It’s worth noting that the World Series, which opens Tuesday night at Fenway Park in Boston, features two managers who had never held the position until they accepted the job they currently have. Dave Roberts was a coach with the San Diego Padres when the Los Angeles Dodgers hired him in the winter before the 2016 season. His performance thus far: three division titles, back-to-back National League pennants — with a world championship still a possibility.
Alex Cora was a coach when the Houston Astros won last year’s World Series, after which he took over the Boston Red Sox. All he did for a debut was win more games than any manager in the 118-year history of the franchise, then open the postseason with seven victories in nine tries against a pair of 100-win teams.
So the modern baseball formula, it would seem: Build a superior roster, then hand it to someone who has never done the job.
Wait. Can someone get Dave Martinez on the phone?
The cool thing about this matchup: It’s the first time two minority managers — Cora is Puerto Rican; Roberts was born to Japanese and African American parents — will face each other in a World Series. If that gets even a single owner or general manager to expand the way he thinks about who might make a good candidate to steer his club, that’s tremendous.
Hopefully, though, we’re past that point, and we’re simply reaching an annual autumn tradition. On the eve of each World Series, a quest begins to find commonalities between the pennant winners. Here are two for this fall: Both the Red Sox ($228.4 million, according to spotrac.com) and the Dodgers ($199.6 million) spend exorbitantly on player salaries, ranking first and third in the major leagues, respectively. And both handed their championship-worthy rosters to former players — former teammates, actually — who had never so much as managed a game in the minors.
Now, is this a trend? In hiring, sure, because there were six new managers in the majors to start this season, and only one (Detroit’s Ron Gardenhire) had managed before. But in success? Well, let’s hold back a bit. Of the 10 teams that reached the postseason this year, fully half were managed by men who had never held the job before landing their current position. Joining Cora and Roberts: Aaron Boone of the New York Yankees, Craig Counsell of the Milwaukee Brewers and Brian Snitker of the Atlanta Braves (although Snitker had years of minor league managing experience).
That, of course, means half had experience. The postseason was indeed dotted with old hands (Cleveland’s Terry Francona, Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs, Oakland’s Bob Melvin, Colorado’s Bud Black) and one younger character who had gotten a shot as an even younger character, only to be fired, grow and thrive in a new opportunity (Houston’s A.J. Hinch).
The point, though, really isn’t the experience. The point is the requirements for, and parameters of, the job. Those have changed — and swiftly.
Whether it’s Cora and Roberts or the two men they beat in the league championship series — Hinch and Counsell, respectively — it’s worth reflecting on what is expected of the modern manager. It’s not what it was when Boston’s Bill Carrigan trounced Brooklyn’s Wilbert Robinson in five games to take the 1916 World Series — the only time these franchises have met in the postseason. It’s not what it was when Tommy Lasorda and — pick one — Don Zimmer or Ralph Houk or John McNamara oversaw these franchises in the 1970s and ’80s. Heck, it’s not even what it was when Cora’s and Roberts’s predecessors — John Farrell and Don Mattingly, respectively — manned the dugout.
Since they are the face of the postseason, managers get an inordinate amount of exposure this time of year. In the postseason, baseball clubhouses are closed to reporters before games — a system that diminishes the number of players’ perspectives that are shared publicly. But managers speak to the media twice daily. They are interviewed between innings in the dugout. The focus on the manager doesn’t have to arise because of the manager’s decisions — as it was with Boone in the Yankees’ American League Division Series loss to Boston. The focus is always on the manager because he is the only figure constantly in position to be focused on.
That gives the manager the appearance of outsized importance. But it’s only an appearance. Don’t get me wrong: Do I think the 2018 Washington Nationals would have won more games with Dusty Baker (win totals in his two seasons: 95 and 97) than with Martinez (one-year mark: 82-80)? Yes. Yes, I do. (Also, Nats fans: Don’t lament that your team chose Martinez over the equally available Cora. It didn’t. When Washington decided to dump Baker, it reached out to Cora, but he was already well down the road with the Red Sox.)
Anyway, the years of the manager as the personality and the pulse of a club are dwindling — by design. The manager no longer dictates how a club will be run. More than ever, managing a season — or a series, or a game, or an inning — is a team sport. The team includes not just the coaching staff but also the general manager and other members of the front office.
Roberts, for instance, is an important figure in pursuing the Dodgers’ first World Series title since Lasorda — with the significant aid of a hobbled Kirk Gibson — managed an upset of Oakland 30 years ago. But the direction of the franchise — both over the course of a decade and the course of a week — is determined by Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations, and Farhan Zaidi, the general manager.
That’s true with whom the club will pursue in the offseason or the draft, the traditional front-office roles. But now it’s true with who will pitch when and for how long. It’s true with who will hit where and against whom. The clubhouse tenor is still set by the manager. But that manager, in so many cases, must be carrying water for the front office.
Consider the Hall of Fame Class of 2014. It featured three managers: Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. Who among the current group of managers defines his team like Cox did his Braves, La Russa did his A’s and Cardinals, and Torre did his Yankees? Maybe Bruce Bochy with those three World Series titles in San Francisco. And perhaps the Indians with Francona, who might join this lot in Cooperstown again.
But even with Maddon, with his outsized personality and record of success with both Tampa Bay and Chicago, would Cubs fans give more credit for the 2016 World Series title to him or, say, baseball architect Theo Epstein?
The answer, these days, is easy. Epstein and his general manager, Jed Hoyer, built the system and the team. Epstein, therefore, is the savior.
In a week or 10 days, either Roberts or Cora will have his title. Either will be asked to comment on the path he took to hold that trophy. Whichever personal story is told will have meaning, and the front office that made the hire — either Dave Dombrowski in Boston or Friedman and Zaidi in Los Angeles — will get to say what qualities it saw in either man that made him the perfect fit.
But the honest answer, regardless of who wins, is that Cora and Roberts are just small pieces in baseball’s increasingly large organizational machinery. You’ll see them on TV, and they’ll talk about their teams. But the Red Sox aren’t Cora’s, and the Dodgers aren’t Roberts’s. That’s not their fault. That’s how front offices do it now, by design.