Not long after the San Diego Padres hired Bud Black as manager in November 2006, they acquired a young reliever named Heath Bell from the New York Mets. Not long after that deal was finalized, Bell got a phone call from Black, a former major league starter who had never managed before.
“Heath, you had 35 or so appearances last year. Five of them, you gave up runs. Thirty, you didn’t give up runs,” Bell remembered Black saying to him. “If you can double that – have 10 bad games and 60 great games – you can be in my bullpen any time. You’re my guy.”
Bell said he didn’t know much about Black at the time, unfamiliar with the longtime Angels pitching coach who served seven years under Manager Mike Scioscia. But that phone call told him plenty.
“Right there, I knew this guy believes in me,” said Bell, now retired. “I can make mistakes, and he’s still got my back.”
The Washington Nationals are expected to hire Black, 58, as the sixth manager in their 11 seasons, with an announcement likely to come after the unwritten gag order that hangs over Major League Baseball during the World Series.
Black managed the Padres for eight seasons and part of a ninth, fired in June when the rebuilt Padres roster failed to coalesce into an instant winner. Padres General Manager A.J. Preller wanted his own guy, consensus determined, while Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and longtime Padre Will Venable used words such as “shocked,” “surprised,” and “disappointed” on the day they learned Black would not see the rebuild through.
Though none of Black’s Padres teams made the playoffs, his 2010 squad – which had the second-lowest payroll in the majors that season, $22 million less than any other team in the National League West – was in first place for most of the season and as late as mid-September, when the Giants overtook them. Black was named the National League manager of the year for the performance, and after a dropoff in 2011, his team’s winning percentages increased from 2011 to 2014.
“He stays consistent, and I think guys gravitate toward that. He’s calm and collected all the time, never lets you see him sweat,” Venable said. “During the grind, when things get tough, it’s good to have your manager be like that. He lets you know that everything’s okay.”
Black established a reputation for picking spots with umpire, not fights, for looking reporters in the eye and remembering their names. Former Padres general manager Josh Byrnes called him “a very skilled communicator.” Venable called him “a father figure type” – the kind of guy you played for, in addition to the team.
In spring training, Black tries to craft chemistry with daily meetings in which players introduce themselves to the group, and endure light-hearted embarrassments like sharing previously unknown talents with their teammates, or reliving old high school football reels with the group.
Byrnes, who served in the Padres’ front office from 2010 to 2014, admitted Black’s teams – only one of which had a winning record — had small margins for error, limited by payroll until this past winter’s spending spree. But when Byrnes inherited the team in 2010, he still felt Black was the man for the job, best able to manage the ups and downs and personalities of a young team with a few high-profile stars shuffling in and out, trying to compete in one of baseball’s winningest divisions.
“I think Buddy’s teams really play hard every day. A lot of energy. A lot of positivity. A lot of 27-out mentality, every night,” Byrnes said. “Maybe you should expect that, but I appreciated that every night, the team showed up ready to play.”
Black pitched 15 major league seasons with five major league teams, seven seasons with the Kansas City Royals, with whom he won the 1985 World Series, a solid left-handed starter with a 121-116 career record. Though he has managed in relative obscurity in San Diego, largely unburdened by annual playoff expectations, Black has endured scrutiny.
When he signed a four-year, $10 million contract with the San Francisco Giants before the 1991 season – a relative fortune at the time – the New York Times deemed the compensation so out of sync with his 83-82 career record that it dubbed him “the Mediocre Millionaire” during the 1991 season.
He coached under pressure, too. Black was Anaheim’s pitching coach when the Angels won the 2002 World Series. In his 15 years as manager and pitching coach, his pitching staff has finished with one of the five lowest earned run averages in baseball seven times.
Two seasons after that phone call from Black, Bell emerged as a shutdown closer, the man entrusted with succeeding San Diego legend Trevor Hoffman – and did so with three straight all-star seasons.
“He makes everybody better, I think,” Bell, who had 47 saves during that improbable 2010 run, remembers. “There are few managers that get the best out of you, and he’s one of them.”
Bell lauded San Diego’s bullpens under Black, which he said were always good despite young guys often shuffling in and out. After rough outings, Bell would ask Padres relievers how they felt and reassured them with something along the lines of “don’t worry, you’ll be back in there tomorrow.”
“The next day, he’d call the same guy out to face the same guy,” Bell remembered. “He’d say, ‘He got you yesterday; don’t let it happen today.’ He let you redeem yourself, and as a reliever, you want that worst of all.”
Pitchers rarely morph into managers, and when they do, they rarely stick. Baseball wisdom says pitchers can’t relate enough to position players, can’t understand enough facets of the game to oversee them all. Black is one of three former big league pitchers to win a Manager of the Year Award, and former players say his communication skills bridge any gaps in playing experience.
“It doesn’t take long for any player – whether it be a pitcher, a bench guy, or a star – to know that Buddy has your back,” Venable said. “…I think one of the things Buddy is really good at is connecting with people.”
Now Black inherits a Nationals team no longer dripping with expectations but still sodden with stars and enough talent to contend. He is an outside voice, likely to load up his coaching staff with similarly fresh faces, injecting a new feel into a clubhouse disrupted by this season’s troubles. He inherits a still-strong pitching staff, entrusted with the big league supervision of young stars such as former Padres prospect Joe Ross and, eventually, Lucas Giolito.
He is not, as Matt Williams was, a “Mike Rizzo guy,” an import from Arizona like many of Rizzo’s key advisers in the front office and scouting department. But he and Rizzo are teaming to break new ground. Rizzo won a World Series title as a scouting director in Arizona in 2001, but has not won as a general manager. Black won World Series titles as a player, then as a pitching coach (a year after Rizzo won his), but never as a manager.
Black’s reputation for instilling belief in his players preceded him, a front-runner in the Nationals managerial search from the start. Now the Nationals, jilted by this season’s disappointment, intend to make Black their leader, placing their belief – and future – in him.