Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Mets: Restoration of a Team and Its New Manager


       By Ross Newhan

       It is probably too simplistic to put the description of "intense" on Terry Collins as if it's his first name.

       Is any man the same man he was yesterday, and there were undoubtedly lessons Collins took out of his experience over almost six straight years with the Astros and Angels when there were incidents of clubhouse friction involving his demanding, in your face style at times, and Collins, facing a clubhouse revolt at one point over the Angels plans in 1999 to rehire him, ultimately resigned in September fed up with the bickering that had marked one of the most tumultuous seasons in that club's history.

      Collins hasn't managed since, and now he puts his intensity, if all of what he once was still fits, under the tabloid microscope of New York as manager of the Mets, a team that has lost its National League East dominance to the Philadelphia Phillies and is undergoing a front office and field transition in leadership while needing to get younger at several positions but still retaining veteran presence at others.

     In the 10 years between Anaheim and New York, Collins has been involved in player development with the Dodgers and Mets (a position of which there is no question about his ability) and there was a brief managerial stint in Japan. He might have been hired as manager of the Dodgers before Grady Little was hired in 2005 if then general manager Paul DePodesta hadn't been fired first. Now DePodesta is vice president of player development and amateur scouting for the Mets under new general manager Sandy Alderson and undoubtedly had a voice in the selection of Collins over another internal favorite, former Met Wally Backman.

    Collins got a two year contract, and Backman will continue to manage in the system, so there is a shadow that Collins will have to deal with while trying to bring a more urgent attitude to the clubhouse after the firings of the more laid back former managers Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel.

    "Terry Collins demands that players play the game the correct way with respect and total effort every time they put the unform on," former Angel shortstop Gary DiSarcina, the heart of the team in the 90s and now an assistant general manager, said in an e-mail communication. "He will hold players accountable for their actions on the field, and that is a manager's job. If any of his players have a problem with playing the game the correct way then that player needs to re-evaluate why he is playing in the first place. I mean, Terry has very few hard, be on time. I don't think that is too much to ask at any level."

       The Angels finished second under Collins in both 1997 and 98, overcoming 23 injuries and other internal problems in '98. Players came out of it complaining that they were tired of finishing second, of the self satisfied attitude that had infiltrated the team.

       There was need for a big hitter and front line pitcher. Then General manager Bill Bavasi missed on the pltcher but received permission from the Walt Disney Co., something of an interim owner, to award Boston free agent Mo Vaughn with a six year $80 million contract that was the biggest in club history at the time.

      A new enthusasim followed, but it went south in a hurry. DiSarcina broke a wrist in spring training of '99 and missed half the season. Vaughn sprained an ankle as he slipped down dugout steps attempting to catch a foul ball on opening night and was never the hitter the Angeles had anticipated. Center fielder Jim Edmonds lost half the season when he required shoulder surgery in April as teammates grumbled that he should have had the operation  done at the end of the '98 season, and Tim Salmon tore wrist ligaments in in May and did not return until after the All-Star break.

    As the offense crumbled, word broke that the Angels were prepared to extend Collins' contract, prompting a mutinous move in which several players questioned the decision in private meetings with Bavasi, who was not deterred, giving Collins a one year extension with an option for another. The bickering didn't stop. In a series at Cleveland, several players told Collins they would not play if Vaughn was in the lineup. The night before, in a brawl precipitated when closer Troy Percival had hit David Justice with a pitch, Vaughn was in the clubhouse and made no move to reach the field in time to help his teammates, prompting Percival to say that you find out who's with you and who's not when a fight breaks out.

    The threatened boycott was one too many incidents for Collins, who had also heard players complain that since he had never played major league baseball he couldn't really relate to their emotions. He resigned in September, prompting club president Tony Tavares to compare the Angels clubhouse to a day care center, accusing the players of quitting on themselves and crediting Collins with more integrity than many of his players.

