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.

April 2002By Comments

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 everyday player, and he was a macho man. “Play the game,” he would say. “You can rest in the winter.”

Still, there was no way to prepare for what San Diego’s Kevin Brown was throwing in game one. We started Randy Johnson, and he was tough too. It reminded me of 1986, when Mike Scott went up against Doc Gooden. That year the Astros beat the New York Mets 1-0. This time we lost 2-1, striking out sixteen times along the way. The Padres took the series three games to one.

Despite that setback, we had another great year in 1999, considering the circumstances. We lost Moises Alou to injury and just about every player spent time on the disabled list. I missed an entire month myself after having a grand mal seizure during the eighth inning of a game with the Padres at the Astrodome on June 13. I don’t remember anything from the time of the seizure until I was recovering from brain surgery three days later. I received about a thousand “get well” cards and several thousand e-mails. I sent one generic thank-you note back to all the e-mailers, and I sent a handwritten card to those who sent me one. It was a humbling experience, but it was not painful in any way. While I was out, the team held on to its lead, but the Cincinnati Reds made a run. We hit our stride in September when we reeled off twelve straight wins to set a club record, but during that stretch we gained only one game on the Reds. We went 97-65 and won the last game of the season to clinch the division. It was a great race.

It was also the last hurrah for the Astrodome. A Team of Honor was selected from all the players who had ever worn the Astros’ livery, and I was on it. Confetti flittered down from the top of the ‘Dome as we lined up along the infield. It was great seeing all the older guys again. While some people were drinking champagne, I was holding back tears. Hey, we old-timers may have been good players, but none of us ever got what the Astros earned that afternoon, a championship.

I hoped we could capture the feeling of that finale and carry it through the playoffs. The Braves’ pitching staff had other ideas. We were down two games to one, and we had Shane Reynolds on the mound with our backs against the Astrodome wall. Shane pitched well, but the Braves chinked him to death. Bloopers, choppers, you name it—they attacked him like a horde of Lilliputians. The last batter he faced hit the ball up the middle, and Shane deflected it. The ball rolled toward third, but he didn’t go after it. His body language told me that he had about given up. After the game, I was asked why I hooked him so fast. I said that when Shane didn’t go after the ball, he seemed to have had enough. But he objected when the reporters told him what I had said. He wanted to keep pitching. It reminded me of a time when I got a visit on the mound from the manager. He said, “Larry, you’re not concentrating.” I asked, “How do you know?” As it turned out, I should have left Shane in the game. He had the strength to keep going, but I couldn’t read his mind. When I said that he looked finished, it only made things worse by insulting him. I had to call him at home the next week to apologize.

The next season was a disaster: We were horrible that first year at Enron Field. There was so much enthusiasm, and expectations were so high after three straight division titles. Even though we traded Mike Hampton, Derek Bell, and Carl Everett, I still thought we could win our division. That’s the way I felt, and that’s what I said in spring training. That’s also where old hubris got me. I never should have mentioned it. We lost our home opener. And we kept on losing. It broke my heart to see us play so poorly with the stadium sold out night after night. It didn’t help much that we finished strong. We lost ninety games and finished fourth. I stunk. We all did.

I WAS PRIVATELY APPREHENSIVE LAST YEAR. I knew we would be better, but how much? Drayton doesn’t like second place, but he is not going to spend as much on salaries as a team like the New York Yankees. The Cardinals looked good again. I thought they were the best team in the league in 2000, yet the Mets beat them and went on to the World Series. That’s what gave me hope. If we could just get in the playoffs, we had a chance. I didn’t know if we could beat the Redbirds, but I thought we could at least get a wild-card berth.

Well, we won our division, but we stumbled to the finish line, beating the Cardinals on the last day of the season in St. Louis. During this stretch, it seemed like I was angry all the time, and that is not my nature. I could have just played “blubbermouth”—talking a lot and saying nothing—instead of sharing my feelings with the media. I had been warned several times not to be so forthcoming, but I had trouble doing it. Toward the end of the year I said some things that fanned the flames of disorder.

