Baseball is a great sport for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it allows fans to play manager. The chatter at the stadium, or on Twitter, during a basketball, football, or hockey game is focused on the play itself: “That was an awesome dunk!” “How did he drop that pass?” “What a save!” During a baseball game, there is cheering, but there’s a lot of second-guessing of the manager.
From your seat on the couch (or in the stands) you have access to almost all of the same information as your favorite team’s skipper, meaning you can have an opinion on when the starting pitcher should come out of the game, who should replace him, whether to call for a sacrifice bunt or a hit-and-run or to shade the left fielder toward center. You have no effect on any of these things, of course, but it is a fun way to engage with the game.
You simply can’t do this in other sports. You have to be a coach (or a devoted student of the game) to fully grasp what is happening on each play on the football field, and even then you don’t know which players might be banged up, whether a play was called simply to set up a different play later in the game, or if a linebacker was instructed to do one thing but didn’t react properly. In basketball and hockey, the majority of coaching takes place in practice. The plays teams run don’t matter nearly as much as execution.
In the 1994 movie Little Big League,* Billy Heywood is the 12-year-old owner of the Minnesota Twins. After firing the Twins’ manager, Billy’s friend suggests that Billy replace him. “You know how hard it is to manage?” Billy asks. “It’s the American League,” his friend reminds him. “They’ve got the D.H. How hard could it be?”
*Call me crazy, but I enjoy Little Big League more than Rookie of the Year, which came out the year before. While both premises are preposterous—a 12-year-old becoming owner and then manager versus a 12-year-old who breaks his arm and can suddenly throw 100 mph—LBL is more realistic. After all, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in ROY. LBL has better acting (the main character is certainly less annoying) and better big league cameos (ROY has brief appearances by Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, but LBL has Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Rafael Palmeiro, Pudge Rodriguez, and Sandy Alomar, Jr., among others). Even if you prefer ROY, hopefully we can agree that both films are better than Angels in the Outfield.
Never mind that these were characters in a movie, and they were 12 years old. They were right. I’ve always thought managing a baseball team was not too difficult, and the offseason hiring of Robin Ventura by the Chicago White Sox only solidified my opinion. Why? Because Ventura had no experience coaching or managing at any level. He had been out of baseball since he retired in 2004. But given that he was a major leaguer, he obviously knows the game, and, anyway, the majority of his job will be motivating his players.
Mike Matheny won’t have the aid of the designated hitter, but that didn’t deter the St. Louis Cardinals from naming him their manager despite his lack of experience. Like Ventura, he had no coaching or managing experience, though he did spend a couple of years as an instructor in the Cards’ minor league system. Matheny inherited the defending World Series champions and so far hasn’t screwed it up, as St. Louis is in first in the Central division.
I’m perfectly OK with the White Sox and Cardinals going outside of the box with their managerial hires. The teams probably saved some money they could use on more important things, like players. It just says something that two guys with no coaching experience would get their first crack at it at the highest level.
Ventura and Matheny get to play manager this year. You can, too, and it makes watching baseball a lot of fun.