    "I kicked butts, patted butts and tried everything I knew to motivate them," Collins said at the time, "but a manager today has only one hammer--the lineup card. The players have got to want to win and to be successful. I'll miss coming to the ballpark every day but I won't miss the bickering that went on this season."

    In reflection, DiSarcina cited the early injuries, the losing that became infectious and the finger pointing that went along with it, and wrote in his email, "we all could have handled things differently. Terry did not lose control. There was no revolt or mutiny. We were losing games and I think everyone's emotions got the best of them. It was a disappointing season...and we got caught up in the distractions, worrying about things that were out of our control instead of trying to succeed on the field."

   Collins was not the only person to show integrity. Bavasi quit rather than fire an array of veteran scouts that Tavares insisted had become too old to do their jobs. Bill Stoneman was hired as general manager, and he hired Mike Scioscia as manager, The Angels won their first World Series two years later and have enjoyed their most successful decade ever under owner Arte Moreno.

   "I think it goes without saying that 1999 was a difficult season for the organization, both on and off the field," Tim Mead, senior vice president of communication, said. "In reflection, I think it was one of those situations where so many things went sideways, and try as we did, things just couldn't be corrected in a timely manner. Everyone shared a portion of responsibility."

   The Angels transitioned into one of the most successful franchises in baseball, and now Terry Collins gets a chance to help restore the Mets pride and prestige, and, perhaps, his own managerial reputation.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Things Come in Threes--Sadly Again

     By Ross Newhan

     They say things come in threes, and too often that is the case in a sadder rather than happier vein.

     In the last week, three long-term acquaintances--both on a personal and professional level--have passed away, a loss for baseball, their families and a writer who has covered the industry for almost 50 years.

     A week ago I wrote on the loss of the institution that was Sparky Anderson, as managerially cunning as he was colorful, the first manager to win the World Series while at the helm of teams from both the American and National Leagues, and a font of endless stories who seldom turned a reporter away from his Thousand Oaks home or clubhouse office.

     On Wednesday, news came from Seattle that another institution, broadcaster Dave Niehaus, had died of a heart attack at 75.

    I had known Dave from the time he worked with Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale on Angel broadcasts from 1969 to 1976, when he got his break, selected to be the lead broadcaster for the new Seattle Mariners. Dave was there before Junior and A-Rod and the Big Unit, and his work ethic was such, as the Mariners moved from the Kingdom to Safeco Field, that he would broadcast 5,284 of the team's 5,385 games through the  2010 season, his "my, oh my" being familiar to every Mariner fan and his esteem among colleagues earning him the Ford C. Frick Award in 2008 and admission to the Hall of Fame.

    Replacing Niehaus in Seattle will be akin to replacing John Wooden in Pauley Pavilion, and thoughts of Dave and Sparky where still fresh when I received a call Monday morning that Ed (Spanky) Kirkpatrick, 66, had passed away after a long struggle with throat cancer.

    Kirkpatrick didn't carry the national reputation of Anderson and Niehaus, but among his friends he would become an inspiring figure who came out of Glendora High to play six years with the expansion Angels, and ultimately parts of 16 seaons in all, most often a part-time player with Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Texas and Milwaukee.

     Four years after his final major league season in 1977, Kirkpatrck was in a horrific, 1981 auto accident that left him in a coma for 5 1/2 months and in a wheelchair, partially paraylzed, for the rest of his life.

    During that time, at parties and other functions, Kirkpatrick never lost his sense of humor and uplifting personality, always willing to send a bet to the track or challenge friends to a football wager, a glint in his eye, and he never lost the love and support of his wife, Judy, who was beside his side through all the often difficult years, but years when their hearts continued to beat as one..

    Three passings--Sparky Anderson, Dave Niehaus and Spanky Kirkpatrick.

     Must they always be in threes?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sparky: Remembered Always


       By Ross Newhan

       If you didn't love (there is no other word that fits) Sparky Anderson, if you weren't enlightened and uplifted by his spirit and passion about a game he was never that good at playing but never tired of talking about, the fault was your's and not his.

