Regardless of whether Mariners interim manager Daren Brown bucks the odds and turns his temporary status into a job title that can be embossed on a business card, he’s already etched a place in Seattle baseball history.
Brown, who began his pro career as a Blue Jays farmhand before winning 60 games as a right-handed starter with Amarillo in the independent Texas-Louisiana League, is the first ex-pitcher to serve as Mariners skipper.
The team has been managed by six players who were backup catchers (Don Wakamatsu, John McLaren, Bob Melvin, Bill Plummer, Rene Lachemann, Darrell Johnson), as well as a starting catcher (Del Crandall); utility infielders (Jim Riggleman, Jimmy Snyder, Marty Martinez); a shortstop (Maury Wills); a first baseman-outfielder (Mike Hargrove); an outfielder-utility infielder (Dick Williams), and an outfielder-designated hitter (Lou Piniella).
A composite profile of the Seattle managers who preceded Brown would reveal somebody who brought a little bit of everything to the dugout except experience at the most important position on the field.
The anybody-but-a-pitcher tradition of managerial appointments is not unique to the Mariners. Of the 286 major league managers hired since 1946, only 22 have been pitchers. In other words, a pitcher is hired to manage about once every three years.
Among 30 teams in 2010, the only pitchers calling the shots are Brown and the Padres’ Bud Black, whose work in transforming San Diego into a playoff hopeful has vaulted the Mark Morris High School graduate into an National League Manager of the Year candidate. More tangibly, it’s also earned him a three-year contract extension.
Over the five years before Black replaced Bruce Bochy in San Diego, 50 teams changed managers; Black was the only one among the 50 to have pitched.
His improbable success – the Padres $38 million payroll in 2010 wouldn’t cover the cost of two Yankees superstars – poses a question: Why are pitchers with managerial aspirations seen as risks?
It begins with the craft. Pitchers are so engrossed in their complex mechanics that the most logical career coaching path of an ex-pitcher is as a pitching coach. There’s something to this: Whenever I hear a pitcher try to explain the nuances of release points, my eyelids get heavy. And if the discussion turns to the mechanical adjustments required in a slide step, a pool of drool collects under my chin.
Then there’s the theory about pitchers as outsiders, sort of the way kickers and punters are outsiders in football.
This one baffles me. Former backup catchers are touted as ideal managers – the less action they got the better, because all that inactivity on the bench promoted studiousness – but it’s pitchers who are portrayed as outsiders?
Catchers are typically talked about as baseball’s version of the quarterback, the field general who runs the operation. But the pitcher owns the final word. The pitcher is responsible for whatever is thrown. Please tell me how any of this renders him an outsider.
Here’s a guess: It’s human nature not to trust what you don’t know, and because the majority of baseball decision-makers grew up as position players, there’s a general distrust of extending authority to pitchers.
Piniella, for example, has often said that he doesn’t understand pitching or pitchers, which helps explain the revolving door cycle of Seattle pitching coaches that finally stopped when Bryan Price took over for Stan Williams in 2000.
Nobody was more annoyed by pitchers than former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, whose attitude inspired a famous retort from fellow Hall of Famer Jim Palmer: “All Earl knows about the curveball,” Palmer said, “is that he couldn’t hit one.”
Black shares Palmer’s cerebral approach to the game, but couches his intellect with humility.
“I can’t talk hitting mechanics and have any kind of credibility,” Black told the Wall Street Journal last month. “The real technical subtleties, I let the hitting coaches and the position player coaches do that.”
At least Black brought the credibility of a 15-year big-league career to the manager’s office (he pitched two games for the Mariners in 1981). Brown never advanced beyond Double-A. But he’s earned praise, through every minor-league tier of the Mariners organization, as a boss who’s able to command respect without having to demand respect.
Brown’s philosophy with his players in Tacoma was to keep it simple: If you do everything you can to prepare for the next level, I’ll do anything I can to help you get there. The same mantra could apply to the Mariners, who are one level from .500 and still another level, beyond mere mediocrity, from contending.
As for the unconventional wisdom of making a manager out of a pitcher?
Since the leagues were broken into divisions in 1969, the record is mixed.
Bob Lemon (1978 Yankees), Dallas Green (1980 Phillies) and Tommy Lasorda (1981 and ’88 Dodgers) led their teams to World Series titles, while Larry Rothschild (1998-2000 Rays) and Joe Kerrigan (2001 Red Sox) might’ve been in over their heads. I’m still not sure what happened to Larry Dierker (four division titles in five years with the Astros, forced to resign in 2001.)
Roughly one-third of position players finish with winning records as managers. The sample size is smaller with pitchers – only 33 of them have managed more than 10 games since 1900 – but the results are similar: about one-third of them finish with winning records.
If Brown doesn’t return as the Mariners’ manager in 2011, it will be because the team chose somebody with a name more fit for a billboard, a voice better suited for sound bites, a presence that can generate an offseason buzz quantified at the box office.
But the fact he brings the perspective of a pitcher to his interim job, instead of that of, say, a backup catcher? Given the record of backup catchers who resurfaced as Mariners managers – it’s 781-953 among Wakamatsu, McLaren, Melvin, Plummer, Lachemann and Johnson – a pitching background is not a liability.
It’s a blessing.