Newbie managers a gamble for teams

BY Ken Rosenthal • November 11, 2011

The White Sox can gush all they want about Robin Ventura. The Cardinals can do the same with Mike Matheny.

I still don’t like the idea of hiring a manager who has no previous managing experience and barely any coaching experience.

The job is too difficult. The game is full of more qualified candidates. The risk involved with hiring a newbie is simply too great.

Yet, the White Sox hired Ventura to replace Ozzie Guillen, and the Cardinals on Sunday announced Matheny as the replacement for Tony La Russa.

OK, Matheny caught for the Cardinals from 2000 to ’04. He forged a strong relationship with pitching coach Dave Duncan, and later served the team as a minor-league instructor. He is one of those people who just projects strength.

Doesn’t mean he can manage.

A.J. Hinch, who was hired by the Diamondbacks in May 2009 without any previous coaching or managing experience, lasted just 1 1/3 seasons.

Matheny and Ventura were more accomplished players than Hinch. They’re both considered great guys. But who the heck knows if they can handle a job that entails so much more than writing a lineup and running a game?

No one.

Frankly, I find such choices disrespectful to all those managerial candidates who have paid their dues, people like Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, who is 60 and still waiting for his first full-time opportunity, and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who has spent the past five seasons managing in the minors, trying to learn a new craft.

Mackanin soon might get his chance with the Cubs or Red Sox. Sandberg remains a candidate for the Cardinals. And an executive scoffed at my notion of “disrespect” Thursday, saying that teams try to make the best choices and win as many games as possible.

Well, teams do dumb things.

And while “dumb” might be too strong a word to describe the hiring of a newbie, I find it difficult to comprehend how teams go to extreme lengths to analyze players objectively, yet frequently make gut calls when hiring a manager.

The White Sox might perceive Ventura as a born leader, but neither he nor Matheny has ever managed people — the essence of the job. Ventura’s only previous non-playing experience was as a special assistant to farm director Buddy Bell, a job he began only last June.

Hinch at least had been the Diamondbacks’ farm director, but he was a journeyman as a player. He lacked the instant credibility and respect that Ventura will merit from the White Sox players, their fans and media — and that Matheny will merit from the same factions with the Cardinals.

The idea in both cases is to hire a long-term solution — and tolerate short-term growing pains, if necessary. Sounds great in theory, and it would be terrific if Ventura were the White Sox’s manager for the next 10 years. But that was the D-Backs’ idea with Hinch, and it quickly disintegrated.

I love upside as much as anyone. I hate selling people short. But this isn’t like a rookie taking a position from a veteran. The rookie, at least, knows how to play the position; he has done it all through the minors.

Mike Quade, on the other hand, managed 17 years in the minors, worked several more years as a major league coach — and still looked overmatched at times in his only season as Cubs manager.

No, not everyone can do this.

The daily media responsibilities, the speed of the game, the relentless six-month grind — the job wears down even the best of ‘em.

The Cardinals will talk about Matheny's catching experience, his quick mind, his innate leadership. Joe Girardi, another former catcher, was a bench coach for only one season before he became a manager — and was named NL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America in his first and only year with the Marlins.

These guys have to start somewhere. Recycled managers aren’t always the answer. And the Cardinals certainly took a fresh approach — of their six candidates, only Terry Francona has major league managing experience.

Matheny was perhaps the the most compelling of that group, more compelling than Sandberg or La Russa’s longtime coach, Jose Oquendo. The Cardinals would surround Matheny with Duncan and other familiar faces, just as the White Sox will support Ventura with pitching coach Don Cooper and make Bell available as an in-house sounding board.

It still might not be enough.

Cardinals fans are generally supportive, but some were quite hard on La Russa, nitpicking his strategy. How forgiving will they be of Matheny, who not only will be replacing a future Hall of Famer but also taking over a World Series champion after beating out a far more experienced candidate, Terry Francona, for the job?

Talk to me after the first time Matheny makes a strategic blunder, the first time media criticism of him mounts, the first time he suffers through a five-game losing streak.

Even the best-prepared candidates cannot adequately prepare for the challenges that await them. In 25 years as a baseball writer, I’ve seen men whose hair turned gray sitting in the manager’s chair, men who changed the way they related to people, men who flat-out cracked under the pressure.

If I were hiring a manager, I’d like a reasonable idea of what that manager would be. The White Sox can talk about Ventura’s promise. The Cardinals can do the same with Matheny.

But when a team hires a manager who has no previous managing experience and barely any coaching experience, it really has no way of knowing what will happen.


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