My first snap came after the last game of the series with the San Francisco Giants at Enron Field. All we had to do was win one game to clinch a playoff berth, but we got swept instead. To make matters worse, Barry Bonds hit a home run to tie Mark McGwire’s single-season record. I was fried. But the media didn’t set me off. Our so-called fans did. We had walked Barry a bunch of times that series, and they kept booing. In some cases we didn’t want to pitch to him; in others we were trying to get him out. The pitchers could have been too careful, or they could have just been wild. In several cases it looked like they were getting squeezed by the home plate umpire. I resented the implication that we were pitching him differently than we did in San Francisco the week before. And I felt betrayed when our own fans cheered for him after he hit the homer. It’s one thing to recognize an extraordinary accomplishment. It’s another to rub your own team in the dirt with repeated hosannas to the enemy. I said that anyone who reacted that way couldn’t be an Astros fan. I don’t know if I have ever gotten over that. The next day I learned that some of the players didn’t agree with me. I overheard Biggio saying that the fans were “awesome.”

Five days later we lost the first game of the playoffs at home against Atlanta. We had a 3-2 lead after seven innings, and we blew it. The bullpen, which had been a surpassing strength for us in the second half of the year, lost the lead and lost the game. Todd Fedewa, who works in media relations, ushered me into the media room afterward, and he could tell I was boiling. “Do you want to take a few minutes to cool off?” he asked diplomatically. “A few minutes isn’t going to change anything,” I said. “Let’s get it over with.” Little did I know, I was about to get it over with for good.

Tim Melton from Channel 13 asked me why I had used Mike Jackson instead of Octavio Dotel in the eighth inning. I bristled. “Because Mike has been better lately,” I said. “Check the record.” Well, they did, and it was pretty ugly. Both pitchers were ineffective after the September 11 hiatus. Dotel was having severe control problems after the layoff, and his velocity was down. He was a hard-throwing kid with no fear who could be overpowering but was prone to control lapses. Jackson was the veteran. He could throw strikes and generally forced the hitter to swing. He got hit a few times that way, but he didn’t walk many batters. When Billy Wagner was injured early in the year, Jackson was our closer, and he succeeded on all four tries. I guess I should have pitched Dotel anyway. The media had a field day. I learned a lesson from the events of those last two weeks, but I’m not certain I could apply it. I know it’s not good to wear your heart on your sleeve. Knowing it is one thing, doing it yet another.

In our four failed attempts in the playoffs, we never really hit. I frankly have no idea why. I know that fourteen games is a small sample, but 2-12 is just not acceptable. In that way I concurred with Gerry when he said that I had probably run my course. It hurt a lot. I had spent 35 years with the team, never coming close to the World Series as a player but having a chance almost every year as a manager. I had another year on my contract and was ready to serve, but it would have been hard to create the right atmosphere.

WITH EACH PASSING SEASON, I got more Hawaiian shirts, thanks to the many friends and fans who sent them along. Unfortunately, I felt like wearing them less. I never thought our club was quite wacky enough, except for 1997, when we had Luis Gonzalez. Gonzo had a knack for keeping things loose, and it was easy to go Hawaiian when he was around. Drayton and Gerry wanted me to run a tighter ship, but I’m not a good enough actor to assume another personality. I managed the players as if they were professionals. I didn’t really care about facial hair, tattoos, funky-looking clothing, or wild music. I just wanted a good solid effort. And they gave it to me, in spades. But the old laissez-faire approach has its disadvantages, as many parents can tell you.

I know that when I was pitching, I just wanted to be left alone. It was clear to me soon after I started managing that I couldn’t assume that all the players would just naturally get ready to do their best. Gerry said something in the press conference to announce my retirement that struck a chord with me. It was something to the effect that I cared too much, and the players took advantage of it. I think he was right. I probably don’t have the ideal personality for management. I am not intrusive at all. There were times when I should have been.

I did wear a Hawaiian shirt to that last press conference. I joked with the reporters that I was the only one in the room who was on vacation. When I got home, my teenage son, Ryan, said, “I’m proud of you, Dad.” I can’t tell you how good that made me feel. But the next day, when I read the newspaper, I realized that some of my answers gave the impression that I was unhappy with the players. I was asked if I had any regrets, and I responded honestly, saying I had hoped to accomplish some things that I never achieved. When asked for an example, I cited the hit-and-run play, which we used infrequently primarily because of our personnel and secondarily because our hit-and-run type players at the top of the lineup didn’t run as aggressively as I wanted them to. I didn’t really blame them. The fact is, I had trouble convincing my own coaches that the play should involve more risk for the runner. Tradition dictates that the runner is not trying to steal but merely running with the pitch and watching to see what happens. In our modern heyday of home runs and strikeouts, it’s risky to depend on the hitter to make contact, especially if he is a slugger. The play didn’t make much sense to a team like ours.

