Baseball

Young Managers and Old Fans

There are, in life, these big moments when the curtain is pulled back and you understand, with unsettling clarity, that you are getting old. Thursday, for instance, I got bifocals. Well, I didn't get them yet. My optometrist ordered them. He said, "It's time," and ordered them … you know, without throwing me a bachelor party or anything. The bifocals will arrive in two weeks. This means I basically have two weeks of youth left. Maybe I'll buy a convertible or play Sega hockey or go climb a tree or something because when those bifocals come, let's be honest, the dream of staying young forever ends pretty dramatically.

Of course, I'll actually spend my last two weeks of relative youth squinting at menus and holding the phone so close to my face when reading, people will assume I'm taking pictures of the wall.





Well, bifocals, you know, that's a BIG getting old moment. Turning an age with a 0 at the end of it -- 30, 40, 50, 60 -- those are big getting old moments. Finding yourself talking to people who seem to be in your age bracket but don't remember the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding or weren't born when the Kansas City Royals were good or the show "Benson,", yes, that can be a big getting old moment too.

But you find -- and this is surprising, I think -- that mostly getting old creeps up on you subtly. You don't notice it much. You just wander along, and then one day show up at a friend's house, and some teenage boy or girl walk over to say hello and you go, "Hello, who are you," and they tell you they are the kid you held when visiting that same friend in the hospital. 

The Colorado Rockies hired Walt Weiss to be their manager. And, for some reason, something in my mind kind of clicked when that happened. I couldn't put my finger on it at first. I don't have any particular connection to Walt Weiss. I watched him play. I admired his defense. I grimaced at his offense. I admired his tenacity. That's all. But then, I noticed something. See if you notice it too -- here are the eight managers hired since the end of the 2011 season in reverse order:

Walt Weiss, Rockies

Mike Redmond, Marlins

Bo Porter, Astros

John Farrell, Red Sox

Terry Francona, Indians

Dale Sveum, Cubs

Mike Matheny, Cardinals

Robin Ventura, White Sox 

Do you see it? Well, that's a trick question, it's not really for you to see. What these eight have in common is simply this: I watched all of them play baseball. I'm not talking about seeing them once or twice when I was a kid. I mean, I saw their whole careers. In the case of Bo Porter, that's a relatively small career, but still: I saw them all. I know how Mike Matheny blocked the plate. I can imitate Terry Francona's left-handed batting stance (he stood straight up). It's a hard thing to describe but to me Walt Weiss is not the new manager of the Rockies, he's the old shortstop of the Oakland A's. John Farrell is not the manager recently traded from Toronto to Boston. He's the bright 24-year-old prospect the Cleveland Indians called up the year they were picked as the best team in baseball by Sports Illustrated.*

*That team, famously, lost 100 games, and I every now and again I go back to their Baseball Reference page and just gaze with jaw-dropped wonder at the horror that was the pitching staff. That staff featured TWO knuckleballers (48-year-old Phil Niekro and 29-year-old Tom Candiotti), two Hall of Famers (Niekro and 42-year-old Steve Carlton) two former Top 10 picks (Darrell Akefields and Greg Swindell), a former ERA champion (Sammy Stewart … that's a long story),  and a 30-year-old rookie who would go on to become one of my favorite all-time players (Doug Jones, who would save 303 games in his odd and inspiring career). It's hard to imagine how ANYONE could have picked that team to win anything. It's even harder to imagine why we all fell for it so hard. Hope, I guess.

When I was a kid, managers were managers. Period. It isn't just that I was unaware of Bill Virdon's playing record … or Wes Westrum's … or Billy Martin's … it is that they did not exist for me except as big league managers. Even managers who I vaguely understood to once be  great players, like Bob Lemon or Frank Robinson, lost their entire past after they became managers, like some kind of Bourne identity. You know how it is hard to imagine your parents being young. That's how it was for me and managers. They had no previous life. They were born prematurely gray, like Sparky Anderson. They were ancient and palled around with Sinatra, like Tommy Lasorda. They were born in the dugout with a lineup card in their hands and scowls on their faces, like Earl Weaver.

And now … well, these guys aren't MANAGERS as I understand them. No. They are players. They are players I watched a lot. They are not old! How could they be old? Looking back on it now, I think this first occurred to me when the White Sox hired Robin Ventura. Sure there had been other managers I had watched play, but I remember watching Robin Ventura play in the College World Series. It wasn't so long ago. He was at Oklahoma State, and he had that ridiculously long hitting streak, remember? Fifty-seven games? And he was a really good player for the White Sox. Even after he had started to decline, he cracked a bunch of home runs for the Yankees, when was that, two or three years ago? Robin Ventura, manager? Heck, the guy just retired didn't he? Couldn't he be a player-manager?

Then, I look up and realize Ventura was in the College World Series TWENTY-FIVE years ago. He played for the Yankees a decade ago. He has been retired since 2004. He's old. And he's six months younger than I am.

