Sparky Anderson picked out John McNamara as a manager to watch a decade ago. Those were the days when Anderson was riding high with the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati while McNamara toiled for a mediocre team in San Diego. ``He's fighting with popguns against my cannons, and still he gives me fits,'' Sparky told me on one memorable occasion. ``He's the manager of the year in my book.''
Well, McNamara finally has some ``cannons'' of his own these days in Boston -- and so far he has been making the most of them. Add an outstanding pitching staff and it's no wonder the Red Sox are rolling toward their first division title since 1975.
A pennant would be a fitting culmination for this team and its fans, who have seen so many promising starts turn into bitter endings since that World Series year. It also couldn't happen to a more deserving manager than McNamara, who over the years in Oakland, San Diego, Cincinnati, California, and Boston has never really received the recognition his accomplishments warranted.
One reason for this, no doubt, is that McNamara -- unlike some of his peers -- prefers to stay in the background and let his players take the credit for any success his teams may have.
It's obvious, though, that he must have been doing something right to keep on getting chosen by one club after another.
In fact, when measured in terms of how well his teams have played in comparison with what was expected of them, he has a record that any current big league pilot would be hard pressed to beat.
McNamara spent most of the 1950s and early '60s as a minor league player, primarily a catcher, but never did reach the majors in that capacity. He got started early in what was to be his ultimate profession, however, serving as playing manager of Lewiston, Idaho, in the Northwest League at age 27 in 1959. In all he spent nine years managing in the Kansas City Athletics organization of that era, finally reaching the big leagues as a coach with the parent team when it moved to Oakland in 1968.
The A's were an up-and-coming team in those days, and when Hank Bauer was fired as manager late in the 1969 season, McNamara was named to replace him. He made the most of his opportunity, too, leading the team to a second-place finish the next year in his first full season.
But those were the days of Charlie Finley, the George Steinbrenner of his time. And McNamara's reward for a decade of loyalty to the organization, topped by an outstanding big league managerial debut, was a push out the door.
Finley replaced him with Dick Williams, who inherited a team on the verge of greatness and reaped the glory as the A's went on to win a succession of division titles, pennants, and World Series in the next few years.
McNamara got his next managerial chance in 1974 with the Padres, a sorry expansion team that had never finished anywhere but last place in its five years of existence.
He got the club up to respectability -- fourth- and fifth-place finishes, with nearly a .500 record. It was another excellent job, as Anderson pointed out -- especially considering the material he had to work with. So of course he was fired again.
The next stop was Cincinnati. The Big Red Machine had unraveled a bit from its glory days, losing out to the Dodgers for its division title in both 1977 and '78, so in baseball's typical game of managerial musical chairs, Anderson was let go and McNamara brought in to replace him.
Once more, John did an outstanding job. He led the Reds to a division title in his first year at the helm (1979), although they lost to the Pirates in the playoffs.
Then in the strike-shortened season of 1981 his team fashioned the best won-lost record of any club in either league, only to miss out on a playoff berth because of the way the season was artificially split up that year.
So a lot of victories added up to only a little recognition, and again he wound up being fired halfway through the following season.
John next managed California for two years, leading the Angels to a second-place tie in 1984, then moved on to Boston.
The high hopes of his first year at Fenway Park disappeared in a host of injuries and pitching problems and a somewhat disappointing 81-81 record. But this year the Red Sox have looked solid from April to September, and with little more than two weeks remaining they appear to have a lock on the American League East title.
Barring an unlikely collapse, they seem certain to present McNamara with his second division championship -- and a chance at that elusive pennant. And as noted above, it couldn't happen to a more deserving candidate.