Legendary baseball manager Gene Mauch died yesterday. The “little general” was 79. He won 1,901 games as the manager of Philadelphia, Montreal, Minnesota, and California. Only five men have managed more major league games.
Mauch is well known for transforming bad clubs into respectable ones and, in the cases of Philadelphia and California, into contenders. But he is best known for his teams’ collapses. His 1964 Phillies blew a commanding lead over St. Louis and Cincinnati in the last week of the season. And his 1982 and 1986 Angels both lost their American League playoff series by dropping three straight games after being two games up.
After the 1964 disaster, Mauch was criticized for overusing his two ace pitchers Jim Bunning (now the Senator from Kentucky) and Chris Short. In 1982, he received similar criticism for shortening his rotation, starting Tommy John in games 1 and 4 and Bruce Kison in games 2 and 5 of a five game series. Both got complete game victories the first time out; neither lasted past the 5th inning the next time. In 1986, Mauch tried to do it differently, using a four man rotation for the seven game series. The result was basically the same. With plenty of rest, Kirk McCaskill and John Candelaria were shelled in games six and seven (Mike Witt pitched well in the infamous game 5). Maybe Mauch was just unlucky.
Mauch also drew criticism for over-managing, and especially for playing for one run too early. By the mid-1980s, baseball theory (or more precisely Bill James) held that one-run strategies were a losing proposition except late in a game when you could have some confidence that just one run would make a big difference. But Mauch took three bad teams plus an expansion team and dramatically improved them. His 1982 Angels improved from 51-59 the year before (when Mauch took over in mid-season of a strike-shortened year) to 93-69. The 1970 Expos, in the second year of their existence, went from 52 to 73 wins. So he must have done a few things right.
Whether or not Mauch stands with the very best modern managers, I can say that there was no manager I’d rather watch in action. Nearly every game I saw him manage produced something memorable. Once I saw him use five infielders in a sudden death situation with a runner on third (it didn’t work). Another time, in Minnesota, he pulled an outfielder after he had batted in the 4th inning. The next day the Star Tribune complained that Mauch had declined to say why. Had the reporter been paying attention, he would have noted that the outfielder swung at the first pitch after the pitcher (Jim Beattie) had just walked two batters on four pitches each. A few years later, he scratched Ken Landreaux from the line-up after batting practice. Again no explanation was forthcoming, but I noticed that Mauch hadn’t looked happy when watching Landreaux’s half-hearted attempts at bunting.
I suspect it was this unwillingness to tolerate sloppiness and bonehead plays that made him the great or near-great manager he was.
SCOTT adds: Star Tribune sports columnist Patrick Reusse devotes his excellent column today to Mauch: “Mauch always an optimist.”
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