Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Larry Bowa & the Phillies: You-know-what rolls downhill

The Philadelphia Phillies season, which started out with such hope and fanfare, is now just a matter of playing out the string. They were officially eliminated from all playoff contention. Most Philadelphians had already tuned out, what with the celebrated Eagles' 3-0 start.

It's considered something of a metaphysical certainty that Larry Bowa, their frothing field manager, will lose his job for failing to take the Phillies to the playoffs this season.

For all you out-of-towners, get this straight: Bowa's reputation with baseball fans outside the Delaware Valley is far worse than the general local opinion of him. Philadelphians respond favorably to intensity. If the manager's a little hard on the players, that's okay. It's assumed that his job is to keep a modicum of accountability in the clubhouse—hard to do when your job is leading a squad with a lot of guys who make more money than you. When Bowa's around, there's no doubt about who's the sheriff.

Despite the disappointment of losing a star player, when Scotty Rolen made his dislike of Bowa public knowledge, I'm under the impression that most serious Philly fans figured the dispute had more to do with Rolen's notoriously thin skin than with the manager's leadership style. After all, Rolen's salary was spent to bring in the cuddly Jim Thome, who seems to have no problem with his skipper.

A baseball manager's impact on the win-loss column is probably much less than most people assume. The players pitch, field, and hit. The manager can exercise a little influence on positioning, baserunning plays and, in cases where he doesn't trust his catcher, the pitch selection. It's nothing like football, where a coach literally calls each play from the sideline. The baseball manager's main job is to assign playing time. He picks the lineup, he decides when there will be a pinch hitter, and he decides who will pitch (and for how long.)

For the most part, Bowa hasn't done a terrible job in carrying out his main duty. Certainly he was much better than his idiot man-child predecessor, Terry Francona. He has generally assigned the playing time to the best players, and has not been totally sadistic in doling out the workload for the pitchers. I have a few quibbles, to be sure. I was forced to sit through one game where Doug Glanville, he-who-never-saw-a-pitch-that-he-wouldn't-like-to-flail-at-and-ground-into-a-weak-double-play, was inexplicably batted second in the lineup.

No, the problem was really that the team's starting rotation lost around 60 games to injury, none of which was clearly due to managerial mishandling. Kevin Millwood, the ostensible ace of the staff, was merely mediocre. The expected leadoff-hitting center-fielder, Marlon Byrd, struggled to stay above the Mendoza line all year. Flame-throwing bullpen ace Billy Wagner's bad mechanics kept catching up with him. Mike Lieberthal can barely remember when he was a legitimate major league catcher. Meanwhile, the team roster has two power-hitting second basemen who have split time, where the more expensive one should have been traded to fill in another gap in the roster with a quality player.

As usually happens in these cases, the players are more to blame for their own shoddy performance, but they can hardly be expected to admit their full share of suckitude. The general manager and owners are accountable for the personnel the team has to work with, but why accept responsibility? Indeed, why accept any responsibility for failure when you have a lightning rod sitting on the bench who can take the fall. He's cranky. Nobody will miss him.

Ed Wade was at least smart enough to not fire Bowa during the season. Replacing Bowa wouldn't have changed the team's performance, which would have raised the inevitable question: "What's your excuse now?"

Aside from lucking into the Kevin Stocker for Bobby Abreu trade, Wade has shown a remarkable lack of creativity and wisdom as general manager. (Aside to Bobby: you are an underappreciated beacon of talent in our phair city.) In all fairness, it's Wade who should go. (I've got a few whining relievers on my list, too, but they're also Wade's fault.) Unfortunately, that's not how the front office game is played. The manager gets fired after a disappointing season. That buys the GM a year to get a lucky break. If the team wins the following year, he's excused for the past.

Even though I've argued that the manager's role is limited, it is terribly important to the team. Giving 250 AB to the wrong guy or letting a pitcher throw 140 pitches chasing a meaningless shutout can wreck a team. I'd rather have Bowa around. On balance, he avoids the major screwups, so the devil I know is preferable to the devil named Bob Boone, or many of the other dimwitted managers who might be brought in to be a clubhouse guy. Francona was a disaster because he let the pitchers decide when they should come out of the game. He slagged a generation of arms in dogged pursuit of fourth place.

So, anyway, how 'bout them Iggles?


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