great players lack the patience to lead athletes with lesser skills and desire, these were, in effect, the trailblazers for the new breed.
It's not as if the old guard has been pushed aside. On the contrary, Johnson, the 2012 National League Manager of the Year at age 69, and runner-up Baker, 63, had stellar seasons.
The World Series brought together Bruce Bochy (57) and Jim Leyland (67), Bochy's Giants prevailing for the second time in three seasons to lift the former Padres skipper to the top of the profession.
While experience clearly matters, the new breed is breaking through and making an imprint.
Ventura was a stunning choice to succeed Ozzie Guillen with the 2012 White Sox. With no managerial background, Ventura ran third in the AL Manager of the Year balloting behind veterans Bob Melvin of the amazing A's and the Orioles' Buck Showalter.
Matheny settled into the seat long occupied by the legendary Tony La Russa in St. Louis and guided the Cardinals to another remarkable postseason run as a Wild Card, knocking off Atlanta in the one-game showdown to advance.
After an incredible ninth-inning Game 5 rally snatched the NL Division Series from Johnson and his Nationals in Washington, Matheny and Co. fell to the eventual champion Giants in the NL Championship Series.
La Russa was impressed with the work of his successor.
"He was a leader when he played," La Russa said during the postseason. "He's also a very tough competitor. He's also played [with] those guys. He was a Cardinal, a teammate. They know he's a man to be trusted and respected, which I keep saying is so important in leadership.
"He has very good coaches. And -- it helped me there -- the core of players is very deep, as far as guys willing to step up and say, 'Let's do it this way.' They're really vocal there. It's really a very good situation."
Responding to Matheny's touch, the Cards won 12 of their final 16 games to claim the 25th postseason trip in franchise history.
"I love the job," Matheny said. "I enjoy getting to invest in these guys, and then watching them turn and invest into each other. That's really the culture we have created, going out and having each other's back all the time."
In the NL West, combating the Giants, the Dodgers' Mattingly, the Diamondbacks' Gibson and the Padres' Bud Black -- frontline players from winning programs who arrived without managerial experience -- enhanced their reputations as leaders.
For years, the prototypical manager was a tough-minded bossman who'd paid dues working his way up the ladder. Earl Weaver, Gene Mauch, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda were among the Type A personalities fronting the previous generation of field commanders.
Billy Martin and Leo Durocher had experienced success as players, but they also fit the image of the hot-tempered boss imperiously running the show.
|"He's been there. He knows all the struggles an athlete is going to go through. He wasn't just a regular; he was a star. Probably the most important thing for me [in 2011] was Donnie coming here. I'm still learning, and he meant a lot to me. He's always there for you with whatever you need."|
-- Dodgers' Matt Kemp|
on Don Mattingly
Even Gibson, as high-spirited a player as the game has seen, acquired a relatively calm demeanor in taking the reins in Arizona.
"What most people don't know about Kirk Gibson is how intelligent he is," said D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall. "Everyone talks about how great he is, how competitive he is, but they don't realize just how intellectual and prepared he is. He's a strategist; he's a few steps ahead of most people."
A firebrand as a player, Gibson shows little ego as a manager. He remains an enforcer in terms of laying down rules and demanding attention to details such as fundamentals, but his athletes play with a sense of freedom.
Two of the best of recent vintage, Leyland and La Russa, fit the old mold of no-nonsense leaders with masterful motivational skills. Leyland was a Double-A catcher. La Russa, a Triple-A infielder for a decade, appeared in 132 games as a Major League player.
Along with Mike Redmond, the Marlins' new leader, Gibbons brings to 12 the number of former catchers in the current managing lodge, led by Leyland, Bochy, Melvin, Mike Scioscia, Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi.
"We've had truly great players who have been great managers," La Russa said. "I think of Torre, Don Baylor, Lou Piniella, guys like that. Dusty Baker. They would get a lot of instant credibility.
"But the great, great majority of coaching and managing is about earning respect. Jim [Leyland] is a special case. Even I was a better player than Jim was, and I was lousy. He was lousier.
"He didn't have any kind of background, but right away, when he came to coach [for La Russa's White Sox] in '82, he had already been managing for 11 or 12 years. His reputation as a baseball man was well known. That's what he had to do. He did it the right way. He earned it in the Minor Leagues."
From 1954-96, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles were managed by Walter Alston and Lasorda -- men whose combined Major League playing experience consisted of 15 at-bats [one by Alston] and 58 1/3 innings pitched [by Lasorda].
Mattingly, the Dodgers' seventh manager since Lasorda's retirement, was arguably the game's best player for a five-year stretch in the '80s. His players swear by him, and they'll need to take flight to keep him secure with a new management team carrying lofty expectations.
"He's been there," said center fielder Matt Kemp, who had a career year in Mattingly's 2011 debut season. "He knows all the struggles an athlete is going to go through. He wasn't just a regular; he was a star.
"Probably the most important thing for me [in 2011] was Donnie coming here. I'm still learning, and he meant a lot to me. He's always there for you with whatever you need."
In temperament and style, open and up front, Ventura is similar to Mattingly. They learned as players to strike a necessary emotional balance and not overreact to the good or hard times.
"Everything you see is what he is," White Sox slugger Adam Dunn said of Ventura. "The first time I met him, I thought, 'This guy's going to be awesome.' He never gets too high or too low. When it's over, it's over. He knows.
"He's not that far removed from being a player. He's in it with us. I mean, it's almost, I don't want to sound corny, but he's almost like it's too good to be true. He's unbelievable. For him to have the players' side down -- obviously, he's done it his whole life. Also he's got the fine line defined from being a manager and your buddy."
A late-season slide cost the White Sox the AL Central title but did little to diminish Ventura's reputation as a leader.
"Like they say in football, some guys have a nose for the football," the Tigers' Leyland said of his division rival. "Some guys have a nose for managing. I think he does. He really has done a terrific job."
Dunn takes Ventura's impact into the family realm.
"You know you're doing something right [as a manager] when the first thing you do [as a player] when you make a mistake is think, 'I let him down,'" Dunn said. "It's like a parent.
"All the so-called player managers are even-keel. You know what you're going to get each and every day. At the end of the day, it's over. Go get 'em."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.