Japan is weird.
Not many Major League managers can claim two resignations on their resume. None could, in fact, until the Mets formally introduced Terry Collins as their 20th manager yesterday. Amidst well-documented clubhouse dissension, Collins infamously resigned as the Angels' manager in May of 1999, leaving a two-year contract extension on the table.
Outside of the eye of the U.S. baseball media, however, on May 21, 2008, history repeated for Terry Collins. Collins would this time forgo a seat, as he stood behind a prepared press table in Osaka, Japan, and impetuously bellowed, "I want to start by letting everybody know: I love baseball." He wore full managerial uniform, complete with an Orix Buffaloes windbreaker zipped to the neck, as if the decision to retire had come suddenly while hitting fungos. As he waited for his translator to finish relaying his declaration of love to the interested media, Collins' eyelids widened, his mouth retreated to a slight corner, and his gaze disappeared in flashbulbs.
Firings make sense. Firings are expected. All great managers get fired eventually, and often quickly, en route to their greatness. Rarely though, does anyone quit in baseball, where General Managers willingly work under their successors. Everyone in baseball realizes the privilege and celebrates it with a tacit admiration for each other. Few quit on bad terms. Nobody quits twice.
The Orix Buffaloes hired Collins in 2006 because they were bad, and for bad NPB teams, signing a foreign manager had become a thing to do. Trey Hillman had turned Hokkaido around in a few seasons. Bobby Valentine's return to the Chiba Lotte Marines was a smashing success. Marty Brown won in Hiroshima. While hiring a manager didn't necessarily mean change, it signalled changed, with everything Japanese fans associated with gaijins and their Western philosophies on baseball.
In 2007, the Buffaloes, under Collins, dropped a place in the standings from fifth to sixth. The Orix front office responded by eschewing Collins' mandate for the Buffaloes to get younger and faster by bringing in NPB sluggers (and MLB-defectors), Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes, who had both tied Sadaharu Oh's single-season record of 55 home runs. Ironically, Rhodes was perhaps once the exact player Collins wanted, a 5'11" speedy small-ball center fielder off the Cubs' bench. At 38 years old, some 50 pounds heavier, and with over 400 career home runs, Rhodes hardly resembled that spry predecesor to Felix Pie. He was also 3 years removed from his last Japanese game.
The foreshadowing began in the 2008 preseason. Like Tim Salmon, Mo Vaughn and Jim Edmonds in Anaheim, the Orix rotation fell apart with injuries early. On May 21, the Buffaloes lost 7-3 to the Hanshin Tigers. The dropped to 21-28, stuck in 5th place. Collins quit after the game and the team promoted coach Daijiro Oishi to skipper.
"The one trait I've always had as a player, a coach, as a manager is that intensity. I started to lose that," said Collins the next day on the phone with Jim Allen of the Daily Yomiuri. Collins emphasized during and after the press conference that the game was no longer fun for him.
At first blush, Collins seemed once a quitter, always a quitter. His situation in Japan, though, was not uncommon. Many foreign managers ostensibly brought in to change a losing organization found themselves caught between unreceptive upper-management and a set of respectful, but recalcitrant coaches and players. And while the manager can only prod his bosses so much, the communication barrier led to a frustrating inability to reach players and coaches. Marty Brown, then manager of the Hiroshima Carp, talked about the problem in the Daily Yomiuri earlier that May:
"You think they benefit from that? If you want an individual to work on something, fine. Take him down to the bullpen and block balls in the dirt. How does this help them get ready for the game? But every team does it," said Brown, who has had mixed results even in reorganizing the way his own team practices.
He said he'll ask that one of his staff stop doing something and it stops, temporarily.
"They say, 'That's how we've always done it.' They'll stop, but a couple of weeks later they're doing it again--and I have to get in someone's face," Brown said.
As the skipper aptly put it: "It's Groundhog Day again."
Even Bobby Valentine, the most successful foreign manager in recent memory, chose between his power and his job. Both times the Marines fired Bobby V, they did so out of fear of his growing influence with the fans and players.
Terry Collins tried to change a lot. He mandated catcher Takeshi Hidaka adopt a new, more western batting stance to increase his power. His pitching coach, Mike Brown, tried to put the rotation on an American rest schedule and pitch counts. Collins often squabbled with the front office over roster moves.
His trademark fiery personality only worsened the problems common to foreign managers. Collins' demeanor, coupled with his eagerness to change Japanese tradition, projected more arrogance than authority. Like in Anaheim, players began to fear and resent his wrath. Unlike in Anaheim, however, there was no emboldened veteran leadership to appeal to team's upper management.
And unlike in Anaheim, Orix responded to Collins' departure. Under Oishi, the team shot up the standings, finishing in second place, their best finish since the Orix BlueWave and the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes merged in 2004. Tuffy Rhodes did little to downplay the role of Collins' resignation in the team's turnaround: "But the good thing about it was that we had Oishi, who was my teammate with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1996 and '97 and a laidback guy. And he didn't put much pressure on us. It got a little easier to hit--it got a little easier to play baseball. He realized how tough the game was, and there wasn't so much pressure on the players anymore after Terry left."
Ironically, Collins praised Oishi as the most forthcoming member of his staff: "Everyone else would just agree with everything I said," Collins told Jim Allen. "But if he [Oishi] disagreed or thought we should do things a different way, he'd say so." It's the ironic twist of every Disney movie--the tyrant who was as sick of being feared as the players were of fearing him.
Post-hoc explanations always abound when a managerial change leads to success. Mets fans are still unsure which of Jerry Manuel's magical qualities turned the Mets around in 2008. Tuffy Rhodes' statement, however, could have easily come from any player on the '97 Angels team. While some better play undoubtedly led to Orix's turnaround, the sour taste left in the mouth of Collins' former players could not merely be bad luck that had followed him for 5,000 miles and a decade.
The critics of Wally Backman mocked the idea that the rapport he established with a 19-year-old Dan Uggla would translate to grown men on the Mets. But these grown men play a kid's game. And who do you think Jose Reyes, with his broken English and his child-like enthusiasm, would better respond to? A man whose "fire" manifests itself in alpha-male chest-thumping, in orders barked, or a man whose "fire" is the excitement to compete for his players?
Fear not: this is not a pro-Wally Backman screed. In the past month, I've heard enough of those to last me a lifetime. Like any good sabermagician, I don't care who the manager is--honest. If I had my druthers, the Mets would have hired Bob Melvin. I prefer the cerebral, Joe Madden-type, who is stern when needed. Too much fire rings corny with me.
Ultimately, the good manager is the manager who survives. The nut who loses is fired; the nut who wins is Ozzie Guillen. The grumpy old man who loses is history; the grumpy old man who wins is Bobby Cox. The utterly replaceable dullard who loses is Art Howe; the utterly replaceable dullard who wins four World Series rings is Joe Torre.
The manager who quits twice and wins would only be Terry Collins. Maybe it's coincidence that Collins took on an impending train-wreck in Anaheim and an impossibly frustrating situation in Japan. Maybe Paul DePodesta was seduced by a macho-archetype with little real motivating power.
Or maybe, as Collins said yesterday, "I've mellowed out a bit" and "I've learned a lot." Collins must have produced some pretty damn good explanations when Sandy Alderson asked him about his checkered managerial history. Sometimes you take the man who's made all the mistakes, instead of the guy who's yet to make them.
I've got a past like a broken wing
But you ain't seen anything
I'm still learning how to fly