As a star reliever in the late ’60s, Phil Regan earned the nickname “The Vulture” for swooping in for an inning or two to pick up a cheap win. Regan’s claws were sharp enough and his purported greaseball slick enough to go 14-1 with a 1.62 ERA and a National League high of 21 saves in 1966, winning fireman of the year honors in his first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Regan is on the same flight pattern in his first major-league managing assignment as the new skipper of the Baltimore Orioles.
Regan inherits a team that’s already a contender and poised to improve. The front office will likely provide a needed starting pitcher as a wedding present, in addition to an outfielder to replace free agent Mike Devereaux, whose performance has fallen off the charts during the past two years. Factor in the altogether reasonable expectation that the New York Yankees won’t rip though 1995 at a 101-win pace, and, assuming some competence, Regan has a very good shot at joining the list of title-winning rookie managers.
Davey Johnson, the manager the Orioles didn’t hire, had been there before. In 1984, Johnson got his first big-league managing job with the New York Mets, who had been dreadful for several years but were about to bloom into a powerhouse. The Mets were a couple of years behind the Orioles on the upward swing of the wave when Johnson arrived, but he had the best team in baseball by his third year there. The Orioles appear to have reached the same spot in their cycle as Regan swoops in.
Johnson did a good-enough managing job with the Mets to average 95 wins a season, but the front office did most of the heavy lifting to build that ballclub into a champion. The farm system produced a pair of certified gems, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, plus supporting-cast members Roger McDowell, Ron Darling, Rick Aguilera, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, and Kevin Mitchell. The front office traded for Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter,a pair of all-stars still near the top of their game, plugged Ray Knight into third base while Howard Johnson found his form, and picked up veteran lefty Bob Ojeda to round out the pitching staff. (Later, they stole David Cone from Kansas City for Ed Hearn, a backup catcher with a bum shoulder.) Johnson did a nice job of fitting the pieces together, but he was given a fantastic set to work with.
Regan inherits a good roster, but these Orioles were much more a product of their manager than the front office. With the exception of Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mike Mussina, Oates was handed a sack of rough blocks that required a good deal of finish work before they’d fit together. Oates turned them into contenders. Now Regan becomes the key craftsman in the Oriole equation. “My way or the highway” doesn’t work as a managerial technique these days, if it ever did, but managers are expected to place some personal stamp on their teams. The bird brain trust hired Regan because they wanted to see changes made.
It’s worth recounting that the Mets were wrecked by their brain trust, just as they were built by it. After rolling the dice so masterfully for five years, the front office started shooting craps. They traded Mitchell and Dykstra too soon, they mistook Juan Samuel for Willie Mays, and they forgot Carter’s age and how critical his output from the catching position was to their offense. (When Ripken stops playing shortstop, the Orioles must avoid a similar oversight.) Without the luxury of one of the top half-dozen draft picks, the farm system sputtered, putting more pressure on the front office to fill holes through trades. Like a gambler on a losing streak, the trademeisters kept figuring just one more deal would put them back on the winning track.
Changing managers has disturbed the equation that made the Orioles winners. But Oriole fans can take comfort in initial reports that Regan is expected to be a lot like Johnny Oates.
Neros (as in Zeros) of the Boardroom The National League jumped onto the manager-go-round with the Chicago Cubs’ firing of Tom Trebelhorn. That makes five field managers out, plus four new general managers in, before the first game of the World Series would have been played. Axes are poised to fall elsewhere, all presumably sharpened on the basis of inadequacies made evident during an incomplete season.
Meanwhile, the game’s future remains bleaker than at any time this century. If you believe Major League Baseball (MLB) is run astutely, with a sharp eye on the game’s public image, these management moves could comprise a concerted effort to maintain baseball’s media profile, fuel traditional hot-stove league chatter, and offer some sense of the continuity that is so vital to baseball’s national-pastime status. Such an image offensive may even reflect MLB’s version of the popular election theme: throw the rascals out. People are mad at baseball, just like they’re mad at Congress, and tossing a manager on his ear shows cranky fans that management feels their anger.
Of course, if you believe MLB knows how to handle its public image, you haven’t been paying attention for the past few months.
This current firing frenzy is a revolting spectacle given the game’s pus-gushing labor wound. Teams are changing radio stations while their cars careen into oncoming traffic. Every front-office executive in baseball should be working toward settling the strike and ensuring the 1995 season.
Until the strike is settled and there’s a working framework for the game’s operations—free agency, arbitration, and all those other factors that determine a roster—the names on the organization chart are irrelevant.
The management bloodletting underscores one key to understanding the strike situation. Executives in charge of running the teams, the ones who actually get their fingernails dirty with the game, are completely divorced from the strike. Labor issues have become the sole province of the grand poohbahs and poohbettes who own the clubs. The strike issue no longer has anything to do with the game of baseball and everything to do with the game of power. Even with the intervention of all-star mediator Bill Usery, that situation hardly bodes well for a sensible settlement, let alone a timely one.