Every sport has traditional values, customs and tall tales that are handed down through the generations. Baseball's salty lore and situational ethics are perpetuated by managers and coaches. They're in charge of a subcultural heritage of comedy, tragedy and history.
That century-old species, the baseball lifer who sustains the game's sense of itself, may soon become endangered.
Baseball has always retained many of its best people, kept them part of the sport. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams all thought it normal, certainly no slight to their dignity, to become managers. Plenty of the best minds in a sport of native wit were content to be low-paid coaches or modestly paid managers.
Baseball lifers didn't measure each other by their dollars, but by their line in the record book, their style, savvy or courage on the field; the game measured its own by their qualities, not their wallet. Now, the worry grows that some of this root system has been ripped up by a new age, with more damage on the way.
"Where are the next generation of managers and coaches going to come from?" asked Larry Haney, the Milwaukee bullpen coach who has spent 21 years in baseball.
"Look around this locker room," said Haney, who served with six teams, including catching in the '74 Series for Oakland. "Even guys who aren't regulars make $200,000.
"Who's going to go from that life style to being a coach for $30,000? Or coach in the minors for salaries so low people are embarrassed to mention them?
"You even wonder who wants to be a manager any more. Managers always got fired, but now they're almost completely expendable. How can you control a player with a multiyear guaranteed million-dollar contract?"
Haney, 39, is part of the last baseball generation that didn't get rich. He leaves his wife and three children home near Charlottesville while his game yanks him all over America for six months. He wonders how many others will, and for how much longer.
Baseball is better and fairer now than a decade ago. Salaries have increased sixfold, proof many owners gouged their players for 50 years.
However, for every gain, there's some inevitable corresponding loss.
From John McGraw to Casey Stengel to Earl Weaver, baseball's old leaders have had a vivid, stuff-of-legend quality. Now, the word "manager" no longer carries the connotations it once did.
In these free-agent days, managers are, increasingly, papier-mache figures that can be tossed out of the dugout and replaced with little effect on their team.
The list is long of firings that would have shocked in an earlier age. Dick Howser won 103 games and was fired. Jim Frey took his team to the Series and was fired the next year. Whitey Herzog won three division titles, lost one and was fired. Gene Michael was fired for not winning a second-season title there was no real reason to win. Dick Williams was replaced by a front-office man.
Philadelphia's Dallas Green arrived on a one-year-only basis so that he could insult, fine, bench and generally humiliate the lazy Phillies. Then, he broke his promise to himself and came back this year. Already, Green has met with the Cubs to discuss a front-office job; these days, a manager with any self-respect prepares to jump ship before he's told to walk the plank.
The Yankees and their manager, Bob Lemon, are the ultimate example. Lemon is respected as a Hall of Famer and a speak-no-evil nice guy; but, as a manager, he has, in the conventional sense, little respect. His team knows he will acquiesce to any muttonheaded strategy, lineup change or debased public pronouncement George Steinbrenner concocts.
The Yankees know Steinbrenner will replace Lemon at the earliest opportunity. And they don't care. "We're professionals," said Rudy May. "We don't really need a manager."
Perhaps anybody can manage a baseball team. Perhaps somebody can always be found who can teach a reasonable facsimile of a slider or a slide.
However, in the game's marrow, something is lost when the role of a manager and his coaches is progressively devalued, almost mocked.
"It's getting so players are only accountable to their contracts and to their consciences," says Haney. "I see players who sign a big contract, play at less than full speed, then gear up again in the last year of the contract to get another big one.
"Fortunately, you'll always have players, like Gorman Thomas or Jim Gantner on this (Brewer) team, who wouldn't know how to play the game wrong. But there are players, and always have been, who need a kick in the rear."
But who wants to be the kicker?
Would Reggie Jackson ever be a manager?
Jackson laughs: "I'll own my own team.
"And I'll be one mean son of a buck. I won't let 'em jake on me. I'm studying all the stuff Steinbrenner does to me and the rest of the team."
"'Cause George is ahead of everybody again," Jackson says. "He knows that the guy with the bucks is the only one who can jerk the player's chain."
The era of the owner as de facto manager may be on the way.
However, baseball has another problem. It is breeding a generation of players who may assume it's beneath them to associate with baseball at an on-the-field level once their six-figure salary days are done.
A sport cannot lose its root system, its linkage between generations, without a cost.