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June 30, 2008 at 10:45 AM

McLaren deserves another shot

A beautiful Monday morning here in Seattle finds the Mariners riding a 6-3 stretch under new manager Jim Riggleman. I’ve been asked about the impact Riggleman has had on the club, compared to former field boss John McLaren, and have to say that, for now, it’s too soon to tell. I will say that I think the club has benefitted from the lifting of tension that McLaren’s firing created. The players had been walking around on eggshells in the week prior to McLaren getting canned, worrying that they would be the next ones out the door. Well, it turns out this organization, for all its tough talk, was not yet ready to make any players pay for their collective failures. End result? McLaren gets shown the door. Tension lifted. Bring on the New York Mets and San Diego Padres, two of the poorest performing clubs in all of baseball, and the recipe for a turnaround was there. Like an aging pug boxer, desperate to hang around for one more payday, the M’s were served up a collection of patsy fighters with which they have padded a nice little record in the first week and a half under Riggleman.
We’ll see, over the longer term, what real impact Riggleman has. And if he’s brought back next year, we’ll see whether Riggleman can get this club to win when it actually matters. Right now, it doesn’t. But he’s done an OK job so far. And why wouldn’t he? He’d managed two different NL clubs throughout the 1990s. He’s been in this role before.
Which brings us back to John McLaren. As I wrote in the days prior to his firing, I don’t think McLaren ever had a real chance to show his true style as a manager in Seattle. And now, despite the obvious backlash I will receive from some of our more frequent trolls on this site, I’ll do the unpopular thing (again) and suggest that McLaren deserves another shot to show what he can do. Someplace else, obviously. But another shot. Where will that be? Well, with the Toronto Blue Jays in town, I’ve run a few scenarios through my head and one wacky idea that keeps popping up is for him to ressurect his career in that city.

