Thursday, November 02, 2006

Benching Donnie Baseball

It's been a quiet week so far, with the big news coming in the form of a coaching shuffle that sends Lee Mazzilli packing, shifts Don Mattingly from his present job as hitting coach to the more nebulous role of "bench coach," and calls for a new batting coach--the name that's heard most and loudest is AAA Columbus hitting coach Kevin Long--taking over for Donnie Baseball.

Most of the news coverage has been focused on what Mattingly being appointed bench coach says about the Yankee line of succession. It's a fuzzy position--even fuzzy by coaching standards--but the bench coach is considered a consiglieri to the manager, a strategic assistant, the guy who manages the team if the manager gets ejected. As such, the bench coach position is considered by some a place where bright young managerial prospects go to apprentice, particularly if they're high-profile types who likely aren't willing to go manage in the bus leagues for a few seasons. More on this in a moment.

I can't remember when the "bench coach" came into vogue...I really don't remember anyone holding that position with the Yankees prior to "the Gerbil" Don Zimmer. Zim wasn't really someone looking for a managerial job at that point, and his managerial style was a good contrast to that of the manager, Joe Torre--much more openly temperamental than Torre, a more aggressive field manager, more outspoken. It often seemed like they worked the umpires together, with Torre playing good cop to Zimmer's bad cop. If Joe was the calm father figure of the Yankee clubhouse, ol' Popeye was the crazy uncle your mother disapproves of you hanging out with. He and Joe were a good match.

Since Zimmer was forced out by Steinbrenner, we haven't seen such a match again. In 2004, Willie Randolph took over after a tempestuous tenure as third base coach and primary media-anointed manager-in-waiting. I say Willie's time coaching third was tempestuous because of the gale force turbulence Randolph created with his constantly-windmilling arm. Randolph had the good fortune that no matter how many baserunners he sent to their doom, it didn't seem to cost the Yankees that many games when it counted. Still, Willie didn't seem to light the world on fire in the bench coach job, and it was around this time the rumors started that Don Mattingly was the preferred successor to Torre. After Randolph went off to the Mets, former catcher/broadcaster Joe Girardi took over the bench coach job. This inspired to a lot of talk about what a great manager Girardi would make some day, but didn't otherwise seem to have a big impact on the way the Yankees were managed or played on the field.

When Girardi went to the Marlins (and, indeed, did a good job managing there) Mazzili was brought on, perhaps in the hope that having another "wartime consiglieri" with managing experience would bring back some of that Don Zimmer magic. No dice. Mazz may have had the "vocal" and "temperamental" stuff down, but he didn't have Zim's strategic brain, or his 1,500+ games of managerial experience.

So now Mazzilli goes, and is replaced by Mattingly. I don't know where this is going to help the ballclub much, other than giving Mattingly some more manager-type experience. Torre, Zimmer, and former pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre were of a different generation from the fellows who have come after. When Zimmer came to Torre with advice, he was coming from the perspective of someone who was playing the game when Torre was just starting high school, and who had more managerial success than Torre had in his pre-Yankees days. That's bringing something to the table. If Mattingly has suggestions, will it play out the same way? Will Mattingly, always a quiet leader during his playing days, even speak up if he has any suggestions? The mind boggles.

And while this has been termed a "promotion," you have to wonder if Mattingly's new role isn't a tacit criticism of the job he did in his old role, as hitting coach for the team that just got shut down in the playoffs, rather than as an endorsement of his managerial bonafides. The Yanks hit well during the Mattingly's tenure, and he does get credit for the development of Robbie Cano and Melky Cabrera. Still, by and large Donnie Baseball had a huge crop of baseball talent to work with, and Mattingly certainly didn't seem able to reach the Yankees' key player, Alex Rodriguez, this season. Whoever the new batting coach is, that's job number one (job number two being to work on the continued development of Cabrera, and job number three being to make sure the coffee in the dugout is always fresh; OK, so I made one of those up).

This is a story to keep an eye on in Spring Training.

1 comment:

Zachary A. said...

Not sure if I'm too thrilled at the idea of having Mattingly manage the team in '08. I mean he was a great player, but manager?