Baseball's top managers

You'll get no argument here if you've already picked Billy Martin of the Oakland A's as major league baseball's Manager of the Year. If Martin could have borrowed just two of the Kansas City Royals' four infielders, Oakland probably would have won the American League West title.

Picking the National League's top pilot is a bit tougher, but I can't think of two more deserving candidates than Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves and Bill virdon of the Houston Astros.

For those who prefer Dick Williams of the Montreal Expos or Dallas green of the Philadelphia Phillies (who have also done great managing jobs), all i can say is that you have some powerful numbers going for you, but I think Virdon and Cox have overcome more problems in leading their respective clubs to successful seasons.

Whereas Martin is often explosive and dominating, Virdon and Cox are low-profile leaders, once again proving personalities have little to do with managing.

Instead, it's how much defense you get from your players, how much offense, how many innings your manager is able to think ahead, and how crowded it gets on your team's disabled list.

Until recently houston has been a club that had to scratch for runs. In fact , only the New york Mets and San Diego Padres had fewer home runs. But in the last two months the Astros have raised their team batting average from .245 to around .263 and have two extremely hot hitters right now in Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz. Defensively Houston has played well, especially at shortstop, where Craig Reynolds hides a terrible batting average with a glove that glows in the dark, plus an arm so accurate it can throw a ball down a drainpipe.

However, Virdon's pitching staff is still his club's greatest strength, with a high number of complete games and a team earned-run average that has stayed right around the 3.19 mark.

Although virtually everyone expected Houston to fade somewhat after the July All-Star break, when it lost starting pitcher James Rodney Richard for the season, Virdon has managed to plug that gap with some tremendous performances by his bullpen.

Actually, Bill has the luxury of three stoppers out there in rookie Dave Smith, Joe Sambito, and Frank LaCorte.

The National League West will probably come down to the three-game series Houston plays against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 3-5.

But whatever happens, Virdon has juggled his players well, regularly sensed just when to replace a starting pitcher with one from the bullpen, and chosen his pinch hitters wisely.

Meanwhile, Cox has taken a team that had finished last in this same division the past four seasons and built it into a winner.

To do this bobby had to survive some early-season meddling by club owner Ted turner, who ordered his manager to send slumping third baseman bob Horner to the minors and not to play infielder-outfielder Gary Matthews; these are normally two of the team's best power hitters.

When Horner refused to go to the minors and filed a grievance through the Major League Players Association, Turner softened his position and allowed bob to remain on the Braves' roster. But he still wouldn't let Cox put horner's name on a lineup card for a while. Currently Bob is one of the National League's top home run hitters.

Cox, who now runs a game from the dugout probably as well as any manager in baseball, was also the driving force behind two winter trades that netted Atlanta first baseman Chris Chambliss, infielder Luis Gomez, and pitcher Doyle Alexander.

Chambliss, despite criticism that a man with his physical size should produce twice as many home runs, is one of the best clutch hitters in baseball. Gomez gave Cox five months of solid defense at shortstop before rookie Rafael Ramirez was called up from the minors to replace him and provide more batting punch, and the veteran Alexander has, for most of the season, been the Braves' most consistent pitcher.

During spring training, Cox had to argue hard to get the front office to allow him to keep Rick Camp, who has since been the team's top relief pitcher, and after Bob recalled Glenn Hubbard from Richmond to play second base, Atlanta went 54-39 in its next 93 games.

In evaluating Virdon and Cox, let the record show that last year Houston finished only 1 1/4 games behind first-place Cincinnati in the National League West.

So Bill was supposed to do well this year, although not that well after losing Richard, his best pitcher. Cox, on the other hand, started his team's journey from virtually nowhere.

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