The late Eddie Sawyer was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Ithaca College and owner of a master’s degree from Cornell, where he studied biology and physiology.
Such a smart cookie didn’t need a tarot card reader to inform the Phillies manager of the frustration that awaited him in 1960. Following a 9-4 defeat at Cincinnati, where his team gave up an early 4-0 lead, Sawyer quit.
The resignation was notable for one reason: It came after the first game of the season.
“I’m 49,” Sawyer said, “and I want to live to be 50.”
Sawyer’s classic quote came to mind the other day as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, as he put it, “kind of unraveled” during a 10-minute dispute with Doug Eddings, the home-plate umpire. Ausmus is another smart man — a Dartmouth graduate who majored in math — but the words he screamed at Eddings were mostly the four-lettered kind seen on the wall of a public restroom.
Ausmus concluded his tirade by removing his jacket and placing it over home plate, a comically irrational act for somebody whose lowest grade over four years at Dartmouth was a B.
Big league managers occupy a spotlight unlike that of any other sport. They meet with the media before and after games, which means, if you factor in spring training, almost 200 games and 400 interview sessions. The mood of the pregame interview is almost always congenial, and depending on what has taken place on the field, it can be relaxed afterward, too.
But when a team is playing as poorly as the Tigers were last week — they had lost 11 of 12 — all bets are off. A few hours before his “unraveling,” Ausmus decided he’d heard enough questions about his future.
“We got it,” he snapped. “I’m on the hot seat. I might get fired. We’re done talking about it. You want to talk about baseball, you want to talk about the Tigers, you want to talk about getting on a winning streak, that’s fine.
“This, we’re beating a dead horse.”
The good news for Ausmus is he still has his job. The bad news? He still has his job, and all of the stress the job entails.
Fredi Gonzalez can relate. Before he was excused last Monday as manager of a last-place Braves team that has little power and no speed, Gonzalez had been on the hot seat so long he found his firing to be a relief.
He learned of it in the most awkward way imaginable — via an email showing a return-flight-to-Atlanta itinerary in the middle of a road trip — but instead of throwing a hissy fit about the incompetence of the organization’s front office, Gonzalez went to the hotel room door of general manager John Coppalella with two bottles of wine and an appetite for pizza.
Gonzalez and his former boss rehashed the six-week season and its accompanying ups and downs — the downs, I presume, were the prevailing theme — in a bull session that gave Gonzalez the sense he hadn’t been humiliated so much much as liberated.
“I started to feel myself get really short with people,” Gonzalez told reporters the other day. “That’s not my style. I felt my temper would flare at certain things. I think it would continue to get worse and worse.”
Fredi Gonzalez now is at peace, pondering where he belongs in a sports world that’s not overpopulated with professionals of such grace and modesty.
Meanwhile, Ausmus remains a prominent candidate to be next on the firing line, along with the Twins’ Paul Molitor and the Reds’ Bryan Price. All three are good guys and sharp guys, but there’s only so much a manager can do with the roster he’s got.
Eddie Sawyer realized that in 1960. The Phillies went on to finish 59-95, a precursor to their infamous 1961 season, when the team’s 47-107 record included a 23-game losing streak, longest of the 20th century.
As for Sawyer’s suspicion that overseeing such terrible baseball put his long-term health at risk, the numbers can’t be disputed. The take-this-job-and-shove it manager, determined to celebrate his 50th birthday, lived to the age of 87.