A vote for Joe Morgan as manager; Durocher on Robinson's debut

If you had the power to name baseball's next major league manager, whom would you choose? I don't even have to think about it. I'd go with former two-time National League MVP Joe Morgan, not because he's black (though obviously that would help the game's image right now), but because he has the temperament, skills, and background to succeed in a position where you get second-guessed more often than the President.

Morgan, now a businessman and sometime network broadcaster, actually had the chance two years ago to manage the team he broke in with, the Houston Astros. He turned it down.

Joe never really said why. But reportedly it ended for him when he insisted that his authority extend into areas normally belonging to the general manager.

This isn't an entirely unusual concession if the manager has been around a long time with a winning record and some World Series appearances like Sparky Anderson or Dick Williams. But if the owner is comfortable and personally close with his GM, and the new man has never managed before, the guy writing the checks isn't apt to risk upsetting the balance of his front office.

The reason I think Morgan would make a good manager is that despite his talents as a player, he never had it easy. Joe, at a compact 5 ft. 7 in. and 155 pounds, was always having to prove himself to somebody. He ducked more than his share of high inside fastballs, and he also had to deal with base runners who wanted a piece of him as they slid into second.

Early in his career, Joe's durability, hitting, power, and RBI potential were all questioned, particularly when he first came up briefly with the Astros in 1963. But after he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 1972, and had a six-year stretch in which he hit 130 home runs, some of his toughest critics were saying they knew he could do it all the time.

Morgan, who played for five teams in a 20-year career, was the type who didn't hesitate to go to the mound in a crisis and slow down the pitcher; move an outfielder he felt was out of position; or make suggestions to his manager. In Cincinnati, Joe learned a lot about when to change pitchers by both watching Anderson and asking him questions.

``To be a star and to stay a star, I think you have to show the kind of confidence that your opponents can read,'' Morgan once told me. ``It's like letting your rival know that I can do this and you can't stop me. It's like when you reach first base, and you're the tying run, and you need to get to second.

``It doesn't hurt when, through your mannerisms, you're able to show the pitcher that you're going to steal no matter how many times he throws over to take away your lead,'' Joe continued. ``Some guys have that kind of cockiness and can make it work, but a lot of really good players don't, and you wonder why.''

Back in 1975, Morgan won what was then the most lopsided MVP award in National League history, beating out Philadelphia slugger Greg Luzinski (6 inches taller and 62 pounds heavier) by more than 157 votes. Then to prove it was no fluke, Joe repeated the following season.

Morgan is the kind of guy who would be hitting .330 on July 4, and still go to the batting cage that day for an hour or more of practice because his swing wasn't where he thought it should be. And if Joe does get to manage some day, you can count on any team he leads to be mentally tough, swat team aggressive, and ready to play extra innings seven days a week. Durocher on Robinson

Forty years ago, when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's so-called color line with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, his first major league manager was supposed to be Leo Durocher. However, Durocher never got the chance until 1948. He was suspended just before the start of the 1947 season by Commissioner Happy Chandler for conduct detrimental to baseball.

Nevertheless, it seemed important (given the opportunity) to ask Durocher on Opening Day 1987 at Dodger Stadium what he thought of Robinson the first time he saw him.

``Listen, I knew Jackie was an exceptional athlete,'' Leo told me. ``Nobody had to sell me on that. But the truth is he was too heavy to play second base, and I said so to his face.

``Robinson's comeback was that since he'd be playing first base anyway, his weight wouldn't make any difference,'' Durocher continued. ``So I wised him up that I was switching catcher Gil Hodges to first base and that Bruce Edwards would be replacing Hodges behind the plate.

``I also made Jackie get down from 210 pounds to 190, and I know this helped his quickness, because he made Rookie of the Year, and led the league in stolen bases with 29.''

But before Durocher was able to put his move into motion for the 1947 season, he was suspended by Chandler and replaced by Burt Shotton, who played Robinson at first base. It wasn't until Leo returned to the Dodgers in 1948 that Jackie moved to second, and then later at various times to third base and left field. Elsewhere in the major leagues

From San Francisco Giants' coach Norman Sherry on the division race in the National League West: ``We're as good as Houston, and probably as good as Cincinnati, although the Reds have more power than both of us. But if we [the Giants] don't have any major injuries, we can win it. Too many fans keep underrating our pitching, and that's a mistake.''

For years, pitchers Steve Carlton (Philadelphia Phillies) and Phil Neikro (Atlanta Braves) were rivals. Now both are toiling for the Cleveland Indians. The irony is that every time former starter Carlton saves a game for Niekro out of the bullpen, Phil moves closer to Steve on baseball's all-time victory list. Starting the season, Carlton had 323 lifetime victories; Niekro 312.

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