Truth, justice and the managerial way

August 19, 2008 - 5:19 am

One of the more interesting and unexpected conversations I've had this year was with Dave Trembley. It would be tough to quibble with the job that Trembley has done in his first full year as manager of the Orioles. After the Red Sox beat them by a 6-3 count last night in Charm City, Baltimore is in last in a brutal American League East. Still, their 60-64 record in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season is well above the expectations that greeted them in 2008. Trembley, who kicked around as a minor-league manager for eons, has embraced old-school instruction for his club. The O's take infield before the first game of every homestand and roadtrip. For Trembley, this is not just an exercise in improving fundamentals. Instead, there are far more serious moral ramifications to the undertaking. "In any craft, any business that you partake in, do you not brush up on your skills? Do you not have to keep learning?" Trembley mused. "I think this game is the last stronghold of our society, to be honest with you, and I think it's something that we need to protect and preserve, and leave it in better hands than before we became in charge of it." Trembley is not alone in his passion on the subject. That plays into an odd sort of crossroads where managers now find themselves. On the one hand, managers -- almost always baseball lifers, with long-forged views about the moral universe of their sport -- must now engage in acts of diplomacy and compromise, rather than erupting whenever one of their players shows a lack of effort or execution. Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who played for fire-and-brimstone Hall-of-Fame skipper Dick Williams when he broke into the majors in the early '80s, reflected on the changes of baseball and the world since he broke into the majors. "(Williams') way of managing was his way of managing. During that time, you could do it. I think he's freely admitted that it probably doesn't work now," Francona said. "You wouldn't win...I do the best I can with what I think is right. But if you just use commonsense, you can't suspend a whole team. No one would have a team. If you have a guy making $140 million, you've got to keep him on the field." Williams, as Francona suggests, recognizes this. He recently sat down for breakfast with his son, Rick, who is a scout for the Yankees.  The Hall of Fame manager reflected on the changes that the game has seen since he helmed the 1967 Red Sox and came to an obvious conclusion. "I said, 'I wouldn't last a week managing now,'" Williams told his son. "He said, 'Dad, you wouldn't last a day.'" Yet there are apparent signs that the managers are trying, or at least want, to fight back and reclaim some of the turf that was ceded over recent decades. Some teams, like the Orioles, are slowly embracing a back-to-the-basics approach. The Pirates, Royals and Giants have joined Baltimore as rebuilding teams that have added infield to their routines. Perhaps once every week or two, coaching staffs will line up their entire team on the field before a game and having outfielders and catchers practice throwing to the right bases. In other instances, manager's have disciplined players who failed to observe baseball's code. Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon recently pulled centerfielder B.J. Upton off the field after he failed to run out a groundball. Towards the end of the first half, Maddon dressed down the Rays -- after a win, and on the road in Kansas City (both necessary conditions, Maddon believes, for a manager to light into his club) -- for what he perceived as a lack of effort. Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel has done the same with reigning N.L. M.V.P. Jimmy Rollins. It is difficult to identify a trend in these developments, aside from the fact that the issue of 'respect for the game,' which sometimes seems like little more than a cliche, is something that can consume managers. And there is no question that the options available to instill that trait in players are fewer than they were in Williams' day.