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Picking baseball's top managers; Sabo leads NL rookie race

By Phil Elderkin / August 1, 1988

Say tomorrow you were to take a quick poll among baseball people (meaning executives, players, and scouts) as to who is the games's best manager, no doubt Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals would be somewhere near the top of the list. Last year St. Louis won the National League pennant and extended the Minnesota Twins to seven games in the World Series. This season, however, Herzog's Cardinals are buried in the second division and have frequently looked like the Marx Brothers all sliding into third base at the same time. Does this mean Whitey has lost his touch, has forgotten when to change pitchers, or is suddenly afraid to use his bench?

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Not really. What it means is that the Cardinals became a different team this year when slugger Jack Clark, their best hitter, went the free-agent route and signed with the New York Yankees. A number of key injuries, particularly to the pitching staff, completed the breakup.

Furthermore, if Whitey were to be fired tomorrow, he'd need to leave his phone off the hook to get any rest. Among the first to call, I'm sure, would be Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.

Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers, the only man ever to win 800 or more games in both the National (Cincinnati) and American Leagues, is another whose name has to be up there. But Sparky himself belongs to the school of thought that says it is the players who win pennants, not the managers.

``It helps if you can motivate, and it helps if you know when to change pitchers,'' he told me the other day. ``But if the talent isn't there, it doesn't make any difference what a manager does.''

Billy Martin, generally regarded as the best one-year manager of all time (because of how quickly he has been able to turn several losing teams around), has always been his own worst enemy. Organized, disciplined, and ready for anything on the field, Martin is a Page 1 fight waiting to happen the minute he changes into street clothes and goes bar hopping. But if you go by his record on the field and forget about his problems off it, he has to rank up there somewhere, too.

Dick Williams, fired earlier this season as the resident dugout dragon of the Seattle Mariners, has never been a favorite with his players. Too tough. But Dick's flair for winning is evident from the fact that he has led three teams (Boston, Oakland, and San Diego) into the World Series.

That there is no one formula for managerial success is evident from the differing personalities of the all-time co-leaders, Casey Stengel and John McGraw, who won 10 pennants each. Stengel, whose triumphs all came with the Yankees although he managed three other teams, played the press like a violin, liked to platoon, and had different rules for different players. McGraw, who spent 30 of his 33 years as manager with the old New York Giants and won all of his pennants there, was distant, disciplined, and preferred a set lineup.

Most managers played the game in their younger days with varying degrees of skill, and a lot of them (including Stengel and McGraw) were pretty good, but it's an old baseball adage that superstar players are not very good risks for managerial duties.

Hall of Famer Walter Johnson was mediocre as a manager, and Ty Cobb wasn't much better. More recently, Ted Williams had an overall losing record in three years at Washington followed by a disastrous 100-loss season when the team moved to Texas in 1972.