Banner year for managers; Niekro brothers eye pitching mark

This has been a great year for that oft-misunderstood creature, the big league manager. You still hear second-guessing, of course, by those who prefer to forget that the manager gets only one guess when it comes to making snap judgments under fire. But even casual fans seem aware that this year's crop of pilots includes more than the usual number of success stories. In the American League, it's at least a three-man race for Manager of the Year among Bobby Cox of Toronto, Gene Mauch of California, and Billy Martin of New York. But it would be a mistake not to leave room for Kansas City's Dick Howser, especially if the Royals finish with a flourish the way they did in 1984. And Oakland's Jackie Moore isn't entirely out of the picture either.

Cox has employed a soft-spoken and patient approach in keeping his team in front most of the way in the AL East race. But Martin, unbending and defiant, has had the Yankees on fire the last couple of weeks in their drive to overtake the Blue Jays.

Mauch, aloof with the press but a favorite of veteran players, has looked like just the right leader for the first-place Angels so far. Meanwhile Howser, whose defending AL West champions keep hanging close, and Moore, whose surprising A's are just another couple of games back, are also doing excellent jobs. The latter two, both of whom seem especially good with young pitchers, come across as guys you could buy a used car from and feel comfortable about it.

In the National League, the line for post-season managerial honors is just as long. It includes Tommy Lasorda of Los Angeles, Pete Rose of Cincinnati, Whitey Herzog of St. Louis, Buck Rodgers of Montreal, and Dave Johnson of New York.

Lasorda lost a front-line pitcher (Alejandro Pena) before the season even opened, didn't solve his third base problem until June 1, is playing a rookie (Mariano Duncan) at shortstop, and still has the Dodgers in first place.

Rose, whose pitching staff has the highest earned-run average in the National League after Pittsburgh, has kept the Reds' own run production high by platooning at two outfield positions plus first base.

Herzog, whose Cardinals were written off last winter when they lost super relief pitcher Bruce Sutter to free agency, has made balance and speed look like the answer to almost everything.

Rodgers's Expos, who were supposed to unravel after trading away all-star catcher Gary Carter, have simply played everybody tough, especially on the road.

As for Johnson, although there is a tendency to think any manager with a pitching staff headed by Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling could challenge for a pennant, the left side of the Mets' infield hasn't always been that reliable. The team also lost hard-hitting outfielder Darryl Strawberry for several weeks and still kept winning.

Until recently it didn't appear that any major league brother combination of pitchers could break the record of 529 career wins by Gaylord Perry (314) and Jim Perry (215). Now Phil Niekro of the New York Yankees, who is closing in on 300 victories, and Joe Niekro of the Houston Astros, who got his 200th win recently, need fewer than 40 between them to become the new champs. Even if Phil were offered the the Atlanta Braves managing job, as rumored, it shouldn't throw any roadblocks up on their bi d. He sees no reason why he couldn't pitch and manage at the same time. In first baseman Don Mattingly, outfielder Dave Winfield, and designated-hitter Don Baylor, the New York Yankees have three players who, at their present rate of production, will each go over the 100 RBI mark this season. The last time that happened, courtesy of Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, and Thurman Munson in 1977, the Yankees won the pennant and went on to beat Los Angeles in the World Series.

Boston's Fenway Park, already famous for its Green Monster wall in left field, has added another conversation piece with one red chair among a sea of blue 12 rows up behind the Red Sox bullpen in right field. It marks the spot where Ted Williams, in 1946, deposited a home run against Cleveland that landed and stuck in the top of a fan's straw hat.

Manager George Bamberger of the Milwaukee Brewers, who probably knows Earl Weaver's thinking process as well as anybody in baseball, is of the opinion that Weaver may quit at the end of the season. Explained Bamberger: ``I was surprised when Earl agreed to come back and manage Baltimore partway into the season because he doesn't need that kind of frustration. Earl has nothing more to prove as a manager, and I doubt if he needs the money.'' Weaver, who probably would kick dirt on himself if he thought it would get the Orioles moving, has never had to juggle a pitching staff before whose starters have failed to go beyond four innings in almost one-third of their games.

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