Interim managers are rarely given a true chance to succeed. For starters, they typically only become interim managers because their team was bad enough to warrant the firing of the first manager. And managers can only make so much difference to a team; a good manager knows how to handle the different personalities in the clubhouse, juggle a bullpen and stay out of the way. A bad manager will try much too hard to influence the direction of the game, will lose the respect of his players and create an untenable situation.
By most accounts, this is what happened to A.J. Hinch in Arizona over a little more than a year. Hinch was fired by the Diamondbacks on Thursday along with the general manager who hired him, Josh Byrnes. Hinch had 2½years left on his contract, while Byrnes had a whopping 5½ remaining. Hinch was brought in last season, with no managing or coaching experience at any level, to replace Bob Melvin when the team was struggling, and he never gained control of the team. He admitted as much, noting that “this group hasn’t responded that well to me.”
According to the team, it’s not hard to see why they were let go. They were in last place, three years removed from 90 wins and an NLCS appearance, and the minor league system had dried up. I think letting Byrnes go was a bit much, since the failings of the club this season had more to do with a historically bad bullpen — their 6.89 ERA is mind boggling — and the absence of Brandon Webb from the rotation, leaving Dan Haren as their only real stud, than a failing baseball model. Byrnes will get scooped up by another team as soon as he wants to be, I’m sure.
All this brings us to his replacement, the by-all-accounts fiery Kirk Gibson, who has been the bench coach for the past five years, playing bad cop to good cops Melvin and Hinch. When Melvin was let go last summer, it was just as surprising that Gibson didn’t get the job as it was that Hinch did.
Following the Diamondbacks as closely as I did, his style was obvious. He coached like he played, with an edge that showed that he hated losing more than he actually enjoyed winning. Where Melvin was calm and reserved, Gibson was screaming from the dugout, getting in players’ faces, and demanding constant effort at all times.
His takeover of the team, Arizona hopes, could mirror his arrival in Los Angeles from Detroit in 1988. In his first run with free agency, Gibson signed with the Dodgers, who had finished 73-89 in 1987, good for fourth in the division. Most folks know the story from here: Gibson went on to hit .290 with 25 home runs and an .860 OPS, which was half the reason he won the MVP. The other half was that edge that fans and sportswriters like so much, that General Patton, win-at-all-costs attitude. The Dodgers rode Gibson and the best year of Orel Hershiser’s life to 94 wins, the West, the pennant and the World Series. And Gibson hit a famous home run you may have have seen once or twice.
What does that have to do with this? Maybe nothing. The gamble is that Gibson brings the same edge he brought to the Dodgers to the Diamondbacks. Gibson, in his first Spring Training with the Dodgers, laid down the law. As the Associated Press tells it:
He had left the Tigers to sign as a free agent and didn’t like what he saw in Dodgertown: the joking around, the “clowns coming out of trunks” and, finally, the last straw when a teammate lathered the inside of his cap with “eye black.” That wasn’t the way he approached the game. He told them he devoted everything to the serious business of winning. Winning, he said, was fun.
That’s basically what Arizona is looking for here Turning Byrnes and Hinch loose was a gutsy move, and I’m not convinced it was the right one. But I’m pulling for Gibson, and in turn, pulling for the Diamondbacks to show some kind of life through the rest of 2010.