We recently ran a poll to see who people thought the 2021 manager of the White Sox would be.
Omar Vizquel won by a mile and Justin Jirschele got crushed, but that was not what caught my eye. What did was that 2nd place belonged to “Other”. It beat out the current manager who does not seem in danger of being replaced any time soon. And when you look at the people mentioned, they were nearly all former MLB players and many were former White Sox. The exception was arguably the most successful, Joe Maddon. It made me think that maybe, just maybe, we have flawed ideas about who can be a MLB manager. Let’s break it down.
I often hear “he has a high baseball IQ” or “he was a smart player”. What I never hear is how anyone is actually calculating that. If I asked you what Rickey Henderson‘s basbeball IQ is, you’d likely say it’s low. But why? Because he refers to himself in the third person? Because you’ve heard he can’t recognize John Olerud if he’s wearing a different jersey? Because he once framed a huge check instead of cashing it? If so, you’re conflating his IQ with his baseball IQ. I once saw him on MLB Network explain what he was looking for from the pitcher when he was going to steal a base. I immediately thought “I’ve never heard that”, but when it was echoed by the MLB players standing around him my mind was blown. Honestly, did you ever have a coach tell you to watch the pitcher’s elbow? You know you didn’t, but you’re probably realizing how much sense it makes.
The point is, we rely on what we’ve heard about the player’s actual intelligence or what we’ve seen the player do in particular games that we happened to be watching. It’s nearly impossible to watch enough games to possibly determine this and it is flawed to assume that extremely talented athletes are the only people that could have a high baseball IQ.
Arbiters of the Game
The umpires and referees of the world are an interesting group when discussing this topic. They are almost never former MLB, NFL, NBA players. I mean, they’re not even always men. Pro sport leagues cast a wide net to find the best people for this very specific skill. You have to find someone that both has an exceptional understanding of the rules and the ability to react quickly and accurately on difficult, game-changing decisions. Almost sounds like a quality you’d like in a manager. Of course, it’s not the only quality they need.
You hear “player’s coach” or “great clubhouse guy” a lot. It’s the reason many consider Ned Yost a good manager, it’s why I’ve always thought Dusty Baker was a good manager. Do you think it was easy to control a clubhouse with Barry Bonds and his literal and figurative gigantic head? I would agree that commanding a clubhouse could be easier for former players with a great career to back it up. But we have tons of examples of that not being the case. Locally, we have Ryne Sandberg and Robin Ventura to show that it’s definitely not a given.
If you think about other industries, teaching comes to mind immediately. I had plenty of great professors who were not CEOs and CFOs of businesses. That was not the important factor. Look at Jaime Escalante, arguably the most famous high school teacher ever. Not only was this guy able to command respect in classrooms in East Los, he was also able to explain very complex mathematical themes in a way high school students could consume. He wasn’t some great business man or mathematician breaking codes for the NSA, he was a teacher. Maybe we need some of those in the clubhouse.
If you look at the NBA and NFL, the percentage of coaches that were former players in the those leagues is lower than what the MLB has. In fact, if you look at the gold standard in those sports, you’d likely point to Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick. Neither of those guys played in the NBA or NFL. Yet somehow, which must seem unbelievable to MLB teams, these guys have succeeded at incredible levels. Is it easy to find that guy? Obviously not. However, I’d argue it is much more difficult if you confine your search to the small amount of people that have been exceptional enough at a sport to play it at its highest level.
Last But Not Least
For those of you that have argued with me about PED and drugs in general and the lasting negative effects they have on players: Why do you want to pick from a group of players from the most prolific drug years in MLB history? If the cocaine 80s and the steroid era is turning former players’ brains to mush, why would you want them managing?