That’s why Ripken to the Washington Nationals is such a great hypothetical, for it brings up all the heavenly athletes who deteriorated into hellish coaches and managers of people, often for the same reason: They couldn’t get their head around the idea that their players weren’t as good as they were.
Not only do playing icons sometimes have trouble relating to mere mortals as coaches and front-office executives (see Jordan, Michael), they have to worry about damaging their legacies.
“Well, at 2-8 last year, that’s all I thought about,” Adam Oates said Wednesday morning after the Washington Capitals practiced.
I figured Oates would be good to ask to about Ripken, having been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame the day he was named Capitals coach last November. As usual, Oates’s candor came through, especially about his reputation in the game possibly suffering.
“You always worry about your reputation,” he said. “We had a lousy start last year. So I was worried that people would associate the lousy start with ‘a guy who’s a player can’t coach.’ Because that’s kind of an unwritten rule: that good athletes can’t get the job done.”
Indeed, Magic Johnson lasted all of 16 games on the Lakers bench. Wayne Gretzky was 18 games under .500 in four years of dwindling attendance in Phoenix. Bart Starr had four seasons of 10 losses or more in Green Bay. Ted Williams’ managerial winning percentage was not many points higher than his .406 batting average. Mike Singletary thought he couldn’t win with Vernon Davis. Even Slingin’ Sammy Baugh was a forgettable 4-10 in his one season coaching the Houston Oilers.
Oates waited five years after retirement to get into coaching, starting as an assistant in Tampa Bay. Ripken, if he were to manage next season, would be retired 13 years from the Orioles. He also wouldn’t have one advantage Oates had: familiarity with the bottom of a roster.
“I also don’t look at myself as a [Hall-of-Fame player], because nothing ever came easy for me in the game,” Oates said. “So where Cal was a superstar from Day 1, I had to fight my way to the top. I wore every hat as a player. Cal never did. Magic never did.
“It’s just different. I played on the fourth line. I’m just speaking theoretically, but most good players don’t understand what the guys that are fighting for survival go through. Like, Kobe Bryant couldn’t understand what Luke Walton was thinking. That guy is just trying to get his penny every night. Kobe is worried about how many shots I’m getting.
“Then when they coach, how can they possibly understand what those guys go through? They might think they know. Maybe some guys do.”
Oates shrugged, thought about Ripken’s accomplishments, his baseball lineage. “I imagine he knows what he’s doing,” he said. “We’re talking about a guy who reinvented his batting stance, and he became MVP again. He knows some stuff.”
The other fear if Ripken were named manager in Washington — he’s already been rubber-stamped by Jayson Werth, whose agent is Scott Boras, who . . . oh, you can connect the dots — is the immense shadow he would cast over an organization trying to develop young stars such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.
It’s probably irrational, but the bottom line is Ripken instantly becomes the new face of the franchise, a living baseball legend, larger in stature than anyone he will manage for perhaps the rest of his career. After the windfall of revenue the hiring would produce is the real possibility that a potential National League champion roster could be dwarfed by its manager’s celebrity.
Oates didn’t have that problem because of Alex Ovechkin’s fame.
“He’s bigger than the players,” he said. “They know that. The first thing you got to do is get to their level, like, ‘I’m not here to show you I’m better than you.’ No. You got to convince them that you’re here for the right reasons.”
Finally, from one Hall of Fame player trying to cut it as a coach to perhaps another, Oates’s advice to Ripken was simple: Don’t worry about getting fired. It’s going to happen.
“I think if you come into the job being careful, you’re crazy,” Oates said. “You got to come in thinking you’re not going to last. It’s the nature of the beast, right? There’s a stress that goes with that, but if that affects you, then you’re going to make mistakes.”
“I’m not worried about getting fired,” he added. “I’m really not. I was worried about getting fired looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. So I think we’ve conquered that. But the day will come. If it happens, it happens. You do your best and you move on, find the next job.”
I’m sorry. I just can’t get my head around Cal ever being fired — as a manager, broadcaster, mechanic, plumber, teacher, anything. I mean, it’s Cal. Even if he was a bad manager, do the Lerners want that on their conscience like Mr. Pollin when he fired Jordan? (Wait, don’t answer that. Mr. P was actually glad to see Michael go.)
Before I left Oates’s office Wednesday, he wanted to know if Ripken was actually serious about managing. I told him, yes, if the right job came along.
“You think it would have been with the Orioles,” he said. “Obviously Buck [Showalter] is doing a great job, but that’s crazy to me. If he really wants to, you’d think it would be with the Orioles organization first.”
Hmmm, Peter Angelos or the Lerner family? Who would you rather work for? Let’s ask Davey Johnson.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.