New managerial regimes paying dividends; Martin to Expos?

Architects cover their mistakes with ivy, used-car salesmen with paint, young homemakers with mayonnaise, and baseball owners by firing the manager. The standard criticism of this approach is that it is the players on the field who are losing the games, not the man in the dugout. But this year there's some strong evidence that a new field leader can indeed make a big difference. Three National League franchises that changed pilots in the wake of disappointing 1985 campaigns, the Houston Astros, the San Francisco Giants, and the Atlanta Braves, are now 1-2-3 in the West Division. And the Texas Rangers, in their first full season under manager Bobby Valentine, lead the American League West.

Houston, which began last season with high hopes but never got much above the .500 level, reacted by firing manager Bob Lillis and bringing in former St. Louis Cardinals coach Hal Lanier to replace him.

The 1986 Astros didn't get too much attention in preseason forecasts, but Lanier, by juggling his pitching staff, adopting a more aggressive style of baseball, and opening up the lines of communication with his players, has his team in first place at this writing.

The quick success of San Francisco, which lost 100 games last year for the first time in its history, is even harder to believe. It seems as though half the players on the Giants have no need for razors, still eat Twinkies, and have yet to vote in a presidential election.

But instead of coddling his youngsters, new manager Roger Craig gave them their heads.

Craig awarded starting jobs to two rookies -- first baseman Will Clark (the second player taken in last June's free-agent draft) and second baseman Rob Thompson -- and also showed full confidence in young third baseman Chris Brown.

Roger has also excelled in his specialty -- handling the mound corps. The former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger right-hander has worked with various hurlers on his pet pitch, the split-fingered fastball, and seems to have the entire staff working with greater confidence.

In Atlanta, where Chuck Tanner became owner Ted Turner's fourth manager in three years, the team's attitude had reached the point where a good day was when everybody simply showed up. In what has been called the April Fools' Day Massacre, general manager Bobby Cox and Tanner cut veteran pitchers Len Barker, Rick Camp, Terry Forster, and Pascual Perez.

With young hurlers like Zane Smith and Joe Johnson taking over, the Braves were supposed to struggle until they gained the needed seasoning. Instead the Braves, who also improved their bench during the off-season, have played like a team whose future suddenly arrived ahead of schedule.

Valentine, a former Dodger, Angel, Padre, and Met, was injured at various times during his career and never achieved the greatness that had been predicted for him. As a manager, though, Bobby has thus far performed the baseball equivalent of the Indian rope trick with the Rangers, who last year lost 99 games. Martin eyeing Expos?

Billy Martin's name has been mentioned recently in connection with a couple of actual or potential managerial openings, but the latest rumor going around is that the team he'd really like to pilot is Montreal. The Expos' younger-than-springtime pitching staff reportedly has great appeal for Billy, and he especially likes the talents of relief ace Jeff Reardon.

At the moment, though, Martin would appear to have two pretty big strikes against him: (1) Montreal is a National League team, and all of Martin's career to date has been in the American League; and (2) the Expos appear perfectly satisfied with current manager Buck Rodgers. No arguing this pitching change

When fans of earlier generations discuss managers, the talk always turns sooner or later to Connie Mack, who managed the old Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years (1901 through 1950), or until he was 88. Connie was quite a sight in the dugout, where he actually wore a blue serge suit complete with celluloid collar. All this isn't really as unbelievable as it sounds, since Mack also owned the club. One favorite story from those days tells of a pitcher who was being cuffed around so badly that Mack ordered his son Earle, the team's 61-year-old first base coach, to go out to the mound and remove him. The pitcher was ranting and raving so much that communication was almost impossible. Finally, the distressed hurler calmed down enough to ask why he had to be taken out. Replied Earle: ``Because Daddy says so!''

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