Remember, even Sparky was a no-name
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
Pete Mackanin doesn't have a bandwagon, and if he did I wouldn't be on it yet. I do believe, though, that our attention to history in the matter of a Reds manager - magnified by the recent failures of those not preceded by reputations - might be expanded a bit.
Recognizing that times and certainly circumstances change, let's go back, say, 38 years. October 1969.
There's a young boy with a letter in his hands. His name is Rick Heflin, he's 9 years old, and he's having a hard time with the concept of why his favorite baseball team had to fire his favorite manager.
"I was just the biggest Reds fan in the world and didn't understand the inhumanity of man to fire a manager when his players weren't playing well," Heflin recalls now, his memories freshened by the latest spin of the cycle. "It was not Dave Bristol's fault that Jim Maloney's arm fell off and Alex Johnson wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. It made a lot of sense to a 9-year-old that you didn't blame the manager because players paid to do well didn't."
So, on Oct. 14 - five days after the Reds had hired a manager whom no 9-year-old had ever heard of - Heflin sent a letter to Bob Howsam, the Cincinnati general manager. And on Oct. 27, on Reds letterhead stamped at the top with the emblem of the club's 100th anniversary, Howsam answered it.
Dear Rick, wrote the mastermind of the Big Red Machine, which didn't yet exist,
Thank you for your letter of October 14 telling me how you felt about the change in field manager for the Reds.
Everyone does not always share the same opinions in baseball or any other sport. Making a decision to change the manager is part of my job and not a very easy part. Such a decision is made only after much thought and consideration.
We are looking forward to the 1970 baseball season and I am sure you will like our new manager, Sparky Anderson.
"It turned out," acknowledges Heflin, "that the fellow they found to replace Bristol did a pretty fine job."
Of course, Sparky Who was slightly abetted by a roster that, by 1970, included Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Lee May, Dave Concepcion, Bernie Carbo, Bobby Tolan, Gary Nolan, Jim Merritt, Wayne Simpson, Wayne Granger, Clay Carroll and Don Gullett. As the Reds' interim skipper, circa 2007, Mackanin has at his disposal only one player who might compare to the first three of those.
And yet, from a managerial standpoint - collective talent aside - Ken Griffey Jr. is perhaps the biggest difference in the circumstances surrounding the teams inherited, nearly four decades apart, by Anderson and Mackanin. There are two reasons for that.
One, because Griffey's accomplishments in the game are so profoundly superior to those of any teammate. And two, because he's rich, famous and 37 years old.
By contrast, on the '70 Reds - who won 102 games and lost to Baltimore in the World Series - no player over the age of 29 had more than 105 at-bats, four wins or one save. An amazing nine guys - Bench, Concepcion, Carbo, Darrel Chaney, Nolan, Simpson, Gullett, Milt Wilcox and Mel Behney - were 22 or younger.
As a result, Anderson was dealt a clubhouse in which the most vested veterans were Rose, Perez and May at 29, 28 and 27, respectively. Rose's example was one of diehard hustle, Perez's of playful camaraderie, May's of quiet humor.
In his own manner, Griffey sets an admirable standard.
His skills are complete, his values and integrity beyond reproach. But Junior's very greatness has enabled him to master the game with an economy of energy and motion that simply doesn't translate for the likes of Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion. They just can't do what he does.
Inevitably, though, and unconsciously, they try. Inevitably, unconsciously, Griffey leads. By mere virtue of his standing in the sport, he's the most powerful figure in the Cincinnati clubhouse.
And as long as that remains the case, the Reds will require a manager with the cachet to break through the infatuation. That's where the names come in.
Because of the stature he has attained, Tony La Russa could do it. Davey Johnson could do it. Joe Torre could do it. Bob Brenly and Joe Girardi would qualify as maybes. Pete Mackanin, in spite of his spirited start, is a not-yet.
But that's not to write him off. Should Griffey be traded, the clubhouse dynamic would change dramatically. Should Mackanin rally the Reds into second-half contention, same thing.
If both those items occur, the bandwagon will begin to roll and the relevance of Rick Heflin's letter will be provocatively renewed, 38 years after he first held it in his hands.