How will that work? Didn’t the Blue Jays just fire John Gibbons and replace him with former World Series skipper Cito Gaston?
They sure did. But I’m not sure how long Gaston, away from managing since 1997, will want to stay on this particular gig. Sure, he might turn out to be the next Jim Leyland — a conquering World Series hero who takes several years off before returning to achieve more success. But what does Gaston really have to prove in the dugout? Not much, if you ask me. He’s won two World Series.
I’d like to see him as a general manager. There are only a handful of African American GMs in the entire game and Gaston — long concerned with issues of race and the legacy of blacks in the game of baseball — would undoubtedly see a front office position, actually running a club from the executive branch, as a serious challenge. He’s got the smarts to do it. The baseball know-how as both a former player and manager. Maybe he wants to stick to managing. That’s his call. But for me, having watched him up close for a couple of years in Toronto, he’s executive material. Knows how to work the higher-ups as well. He’s a popular guy in Toronto and would be cut some early slack there, too.
Now, there is a problem with that. The Blue Jays already have a GM. Goes by the name of J.P. Ricciardi. Well, that name, once golden in Toronto, is quickly becoming mud. The whole Adam Dunn mess of two weeks ago might have been the final straw that breaks the back of the high horse Ricciardi often likes to ride. The folks who run the Blue Jays are tiring of Ricciardi’s all-talk, limited action routine. They are spending $98 million on a last-place team and having to continuously put up with embarassing public spectacles, whether from Ricciardi himself, or his handpicked players like A.J. Burnett.
After seven years of implementing a “Five Year Plan” it’s very likely Ricciardi will not survive his current contract. He will likely be shown the door before next season.
Enter Gaston as GM. There is no way Gaston was Ricciardi’s first choice. Ricciardi likes to have managers who he can control. Guys he gave their first big league managing jobs to. He can’t control Gaston. Can’t lean over his shoulder and tell him how to run a team. Gaston played the game better than Ricciardi. He has nearly as many World Series rings as Ricciardi has had winning seasons.
No, this smacks as a move made by team president Paul Godfrey. And Godfrey, long a Ricciardi supporter, would not have made it if he planned on keeping the GM around much longer.
So, exit Ricciardi, enter Gaston as a new GM.
And then, enter…McLaren.
One thing about McLaren is, he’s universally loved around the game of baseball. But especially in Toronto, where he and team president Godfrey go back to the team’s early years at Exhibition Stadium. McLaren was all about Toronto baseball long before he became entwined with the game in Seattle. And he and Gaston are tight. If Gaston leaned over McLaren’s shoulder in the dugout, McLaren would listen.
It may not be a perfect fit. But working relationships are a key part of baseball and a team could do worse than a Godfrey-Gaston-McLaren trio on that front.
Some of you are laughing now. Asking why on Earth a team would want a “loser” like McLaren running another team so quickly after leaving Seattle.
Here’s the thing. McLaren is not a loser. He’s been associated with winners for most of his major league career. He knows the ingredients of a winning team. Knows what it takes in a clubhouse and on the field. And I think plenty of folks around the game — not all, but plenty, especially those who count — will realize he was thrust into an impossible situation in Seattle.
They will realize that McLaren had less than a full year to implement his brand of baseball in the Emerald City.
Will also realize, more importantly, that McLaren never had time to get his feet stabilized under him here.
Think about it. He was given the job three days removed from shoulder surgery when Mike Hargrove suddenly stepped down. McLaren was walking around, groggy from painkillers and his arm in a sling, trying to focus on running a team in crisis-mode when most of you would be lying in bed groaning for a glass of water. That had to have taken a physical and mental toll.
Once he managed the club through that transitional crisis, at a time when fans were screaming for the heads of several slumping veterans, the next crisis hit. Barely seven weeks into his job, the M’s went on to lose 15 of 17 games to fall out of the race. Was it all McLaren’s fault? No, it wasn’t. Sure, he made some bonedheaded moves (though the Rick White useage wasn’t one of them. White was given to him by Bill Bavasi and the front office to be used in the role he was used in. Want to blame anyone for that? Blame Bavasi. The bullpen was gassed.) But in the end, he was still a new manager feeling his way. There is a difference between being a bench coach and running a team. McLaren was trying to navigate that, on-the-fly, fresh off surgery and with a group of players prone to losing and losing big.
That same club showed once again this season that it was capable of drastically underperforming both in terms of pre-season statistical projections and career norms. The difference this year is that it didn’t wait until late-August to show it. From the second day of the season, through to his firing, McLaren was once again managing in crisis mode.
And that never works. Will sometimes work for some managers, who find a way to thrive and become legends for doing so. But not everyone is a legend. Not every great swimmer takes to the sink-or-swim approach as a 2-year-old when their father tosses them into a pool for the first time. Some simply need a chance — under normal circumstances — to find their way.
And I’d like to see McLaren get that chance. Under more normal circumstances. Not with a group that collectively underperforms as comfortably as the Mariners have since late last season.
Yes, you can make the argument that this was “his” team coming out of spring training. Not really. It was Mike Hargrove’s team minus Jose Guillen, and plus Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva.
Not saying McLaren deserves a job for life. Some managers just never get a second shot after an initial flop. Broadcaster Buck Martinez is one of those. But he at least had a full season under the GM that hired him before being shown the door partway through his next term. McLaren never even had that. Reputations are tough to shake in this game and McLaren’s has taken a serious hit.
But there are people in this game who are smart enough to know that it wasn’t all him. Who know that under different circumstances, without putting out fires from one month to the next, a manager can implement his style and find the self-confidence needed to thrive. There are many of you who don’t want to chuck Wladimir Balentien and Jeff Clement overboard because of their early struggles.
Well, the “rookie” manager McLaren — with less than a full year under his belt — deserves a second chance. Remember, being a bench coach and managing are two different things. For all of his time in the game, McLaren was as new to managing as Clement and Balentien (with years of pro ball already behind them) are to big league hitting.
It won’t be in Seattle. But count me among those who would like to see it happen someplace else. Toronto would be as good a place as any.



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