Mike Matheny got hired, and he's three years younger than I am, and he really seemed to retire about two weeks ago (it was actually more than six years go). Then there was Dale Sveum. Ah. Dale Sveum. For the rest of my life, Dale Sveum will mean 1987 to me. If you are younger than 40, this will make no sense at all to you -- it might not make sense to you even if you are older than I am. When you get older, there are certain moments or movies or songs -- especially songs -- that will place you back in a year. These are usually terrible songs, by the way. I have written before of my hostility toward the Eddy Grant song "Electric Avenue,"  Man, do I loathe that song. And yet, when I hear the song, it's 1983 again (editor's note: Originally had 1982 here … mixed up years. Good catch by several brilliant readers). I'm at the neighborhood pool. I'm 16. That song was inescapable then, and it seeped into my memory sensors, and it's there to stay. I can give you a song for every year from 1982 (when I was 15) to 1986 (when I was 19) that, no matter my aversion to it, will transport me to that year:

1982: I Love Rock 'N Roll, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts 

1983: Electric Avenue, Eddy Grant and Maniac, Michael Sembello

1984: Sister Christian, Night Ranger and Against All Odds, Phil Collins

1985: I Feel For You, Chaka Khan

1986: West End Girls, Pet Shop Boys*

1987: Keep Your Hands to Yourself, the Georgia Satellites

*Technically, this isn't really true. I like "West End Girls," and I WANT that to be the 1986 song. Unfortunately,  a plague called Mr. Mister descended upon the earth in 1986, oppressing us with BOTH "Broken Wings," which is the worst song ever recorded, and "Kyrie" which is the worst song ever recorded. Many scholars believe that William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and King Lear the same year, an extraordinary achievement. But as much joy and sorrow and wisdom and emotion as those plays brought into the world over the last 400-plus years, these plays did not come close to countering the damage done by Mr. Mister in 1986.

So it is with Dale Sveum. You might recall that the late 1970s and most of the 1980s was a powerless era in baseball. Home runs were rare delicacies. From 1980 to 1986, six players hit 40 or more homers. That's TOTAL. Six players -- heck six players hit 40-plus homers in 2012, and that supposedly was a DOWN year for homers.* Forty homer seasons were so infrequent that, even now, I can name the six players right off the top of my head: Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Tony Armas, Jesse Barfield, Ben Oglivie and Darrell Evans. Only one of those players -- Schmidt in 1980 -- managed to hit 45 homers. No one hit 50, of course.

*Ready to have your mind blown? In 1996, 17 players hit 40-plus homers. 

Then came 1987 … and suddenly baseballs were just flying out of the park. It was wild. It was nonsensical. It was fantastic. I was a kid working stats for The Charlotte Observer then, and I remember how my friend, classic sportswriter Stan Olson, came up with this idea for a weekly chart that would show how many players were on pace to hit a lot of home runs. At one point it had like 30 or 35 players on it, at least in my memory. I've been racking my brain trying to remember what he called the chart. I think it had the word "boppers" in it. Stan has always liked the word "boppers."

In any case, the pace did slow down eventually … but it still was a home run year unlike any in memory. Four players hit 40-plus homers. Twenty-eight players hit 30 or more. Compare that to 1986, when one player hit 40 and 12 players hit 30, and you can begin to see how revolutionary it was for us. That was just a crazy summer. Among those who set their career high in homers:

+17

Andre Dawson, 49 (next best: 32)

+16

George Bell, 47 (next best: 31)

Dale Sveum 25 (next best: 9)

+13

Larry Sheets, 31 (next best: 18)

+12

Wally Joyner, 34 (next best: 22)

Brook Jacoby, 32 (next best: 20)

+11

Keith Moreland 27 (next best: 16)

+9

Juan Samuel 28 (next best: 19)

Ivan Calderon 28 (next best: 19)

It was Dale Sveum who defined that year for me. He hit 25 homers that year. That doesn't sound like anything special now, but you have to realize -- even many great hitters would not hit 25 home runs in those years. Rod Carew never came close to 25 homers, Brooks Robinson and Robin Yount only did it once in their Hall of Fame careers, George Brett twice, even a slugger like Willie Stargell had many years when he hit 25 or fewer homers. Yes, 25 was a lot of homers, it qualified you as a full-fledged slugger, and I had never heard of Dale Sveum, none of us had ever heard of Dale Sveum. I remember seeing him on that boppers chart -- this after Sveum hit three homers in a game -- and it boggled the mind. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? Why was he hitting all these homers.

Of course, after 1987, he never did hit all those homers. So, for me, he was frozen in 1987. Now that guy is a manager? Was 1987 really so long ago?

Walt Weiss was the one who broke all this into focus. I remember when Walt Weiss was the first pick in the amateur draft. I remember him beating out Bryan Harvey for Rookie of the Year -- this meant something to me because Harvey had attended my school, UNC Charlotte. I remember that he was from a town called Tuxedo, and I remember how smooth he seemed at shortstop when he played for Oakland, and I remember that he really couldn't hit (his career high in OPS+ was 94, and that was as a part-time player). I remember him kicking around from team to team -- Florida, Colorado, Atlanta -- and there was something sturdy about the guy, something resilient, he had not become a superstar like so many had predicted, but he kept contributing. He even made his first All-Star Team at age 34 for the Braves. It seemed like he would play forever; there are certain players like that, players who just keep on going. You forget about them for a while, then notice them on a team like the Braves or Brewers or A's and you feel comforted. Mark Kotsay is kind of like that. Mark DeRosa is kind of like that. Walt Weiss was kind of like that.

And now … manager? It doesn't seem right. If you had told me the Rockies SIGNED Walt Weiss as a minor league free agent or something, that would have made more sense to me. That's because I'm old and time gets away when you're getting older. Walt Weiss hasn't played big league baseball since 2000. Time slips away, Walt Weiss is a lot older, which means I'm a lot older, which I guess is the whole point. In fact, I happen to have a Walt Weiss baseball card right here, so I can tell you exactly how old he is. Well, not now. I'll be able to tell you in two weeks, you know, when the bifocals arrive.

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