Was it a big issue? Definitely not. In 1997 we were a fast team, and it appeared that we were playing hit-and-run all the time. What we were actually doing was stealing and hitting. In my scheme of things, when a runner is in motion, the hitter is not required to take a pitch to let him steal. Hitters are going to see only a few pitches each game that they can hammer. I wanted them to swing at those pitches. That is my favorite hit-and-run play: the accidental one. As my tenure wore on, we became a slower team. We also moved from a home-run hitters’ hell, the Astrodome, to the Elysian Fields of Enron. I’d have been a fool to hit-and-run much there, and I doubt my successor, Jimy Williams, will either. Still, it bugged me when a runner loped off first and got thrown out by a mile.

In one area we did break the mold. I had hoped we could teach our pitchers to deaden their bunts so that they could put the ball back up the middle regardless of whether the corner infielders were charging. I told our pitchers to think of what they would do if they were on the mound: “If you had to come off the mound to field a bunt, would you throw to second or third, or would you take the sure out?” To a man, they said they would take the out at first. This is not necessarily true of infielders. Bagwell threw to third a lot and usually got his man. The sacrifice bunt success rate is about 70 percent among all batters. Our pitchers were over 80 percent, mostly because they didn’t bunt many balls foul the way you do when you shoot for the line.

I know a lot of older fans like the hit-and-run and bunt plays, but these strategies don’t make sense today—except when you are bunting for a hit. The odds of scoring a run from first with no outs are exactly the same as scoring from second with one out (about .41). In other words, you would have to be 100 percent successful with your bunts to break even. Who wants those odds?

But everything is situational. Should you play for one run or play for the big inning? First of all, which inning? What hitters are due up? Egghead fans generally prefer the Big Inning Theory, which states that half the time the team that wins scores more runs in one inning than the losing team scores in nine. I didn’t believe it, so I checked it against my scorecard. Guess what? It’s true. What’s more, I learned that when the Astros won, they scored as many runs in one inning as the other team did in the whole game 70 percent of the time. There just aren’t many games in which a few one-run innings are enough.

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR ME? I sure don’t know. Give me another six or seven years in baseball, and I’m outta here. But as a lifer with the Astros, I’m worried. I’d be lying if I predicted another division title for the team: not because I’m not managing, but simply because the postseason has a price tag. What we accomplished with a mid-market payroll is remarkable. But this year’s payroll is the same as last year’s. The Astros have a lot of talent, but depth could be a problem. I inherited a team that was made up mostly of players in the middle of their careers. Now the team is mostly older veterans and youngsters. If you listen to Drayton, you are led to believe that even if Houston sells out almost every one of its 81 home games and draws more than three million fans, he would barely make money with a player payroll of $63,000,000. It’s nothing personal. I think Drayton has been generous under the circumstances, but the circumstances aren’t getting any better.

Drayton is a hands-on owner. He’s in the clubhouse all the time. One of the players taped his name over the empty locker between Biggio and Bagwell. Too bad he can’t play like them. Drayton is effervescent, buzzing around like a bee in a flower garden. He is always talking about leadership, and I think he wants a manager who shares his philosophy, if not his style. I’m not sure Jimy Williams is the man. But I know that Jimy is smart. I wish him well.

Even though the Astros didn’t invite me to the annual baseball dinner earlier this year, I went with another old-time manager, Solly Hemus. I tried to time my entry so that I would simply file in with the crowd. I did not want to be a distraction. Nice try! Judy and I were about five minutes off, and we walked in just as the last guest was seated. Someone in the back started clapping, and then I got a standing ovation. I didn’t orchestrate that scene very well, but it worked out all right. Maybe that’s how the whole five years transpired. I was a little sad. Sweet sadness, I would say. Not a bad way to exit.

As for this summer, I have a lot on my plate. I am going to write a book. Perhaps I will do some broadcasting. One thing I really want to do is go rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. You can do it only during baseball season. Up until now, I’ve been unavailable.

Aloha.

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