Series managers new at current jobs but old hands at baseball strategy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Break-in periods are as passe for new baseball managers these days as they are for new cars. At least that appears to be the case with the two skippers in this year's World Series, Joe Altobelli of the Baltimore Orioles and Paul Owens of the Philadelphia Phillies.

They prove that managers don't need to feel like old slippers to be effective , just as long as they fit correctly.

Altobelli, who is following in Earl Weaver's small, but distinct footsteps, is completing his first year as Baltimore's field boss. Owens, who also serves as Philadelphia's general manager, added the dugout duties when the club fired Pat Corrales on July 18.

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It's hard to imagine two Series managers combining for so little time at the helm. But perhaps Harvey Kuenn broke down some preconceived notions last year, when he took over the Milwaukee Brewers from ousted manager Buck Rogers in mid-season and led them to the American League pennant and a World Series berth. Kuenn, it should be noted, didn't last long, getting the ax just the other week after the Brewers failed to live up to expectations in '83.

Owens's tenure could be short lived too, though for different reasons. Phillie President Bill Giles asked Paul, a company man for more than two decades , to wear two hats until he chooses the club's next full-time manager.

If the Phillies were to win the Series, Giles might want Owens to retain his dual role. But more probably Owens is making a temporary stop on his way back to the front office, as he did in 1972 when he similarly replaced Frank Lucchesi halfway through a losing season.

Both managers are longtime baseball men, of course, so neither club exactly handed over the keys to a driver's ed student. And as is the case with so many successful big league pilots, their grasp of the game apparently outstripped their ability to play it at the highest level.

Owens, for instance, never made it beyond the Class A minor league level, although he once batted .407 for Olean, N.Y., in Class D ball. In 1955, after a two-year absence from baseball, he became Olean's playing manager, an assignment that launched him toward his present positions.

As a player, Altobelli fared somewhat better. He put in 15 pro seasons as a first baseman, but spent only 166 games in the majors with Cleveland and Minnesota.

While Owens learned how to build a team by becoming a scout and later head of the Phillies' minor league system, Altobelli began learning the managing ropes.

He won a pennant in his first year at Bluefield, West Va., and went on to manage 11 years in the Oriole farm system, a fact that many didn't realize when he was named Weaver's surprise successor.

When the colorful Weaver retired last year after 141/2 successful campaigns, most observers expected the club to promote third base coach Cal Ripken Sr. or pitching coach Ray Miller. Ripken, father of the Orioles' star shortstop Cal Jr. , had managed more years in the Oriole minor league network (13-plus seasons) than either Weaver or Altobelli, while Miller has earned considerable respect for perpetuating the team's tradition of pitching excellence.

Maybe choosing between them was too difficult. But not wanting to venture out of the Birds' nest, Baltimore signed Altobelli, who was a coach with the New York Yankees at the time.

One reason could be that, unlike Ripken and Miller, he has had major league managing experience, having guided the San Francisco Giants for three years beginning in 1977. Although eventually fired when relations with his players deteriorated, Joe was the National League Manager of the Year in 1978.

Altobelli knew several of the Baltimore players from their minor league days. And his low-key, open-minded approach comes as a welcome change to the more boisterous, spotlight-stealing Weaver.

Pitcher Jim Palmer, a noted Weaver adversary, says baseball has been more fun under Altobelli. And Miller has called Joe ''a great replacement, given the state of mind of this ball club. We're loose, we're veterans.''

Altobelli has stuck with some of the things that worked before, including Weaver's system of platooning his outfielders.

In Philadelphia, Owens has gone much the same route, getting as many players involved as possible. One result seems to be a greater sense of teamwork on this veteran club. The team, oddly enough, was in first place when Corrales was fired , but communication was lacking and many players were performing below par.

Boldly, the club turned to Owens, remembering how Dallas Green had made a similar move from the front office in late 1979 and led the team to a World Series victory the next year.

With the aid of Coach Bobby Wine, his constant adviser, Owens has performed his present duties admirably. His real knack, though, is in recognizing talent, which is evident in his long list of player acquisitions dating back to 1972. It takes up two pages of fine print in the Phillies' media guide.

Among his shrewdest moves since late last season were the trades he engineered for pitchers John Denny and Al Holland, who became the team's top starter and bullpen ace respectively. He also brought up Charles Hudson from the low minor leagues, a decision that has paid off handsomely, with Hudson beating Los Angeles in Game 3 of the playoffs.

Owens and Altobelli, one must conclude, may not be the showiest managers to grace baseball's fall classic, but there's no arguing that they are the right men with the right touch at the right time.

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