      George (Sparky) Anderson, a manager's manager, died Thursday at 76 after a long illlness, and the loss is his family's, of course, but also mine, baseball's and that of everyone who crossed his enthusiastic path, including all of his lifelong pals from Dorsey High who are leaving us too quickly.

     I do not write an obituary. Those can be found in the newspapers and other sites on the internet.

     I simply write a few words in regard to how fortunate I feel to have known him, to have him take the phone every time I called, to be invited to take a seat in his clubhouse office every time I visited, to be asked to his Thousand Oaks home on those occasions when I woud be looking for an off-season story and Carol would always have lunch ready.

    I simply write about how his unbridled enthusiasm could fill a reporter's notebook after just one question, and if at times he brought a little Casey Stengel to the language, if at times we all chided him in regard to how he would over estimate the ability of a young player, predicting he would be the next great (pick any All-Star or Hall of Fame player), well, what is spring training and confidence and motivation all about anyway?

   Sparky Anderson would be voted into the Hall of Fame to the headshaking disbelief of the one time infielder from Bridgewater, South Dakota.

   He would win World Series titles with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and '76 and with the Detroit Tigers in 1984, the first manager to do it in each league.

   I covered the Dodgers for the L.A. Times during most of the '70s and how lucky can a reporter be?

   I covered the last few years of Walter Alston's managerial career and the beginning of Tom Lasorda's as Alston's successor. I covered the roster turnover in Los Angeles as all those young players who Lasorda had managed in the minors found major league homes, and while that was going on, as Garvey and Lopes, Russell and Cey, became the infield of the present and future, as Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker arrived to establish a veteran tone in the clubhouse, I watched a group of similar young players in Cincinnati develop into what would become known as the Big Red Machine under their comparatively unknown manager, or "Sparky Who?" as the headlines in Cincinnati had read when he was hired at the end of the 1969 season by longtime Reds general manager Bob Howsam.

  Sparky was 35 and preparing to become a coach for Lefty Phillips with the Angels in 1970, two baseball lifers, when Howsam, who was seeking a fresh face for the fresh young Reds and who had been impressed by Anderson's aggressive style while managing the Cardinals' Rock Hill, S.C. team when Howsaw was with the St. Louis organization, called then Angels general manager, Dick Walsh, for permission to offer the fiery Anderson the managerial job with Cincinnati.

  "Everything I have in this house I have because of Bob Howsam," Sparky would tell me on one off-season visit to Thousand Oaks.

  "I would never have become a major league manager if he hadn't given me the opportunity."

 Sparky actually might have become manager of the Angels considering their managerial merry go round during much of the 70s, but he was clearly better off in Cincinnati with a cast that included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster and Davey Concepcion.

  The Reds and Dodgers were in the same division then, and their pennant battles were ferocious, and each time they would play each other I would call Sparky to get an update on his view of the race and his team and each time I hung up the phone I had more in my notebook than I needed. Sparky came in worshipping the stoic Alston and, although they later became friends, Sparky often confided that he believed Alston was pushed out and that Lasorda had contributed.

   As it played out, given the Dodgers internal turnover, the arrival of so many young players, the gregarious Lasorda was the right fit at the right time, but his presence added to the heat between the two division rivals.

   Sparky would take the Reds to World Series titles in '75 and '76, and Lasorda would lead the Dodgers to National League pennants the next two years, after which the standup Sparky would quit rather than meet the demands of new general manager Dick Wagner that he fire three coaches.

   Ultimately, he would manage the Tigers for 16 1/2 years, winning the '64 World Series, and retiring with 2,194 victories, at the time third on baseball's all-time list.

   He seldom bragged about his acomplishments, citing Detroit players like Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson and the Hall of Fame nucleus in Cincinnati, but he did once say to me, strikingly under playing it, "for a kid from Bridgewater, a guy whose baseball career pretty much started as a bat boy for Rod Dedeaux (at USC), I  think it's been a pretty good life and a pretty good career."

