Few managers have ever enjoyed a wider range of respect among their peers than Gene Mauch, who recently suceeded Jim Fregosi in that post for the peak-and-valley California Angels. Expected to get out of the starting gate like Secretariat this season, the Angels under Fregosi showed all the acceleration of a mild wagon.
What seemed to upset owner Gene Autry the most was California's lack of aggresiveness; Fregosi's repeated statements that this was a good club that would right itself if left alone; and the team's 9-17 won-loss record at Anaheim Stadium. Even average teams generally play well at home, and the Angels, with three former American League Most Valuable Players in their lineup (Rod Carew, Fred Lynn, and Don Baylor), were expected to score runs in bunches.
Over the years Mauch has been given high marks for understanding players, knowing strategy, organizing well, showing patience without being soft, having a way with pitchers, and always getting more from his material than seemed possible on paper.
Yet in 21 previous seasons as field manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos, and Minnesota Twins, Gene's teams have finished in the second division 17 times. In fact, no man has ever managed longer in the big leagues without winning a pennant.
Strictly on that basis, one might be tempted to ask the question: Who needs Gene Mauch?
What the reader has to realize is that Mauch has always managed teams that were rebuilding, not long out of the expansion mold, or so financially troubled that the owner was continually trading away his best players. The one time Gene might be faulted as a manager was 1964, when the Phillies, who had a 6 1/2 game lead in the National League race with only 12 to play, lost 10 games in a row and blew the pennant.
Mauch's strategy during that stretch has been questioned -- especially the way he kept bringing back pitching aces Jim Bunning and Chris Short after only two days' rest even though they appeared to some to be arm-weary. But there are still plenty of boosters around who prefer the theory that Gene's players simply panicked after losing a couple of close games and did most of the damage themselves.
The Angels team that Mauch inherited from Fregosi has been emotionally flat all year, short on good pitching, extremely spotty defensively, and unable to generate the run production that was predicted for it in spring training.
The pitching staff, with the exception of seven-game winner Ken Forsch, was never expected to be very good, and it hasn't been, although there have been some surprises.
Don Aase has been outstanding working out of the bullpen; Jesse Jefferson has pitched better than his 1-4 record; and rookie Mike Witt has won often enough to suggest a solid future as a starter.
But Geoff Zahn and Steve Renko have been exactly what they were advertised as -- .500 pitchers who work hard, but who are always going to need help from the bullpen to survive. Since Mauch's arrival, former Angel pitchers Dave Frost and Fred Martinez have rejoined the club after starting the season in the minors, with Frost having already picked up one victory.
As a manager, Mauch has always been into some of the same things that have worked so successfully for Billy Martin and Earl Weaver -- meaning frequent lineup changes, plus regular use of such things as the stolen base and the hit-and run. Gene is also constantly updating charts that show what each of his hitters has done against every pitcher in the league over the previous five or six years.
For example, if you've ever wondered why Weaver won't pinch-hit for a .229 life- time hitter like Mark BElanger against certain outstanding pitchers it is because Belanger's chart shows that he has always done well against them. Mauch and Martin like to employ the same percentages.
"There are 25 players on a big League team and everyone of them has a preconceived idea of what kind of player he wants to be," Gene once told me. "Now some guys are pretty good at evaluating their own skills, some are dead wrong, and some are halfway in between.
"If you're a manager, you leave the first group alone," he continued. "The guys you have to reach and change are the ones who are obviously trying to be something they are not. First you have to believe that what you're going to ask them to do is absolutely right for them; then you have to sell them the idea.
"After that you have to hope that they have some quick success with what you've suggested. Otherwise, they'll go right back to what they were doing before. I've succeeded with some players and missed with others. But I know that you won't improve your ball club unless you have players who believe in the concentrate on what they do best."
Autry, who hired Mauch during the off season as California director of player personnel, reportedly had three telephone calls in May from rival American League owners wanting permission to talk with Mauch about becoming their manager.
It was right after the second call from Yankee owner George Steinbrenner that Autry made his decision to fire Fregosi and go with Mauch.