World Series Or Bust
It was the summer of 1979. Bob Lemon had recently been let go 65 games and 34 wins into the season as manager of the Yankees—the second year in a row he had been replaced midway through the season.
And during a lunch with friends back home in Long Beach, Calif., the subject was broached. “I just took a lot of dumb pills in the winter,” Lemon joked.
It was as good an explanation as any about the fickle life of a big league manager.
Consider, Lemon guided the expansion Royals to 85 wins in 1971—their third season—only to be replaced after the ’72 season. He worked similar magic with the White Sox in 1977, winning 90 games, though it didn’t stave off his firing 74 games into the ’78 season.
And then there was his first stint with the Yankees. Lemon assumed the managerial reins from Billy Martin in late July 1978 and led the team to a World Series championship, only to be replaced by Martin in ’79.
Such is the life of a big league manager.
Winning isn’t everything, and it becomes more apparent all the time. Six teams cut ties with their managers before the World Series even ended.
- Joe Girardi, Yankees. New York severed ties with Girardi after it was eliminated in the American League Championship Series. He averaged 91 wins per season in 10 years with the club and won the 2009 World Series.
- John Farrell, Red Sox. He led Boston to a World Series title in 2013 and back-to-back AL East titles in 2016-17, only to be eliminated this fall by the eventual AL-champion Astros in the Division Series.
- Dusty Baker, Nationals. He led Washington to back-to-back National League East titles in 2016-17—but lost in the Division Series both times.
- Terry Collins, Mets. His New York club lost the World Series in 2015 and was eliminated in the Wild Card Game in 2016, but they lost 92 games this year in no small part because of an injury-riddled rotation.
- Brad Ausmus, Tigers. He debuted in 2014 with an AL Central title and saw Detroit win 86 games in 2016. But in the start of a major rebuild this year, his Tigers lost 98 times this year.
- Pete Mackanin, Phillies. Philadelphia is undergoing a major overhaul and has not finished above .500 since winning 102 games in 2011.
Patience is no longer a virtue in the game. With five teams from each league advancing to the postseason, now even that isn’t enough to keep the folks writing checks and expecting instant success happy.
Baker knows it well. This year was the continuation in a hard-to-believe path his managerial career has followed. After taking the Giants to the 2002 World Series and losing in seven games, he was told that his contract wasn’t going to be renewed.
He was filling out the lineup card the next year—in Chicago. But the Cubs lost the 2003 NL Championship Series to the Marlins, and after four years and 322 wins, he again was looking for work. After a year out of the game, Baker was back managing the Reds, taking them to the postseason three times in the last four years of a six-year tenure.
And after a long wait for one more chance, he was given just two seasons in Washington before being told his services were no longer needed.
But the signs of a new breed of ownership-management that expects titles has been popping up in recent years.
Davey Johnson took the Orioles to back-to-back AL Championship Series in 1996-97—their first postseason appearances since the 1983 World Series. He announced his resignation just hours ahead of the announcement that Ray Miller was taking over in ’98.
Grady Little won 188 games in two years with the Red Sox, only to be let go after losing the 2003 ALCS.
Art Howe took the Athletics to three consecutive AL Division Series from 2000-02 only to be encouraged by club officials to give strong consideration to an offer from the Mets after the 2002 season, which he said showed him it was time to move on.
They did good jobs.
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It was not, however, good enough to keep their jobs.