Experience is good, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said last week about his team’s next manager, and that’s exactly the opinion you’d expect a longtime baseball man to hold. It’s his next sentence that was the surprise: “It’s not,” Ryan said, “the most important thing.”
Oh, those cutting-edge Twins. Minnesota’s baseball team is known for its respect for what’s worked in the past, for long-established standards and practices. Those traits also suggest hiring a manager who has been groomed for the job, has done it before, and done it well.
Yet that’s not the trend in the major leagues these days; it’s actually quite the opposite. Of the 27 current managers (three jobs are unfilled), 13 of them had never held the job in the major leagues before, and a half-dozen had virtually no managing experience at any professional level.
“There are managers who are in the postseason right now,” Ryan said, “who didn’t have one game of experience as manager.”
Some were coaching teenagers when their big break came. Colorado plucked manager Walt Weiss from his job as coach at Regis Jesuit High in Denver, while Robin Ventura was a volunteer assistant at Arroyo Grande (Calif.) High when the White Sox shocked him with an offer to succeed Ozzie Guillen. Matt Williams had four weeks of experience running an Arizona Fall League team when the Nationals called. The Tigers figured Brad Ausmus’ time as manager of the Israeli national team was experience enough. And Mike Matheny, who led the Cardinals to last year’s World Series?
His previous managing experience was running a Little League team.
Ryan knows all this. Sounds like he embraces the change, too. Two of the Twins’ four internal candidates — major league coaches Paul Molitor and Terry Steinbach — have never been in charge of handling a bullpen or writing a lineup before. The other two, Gene Glynn and Doug Mientkiewicz, are managers in the minors but have never been in charge in the majors. And so far, there is no indication that Ryan has contacted any former big-league skipper about the Twins job.
Ryan made it clear that he’s open to a new face, battle-tested or not. “I don’t care if he’s a young guy or a veteran guy,” Ryan said. “He should be a quality guy.”
Kelly, Gardenhire paid dues
The Twins found a couple the last two times they needed a new manager, perhaps because they had carefully groomed each successor. Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire — the only managers the team has employed in the past 28 years — owned virtually identical résumés when they were hired, having followed the time-honored route to a big-league dugout.
Both were approached by the final organization they played for as they neared retirement, asking if they had interest in running a team. Each was then assigned to the minor leagues for three seasons, learning their craft in places like Visalia and Kenosha and Orlando. And each was then promoted to the Twins coaching staff in order to learn the players and the league and prepare to take over. In Gardenhire’s case, the wait was 11 years.
At the time, that step-by-step approach was considered a bold move, even risky, because Kelly and Gardenhire were unproven and, particularly in Kelly’s case, unknown. Plenty of teams, then as now, prefer to turn their rosters over to baseball men who have already done the job for another franchise — even if they have mostly failed.
“When we named Gardy [for the 2002 season], I think everybody, including the guys who had been around here, knew we were on the verge [of turning things around]. It made sense to name a veteran guy,” Ryan said. “Well, we didn’t do that. We went with a guy we thought was the best, and he ended up to be pretty darn good.”
Inexperience brings risk
But Gardenhire looks downright overqualified, compared to the out-of-the-box hires that teams have made lately. Experience as a player, these first-timers assert, provides plenty of the insights necessary for handling modern players. “I jumped right into the deep end,” Ventura said when he was hired, “but I can swim.”
And that might be enough, the thinking goes. A leader is a leader.
“I certainly understand the argument that there is a risk,” John Mozeliak, the St. Louis general manager who chose Matheny in 2012, told ESPN. “Mike is going to be thrown into this, and time will tell how he reacts and adapts. But when you look at the qualities of a person and what makes people successful, it’s not too hard to come to the conclusion that he’ll be a survivor.”
Inexperience can actually be a benefit, according to some players. When Ventura was hired in Chicago, one of the team’s best pitchers, Jake Peavy, said Ventura’s youth would suit the clubhouse well. “I love that he hasn’t been coaching for so many years that he has that ‘coaching mentality,’ ” Peavy told mlb.com. “The last experience he had was as a player, and because of that he can relate with us.”
Of Ryan’s four internal candidates, only the 40-year-old Mientkiewicz is within 20 years in age of most of the Twins roster, but all seem comfortable working with younger players. Ryan has a handful of other qualifications he’s looking for, too.
“He’s got to be a strategy guy. I’d like to have him be an attention-to-detail guy. He’s got to be a tactician, handle the media, be involved in the community, take an interest in our minor leagues and in scouting and so forth, have a grasp of the organizational policies,” Ryan said. “Everything that leaders do.”