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Old-school managing turning into lost art

TORONTO – We’ve spent all week in Buffalo obsessing about the importance of coaches, specifically Mike Babcock. But a bizarre trend is developing around the head man in baseball: Managers seem to be getting trivialized. The two teams that have fired their skippers this year, Milwaukee and Miami, replaced them with newbies who had never managed in professional ball before in Craig Counsell and Dan Jennings. The Marlins went a step further by moving Jennings from the general manager’s chair to the dugout, drawing raised eyebrows and some chuckles across the industry.

There’s no laughing, however, about the increased layers of front offices, about the scores of analytics research being done at computer screens and getting sent to the clubhouses and dugouts. Is the manager really making the decisions these days or just following the plan being sent to him?

No one has been manager of their current team longer than Mike Scioscia. But before he was hired by the Los Angeles Angels in 2000, he had followed the same route he did as a player – working his way up through the minor leagues and then the coaching ranks. When I talked to him Thursday at Rogers Centre, he said his own team’s beat writers had asked him about the topic of a manager’s shrinking influence three days earlier upon Jennings’ hiring.

“Asking me if I don’t think managers are important would be like me asking you if sportswriters aren’t important,” joked Scioscia. (At least I think he was joking).

“I really think managers come from all different avenues,” Scioscia said. “You’ll have some guys that managed a long time in the minor leagues, you’ll have some guys that haven’t managed that long, some guys that haven’t managed at all. There certainly isn’t an owner’s manual to how you work to this position. But it’s just building trust with your coaching staff, building trust with your team. That’s what it’s about. You do that on a day-to-day basis and earn it. Some guys follow a different path to get that opportunity, but I don’t think there’s one specific path you have to follow.”

Jennings had not coached since high school ball and his hiring is another bit of foolishness from owner Jeffrey Loria. But there’s plenty of guys who are simply getting the jobs quickly. In fact, 12 teams now have managers who didn’t manage in any level until they got their spot. It’s a trend that the Cardinals seemed to start with Mike Matheny that’s moved into names like Brad Ausmus (Tigers), Robin Ventura (White Sox), Paul Molitor (Twins) and Walt Weiss (Rockies), who was brought in out of high school ball.

“Those guys come with good credentials,” Mets manager and Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Terry Collins told the New York Times last week. “It’s just, you’re talking to an old-time guy here. Those days of all that stuff we did, all those years on those buses, staying in those hotels, the winter balls and the instructional leagues, that’s gone by the wayside now.”

Collins, remember, worked his way up through the minors in the Dodgers’ chain and moved to Buffalo in the Pirates organization from 1989-1991 before graduating to the Pittsburgh staff and eventually his first managerial stop in Houston in 1994. It’s the road taken by two other former Bisons managers who keep getting passed over for MLB jobs, Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo and Las Vegas manager Wally Backman, and many other former players.

When he was in Buffalo, Collins was noted as a great tactician and in-game strategist. You could see how he would manipulate a lineup or a bullpen and how it could translate to a big-league job. That kind of preparation is much harder to find now because of the parent club’s day-to-day influence.

“In the minor leagues, you really don’t manage anymore,” Collins told the Times. “The minor leagues are set up like: ‘You’re starting, he’s coming in for the fifth, he’s throwing X amount of pitches, let’s make sure these guys play today, let’s give so-and-so a day off.’ Nobody pinch-hits. It’s, ‘Hey, look, here’s your lineup, go get ’em.’ ”

Still, Scioscia insists that just because former players with no experience are getting hired doesn’t mean there’s been less emphasis on dugout decisions. And players like Ausmus and Ventura, for instance, were known to be very good with the media when they were active, so that huge part of becoming a manager is not as big a transition.

“Our report card is wins and losses. If you’re managing a major-league team, you have to go out there and find a way to get your team to play at the level it should play at,” Scioscia said. “And hopefully that brings the wins you think it should. Whether you’ve managed a long time in the minor leagues, a couple teams in the majors or you haven’t managed at all, you’re going to be accountable in that wins and losses column.

“I really see everybody evaluated the same way whether you’ve spent 10 years in the major leagues and get a chance to manage or if you haven’t spent one day in the major leagues. I don’t think it trivializes managing at all. There are challenges every day.”

R.A. to the defense

For now at least, manager John Gibbons seems safe in the Blue Jays dugout. But talk was growing last week about the potential dismissal of pitching coach Pete Walker, much like how the Red Sox have kept John Farrell but excised Juan Nieves earlier this month. The Jays have the worst rotation in baseball and their team ERA of 4.69 in May was the worst in the American League.

So after R.A. Dickey pitched the Jays’ first complete game of the season in Thursday’s win over the Angels, the veteran knuckleballer came to Walker’s defense. Unprompted by reporters, Dickey revealed Walker had pored through video to help change the tempo of his delivery and find some other flaws that Dickey wouldn’t reveal.

Dickey entered the game 1-5 with a 5.76 ERA over his first eight starts.

“I had a lot of late movement tonight, something I haven’t had the last probably month,” said Dickey. “Tonight, you saw big swings. You saw change of speeds, less and less rotation on the knuckleball throughout the night, which is key.

“I really can’t say enough about Pete. Pete’s been integral in the difference from last month to tonight. He was able to catch some stuff on video, we worked really hard between outings and I can’t say enough about him. If he were not around, I would not have caught it on my own. That’s a big thing.”

Numbers games

• Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk went 0 for 6 with five strikeouts Monday in a 14-inning loss to the Mets in Citi Field. He had two doubles and a triple in a win on Tuesday, which Elias Sports said made him the first player ever to follow up a five-strikeout game with three extra-base hits in his next time out.

• Also from Elias, Giants outfielder Brandon Belt became the first player in history with at least three hits and one home run in four straight road games when he connected for a 475-foot bomb into the upper deck Friday at Denver’s Coors Field. Cracked Giants TV announcer Mike Krukow: “That one you could cut up and make about 11 singles out of.”

• The Red Sox hit the rough quarter pole of the season with a 19-22 record – their worst through 41 games since 1997. They entered the weekend 27th in batting (.235) and 28th in ERA (4.60).

Around the horn

• After another solid season, Canisius junior outfielder Brett Siddall (son of Blue Jays radio analyst Joe Siddall) was named Player of the Year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Who was Pitcher of the Year? Iona right-hander Mariano Rivera Jr. You might know his dad. The younger Rivera went 5-7 in 14 starts but had a team-best 2.65 ERA and led the conference with 113 strikeouts in 85 innings while walking just 27. The younger Rivera was drafted by the Yankees in the 29th round last year but didn’t sign and returned to school; many experts think he could go as high as the fifth or sixth round on June 9.

• The Indians honored Niagara Falls native and SportsTime Ohio analyst Rick Manning Saturday in Progressive Field on the 40th anniversary of his big-league debut. Manning, who was a star at LaSalle High School, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1972 draft and played 1,555 games with the Tribe and Milwaukee from 1975-1987. Manning, 60, has been a Tribe broadcaster since 1990 and was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

• Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons pointed out last week that the home run rate of pitcher-friendly Petco Park in San Diego is 1.024 per game, a number higher than Fenway Park or Toronto’s Rogers Centre. What’s going on? In addition to pulling in the fences, high rises going up around the ballpark and a new video board seemed to be changing the jet streams. We saw that in Buffalo, where the removal of the right-field bleachers in 2003 pretty much ended the corkscrew wind effect that knocked down a lot of fly balls hit by left-handed hitters.