Inside a clubhouse when a skipper gets fired

“Choosing a manager is like choosing a spouse.” — Theo Epstein

Sometimes, marriages end in fail, the “irreconcilable differences” box checked on the paperwork. Most of the time, those failed marriages are more about losing too many baseball games. Sometimes, it is one game in particular that dissolves the “for better or worse” vows.

Let’s set the stage. It’s October, 2003. Game 7 of the ALCS is in progress at Yankee Stadium. We, the Boston Red Sox, are poised on the brink of history. Our ace, Pedro Martinez, stands ready on the mound. Grady Little is manning the controls.

Six innings in and Pedro has thrown 79 pitches. He’s cruising. Hideki Matsui grounds out. Eighty pitches, one out in the seventh. Jorge Posada strolls to the plate. Pedro gets ahead of him, running the count to 1-2.

Grady Little’s leadership is easy at this point; there are no decisions to make.

Pedro then spits a beautifully venomous fastball starting just above the knees in the middle of the plate, the pitch darting to the outside corner at the basement of the strike zone. Posada takes it. It should have been called strike three; instead, it’s dubbed a ball. The at-bat continues for three more pitches before he lines out to Johnny Damon in center field.

During a baseball game, the manager has a responsibility to watch his man’s pitch count with intent eyeballs. He’s in a position to use this data to predict late-inning performance. Grady remains calm, despite the climbing number of pitches. After all, Pedro gets the out.

Jason Giambi steps to the plate. He homers, just out of reach of Damon, bringing the Yankees within two. A couple of quick singles, and now Alfonso Soriano steps to the plate. Runners on first and second, two outs. Perhaps this is where you consider pulling Pedro. He blows his liveliest fastballs of the night by Soriano, hitting 94 and 95 mph. His command is pinpoint, striking Jason Varitek’s glove not an inch from where he set up. The pitch count stands at 100.

The top of the eighth sees us adding a run, Big Papi taking the first pitch he saw from David Wells deep. We head to the bottom up 5-2.

Pedro doesn’t look especially sharp against Nick Johnson, the first hitter of the bottom of the eighth. His fastball has lost life and it’s not well-located. He escapes as Johnson pops up on the infield. One down.

A strong case could be made that Grady should go get Pedro. As a player watching from the bench, where the game unfolds much more quickly, I was comfortable with Grady exposing him to another batter before making a decision. Pedro’s pitch count rests at 106. As a team, we assume that our skipper’s stress level is at least slightly elevated.

Derek Jeter stands in. Pedro’s fastball begins to have a bit less run and sink, sitting now between 90-93. The Yankees captain takes a top-of-the-letters high offering over right fielder Trot Nixon’s head for a double. Pedro’s pitch count rests at 109, but now we ponder whether the manager controls the outfielder getting the perfect read on a ball to track down a line drive.

Grady leaves him in to face Bernie Williams. Pedro looks much better, but a slight miss with a fastball, and Bernie whistles it into center field, scoring Jeter. Alan Embree is ready in the bullpen; Pedro has thrown 115 pitches.

Grady jogs out to talk to Martinez. Pedro throws two quick strikes to Matsui. Varitek calls for a pitch up and in; Pedro unequivocally executes the pitch at 93 with run. Matsui crushes it down the first-base line for a double.

The world thinks Little’s decision to allow Pedro to remain in the game sealed his fate with the Red Sox.  

Managers are fired based on a couple of feet. Had the ball been sent straight at second baseman Todd Walker, we would be hearing questions about the taste of champagne from reporters during the postgame interviews. Instead, we got the lowest hanging fruit, “Will Grady be fired?”

Second and third, one out in the eighth, we’re up 5-3, and in steps Posada. The biggest second guess moment in baseball history has come and gone. If Martinez beats Posada, our lives are forever different. If he does, he beats him fair and square. Ninety-five fastball on the fists, jams him and Posada pops it up. Phew, right? Wrong. He got sawed off just enough and the ball lands in front of Damon. Tie ballgame, 5-5.

There was a plethora of opportunities in that two-inning stretch for Grady Little to keep his job, and much of it was out of his control.

Did he make some tactical mistakes? Absolutely. Did those tactical mistakes cost him his job. They did not, 100 percent.

Our team loved Grady Little and cherished the opportunity to play for him. It’s sad to see a man who you get to know intimately and appreciate over the course of a long season pour his heart out for you and lose his job.

If Posada’s ball lands in shortstop Nomar Garciaparra’s glove and we go on to win that series, Grady’s legacy is entirely different. A happy baseball marriage has a unique set of vows. The first, and maybe the only, is to win the World Series when we have the bullets to do so. If you don’t, be prepared for those divorce papers.

Winning papers over a multitude of flaws. Take Billy Martin’s tenuous relationship with the Boss.

From Time magazine:

“No one was hired and fired more than Billy Martin. The fiery manager and domineering owner had a love-hate relationship — when it was good, the team won pennants; when it was bad, sparks flew, often in front of television cameras.”

Ozzie Guillen’s crazy antics and postgame pressers were motivational or even charming when the White Sox were being sized for rings. His style wasn’t appreciated in quite the same way when the Marlins lost 93 games in 2012, leading to his firing.

Managers will be fired eventually, even the perceived greatest ones. Tony La Russa was fired by the White Sox. Joe Torre was offered a pay cut by the Yankees in 2007, the club’s way of not having to fire him.

When a season doesn’t go as planned, it’s usually the manager who takes the fall. He’s the most recognizable and familiar figure. Bruce Bochy is the public face of the San Francisco Giants, not Brian Sabean. Sometimes this protocol is fair, sometimes it isn’t, but everyone understands it as the price of doing business.

In an unprecedented move in 2008, our Milwaukee Brewers fired then-manager Ned Yost in an effort to pull out of a late-season slide that placed our playoff chances in a rather precarious position.

Our third-base coach at the time, Dale Sveum, confidently seized control as the interim manager. Prior to Dale steering the ship, we had lost seven of eight and fallen into a tie with the Phillies for the lead in the NL wild-card race.

The firing came as a shock, but we trusted GM Doug Melvin, who had brought us CC Sabathia midseason and who is exceptionally well respected by baseball men. Without that deal for CC, we’d be packing for the offseason anyhow.

We wear the uniforms, and we expect to have the trust of the front office. In return, the inverse must be true. It’s in our best interests to place strong faith in our front office. After all, personnel decisions are their sole focus whereas ours is performing on the field.

Finally, we thought highly of Dale’s ability to lead. His desire and baseball acumen were strong. We genuinely loved and were happy for his opportunity. At the same time, the human beings in us felt empathy for Ned.

As a player, when a well-liked manager is fired, you take pause. You try to honor the time you spent as that man’s brother in the clubhouse. Then, you get back to work because you understand the cycle. Managers get fired, players get released, trades are made, and your job is to strike the baseball well. Your mission never changes and requires your full attention.

When a teammate or manager loses his job, you are smacked in the face with the unpleasant reality that everyone is easily replaceable. Then you get up and keep going, because the game goes on.