   His hair would turn prematurely gray and dementia would eventually steal some of his memories, but not those of anyone blessed with having known him.

   He was a great manager, an outstanding personality and a terrific friend who never failed to ask how my baseball playing son was doing and how much he appreciated the intensity that David brought to his job.   
   Rest in peace, Sparky. Even in death you will continue filling up notebooks. 



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Few Series Reflections

    By Ross Newhan

    --Clifff Lee was 0-2 with a 6.94 earned-run average in the World Series, failing to pitch back to his ALDS and ALCS dominance, but it is unlikely to impact his pursuit as a free agent, with it likely coming down to his Rangers and the Yankees providing he simply doesn't get it over with and sign with Texas in their private, five day window that begins today. Lee has pitched with four teams in the last two years, a hired gun of the highest order. Lee's wife, Kristin, blistered the treatment Ranger families received from Yankee fans during the ALCS, but money and longevity may outweigh that abuse, although the suspicion here is that he will remain with the Rangers, virtually next door to his Arkansas home.

    --There is no minimizing the performance of their young and homegrown rotation, but how many of their self-identified misfits and castoffs--Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe, among them-- are the Giants prepared to retain while still owing Barry Zito $64.5 million over the next three years? It is hard to see them picking up Renteria's $10.5 million option, for example, even with his Series MVP award and two game turning home runs. Then again, there are always misfits and castoffs out there--and how much more is needed with that pitching?

   --So, the Rangers had the best offense in the American League and they were shutout twice and held to one run once during the five Series games and it's a bit of head shaking wonder to remember that Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are 26, Madison Bumgarner is 21, Jonathan Sanchez (don't forget that he has no-hit stuff despite his wavering control and emotions during the postseason) is 28, and that that homegrown rotation has a homegrown catcher in probable Rookie of the Year winner Buster Posey, who is 23 and may eventually end up at third base or in left field. Give their scouts credit and snicker again at the moneyball computers.

   --I don't understand why celebrating fans feel they have to go on a violent rampage as they did in San Francisco Monday night. I recall vividly sitting in the old Tiger Stadium after Detroit had defeated San Diego in the 1984 World Series amid constant explosions and frightening fires to the extent that the press corps was prevented from leaving and a helicopter landed in the middle of the infield, bringing in pizzas (the Tigers were then owned by Domino's Tom Monaghan) so that, god forbid, we didn't go hungry.

   --Bruce Bochy has now taken two teams to the World Series, the 1998 Padres and the 2010 Giants, and it is time to recognize him as one of baseball's best managers. He is unafraid to make lineup changes or remove pitchers or ask players who may not be familiar with certain functions--such as Huff sacrificing for the first time in his career--to perform the unexpected. He is not the most quotable personality, which often leads to the lack of publicity and recognition he deserves, but his handling of those misfits and castoffs should now leave no doubt that he belongs in the upper echelon of big league skippers.

   --Vladimir Guerrero's 29 homers and 115 runs batted in prompted Anaheim fans to wonder if their Angels had given up on him prematurely, but he looked severely overmatched in the postseason, batting .220 with no home runs and six RBI, and what had once seemed to be an automatic resigning by the Rangers now may be in doubt, although general manager Jon Daniels insists "you have to consider his body of work."     

    --Beyond the magical work of the San Francisco rotation and the spirited performance of the Misfits this wasn't the most spellbinding World Series, but it did prove again that a carefully increased system of replays is needed despite the commissioner's concern about the "pace" of games. Of course, commercial breaks of 2 1/2 to 3 minutes don't exactly enhance the pace, but then somebody has to pay Fox for helping underwrite the industry, and the greater groundswell among owners doesn't seem to be for more replay but either 1) the addition of another wild card team, 2) a one game wild card play-in, or 3) increasing the division series from  five to seven games. More on those possibilities at a later date.