Caught Looking

When I was asked to step down as the manager of the Houston Astros last year, I bade a bittersweet farewell to a team I had loved for more than three decades. Among the many lessons I learned: how to motivate millionaires, how to lose in the playoffs, and how to wear a Hawaiian shirt.

Aloha. I just want everyone to know that I never asked to be manager. I never suggested it, and I didn’t campaign for it. When Drayton McLane, the chairman and CEO of the Houston Astros, offered me the job in late 1996—and a big raise to go with it—I was floored. I had managed only two things in my life: a junior high school football team and advance-ticket sales for the Astros. I was never an organizer. I was a player, a performer, a free agent. For thirteen years on the mound with Houston and seventeen seasons in the broadcast booth, I had no one to answer to but myself. I liked it that way.

Now, after five years at the helm, I’m free again. I learned a few things about life and about myself. It is, as they say, lonely at the top. I like to be left alone, but I don’t like being lonely. Did I enjoy it? The first three years, you bet! I wasn’t happy to lose in the first round of the playoffs each season, but we were clearly the class of our division.

In the fourth season we cratered. I was not a happy camper. For the first time, I got irritable with the media. When we lost eight games in a row near the beginning of the 2001 season, the acrimony festered and took almost all the fun out of winning a fourth division title. That’s obvious to me now. It’s hard to keep that Hawaiian-shirt attitude when you are under siege. Still, I’m glad I did it, though I know the strain took a toll. After we lost in the first round of the playoffs last season, my daughter Ashley said, “Dad, you looked so tired.” That was precisely how I felt.

When I took the job, I was naive. I thought I could help a team that was good to begin with. I didn’t have any managing experience, but I did know how to wear a Hawaiian shirt and listen to Glenn Miller at the Big Bamboo Lounge in Kissimmee, Florida. I planned to float into town on a gentle breeze with new ideas and a soft-sell approach. The team seemed too tense in 1996. I thought the players would prefer the relaxed atmosphere I was determined to create. In the end I think they liked the atmosphere fine but were at odds with my ideas. When Drayton hired me, he talked about my communication skills. He must have thought that I could talk the players into going to the World Series. I guess he was naive too. My wife, Judy, was the most innocent of all. She was delighted when I told her about his offer. “It’s about time they realized how much you know,” she said. “I’m with you all the way.”

Her words were reassuring, but I knew what she did not: Managing millionaires would be like herding house cats. But as far as I knew, there were no fat-cat-millionaire problems on our club. Our two best players, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, were tough competitors. They played with great focus and desire. They played when they were hurt. They were, in my judgment, the type of players any manager would want.

My predecessor, Terry Collins, felt the same way. He asked them to be unofficial team captains in 1996, and they played well for him—until September, when the team went into a slump. This slump was Terry’s undoing. The same guys who liked him in 1994 changed their mind in 1996. It is always easier to blame the manager. That much I know, having been on both sides of the fence. If I could have gotten Leo Durocher fired, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

MY FIRST YEAR WAS DIFFICULT BEYOND measure. I agonized over sending players back to the minors or, even worse, releasing them. It’s sobering to see a man’s face when you have just shattered his dream. Dealing with the position players turned out to be challenging too. They all knew that I was a pitcher, and by and large, position players and pitchers go together like oil and water. I thought I could blend in with well-reasoned diplomacy. I should have known better.

The best thing about my rookie year was that the expectations were realistic. We were picked to do well, but few pundits thought we could win the Central Division. I was a curiosity, and all year long I had to answer questions about coming down from the booth. We clinched the division one day before our final weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I decided to rest Bagwell, Biggio, and some of the other veterans on Friday night. The next day general manager Gerry Hunsicker told me that Drayton was upset because one of the Diamond level ticket holders complained that he did not pay top dollar to see a bunch of scrubs. I was urged to play the big guys on Saturday and Sunday. I played them in the first few innings and then took them out. That seemed to satisfy everyone, and I thought we were fit for the playoff series with the Atlanta Braves. But Greg Maddux beat Darryl Kile in the first game 2-1, and we got swept faster than you could say “Jack Robinson.”

In 1998 we erased the memory of our playoff failure in a hurry. We won 102 games, setting a club record, and it almost seemed easy. By September 1 we had another division title pretty well wrapped up. This time our key players stayed in the lineup because they wanted to hit the postseason with momentum. So did I. But I didn’t feel comfortable dictating how much they needed to play. I could tell a pitcher, “I realize you want to stay in for the win, but I want you fresh for the playoffs,” but I never felt that way about my regular players. Jose Cruz was the only one of my coaches who had been an

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