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Whatever Happened to the Player-Manager in Baseball?

Posted by Andrew Zercie on June 4, 2009

Did this man kill the player-manager in baseball?
Did this man kill the player-manager in baseball?

From the inception of professional baseball, several players have served in the dual role of player and manager. The last, and most prominent, was Pete Rose, who was the player-manager of the Cincinnati Reds from 1984-1986.

When Vern Rapp was let go by the Reds toward the end of the 1984 season, little did we know that Charlie Hustle would be the last player-manager to take the helm of a team for 25 years.

The player-manager trend began dying about 35 years before Pete Rose handled the dual role for the Reds. In the early 1950s, well-known, respected players such as Eddie Stanky and Marty Marion became managers as their playing days diminished.

The player-manager role had a bit of a renaissance in the 1970s, when Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in baseball history in 1975 while still playing for the Cleveland Indians. Another former All-Star, future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, became the manager of the New York Mets in 1977 while finishing out his playing career.

Pete Rose took over the role of player-manager toward the end of the 1984 season, and steered the Reds to back-to-back 2nd place finishes in the National League West in the two years that followed. When he retired as a player, Rose remained as the Reds’ manager, but was never able to replicate the success he had as a player-manager.

Since the mid-1980s, the game of baseball has changed dramatically. Player salaries have skyrocketed. In-game management has become more specialized, especially in how a pitching staff is handled. The advent of situational pitching (lefty vs. lefty, righty vs. righty) has made the utilization of a bullpen like an art form.

Scouting reports, video breakdowns, pitch counts, innings limits, ego massaging, and media requests have also changed the way a manager approaches his job as well.

Additionally, the perception of the manager’s job has changed over time. There seems to be more front-office input than ever before, as more teams employ statisticians who pump out reams of information for a manager to digest before a pitch is thrown.

Also, as player salaries have risen, so have manager salaries. With higher salaries comes more accountability and higher expectations. It would appear the player-manager is dead.

Yet, the recent firing of Clint Hurdle by the Colorado Rockies got me thinking.

Yes, the money leads to more accountability. Yes, there is more information to digest. Yes, it would appear that there is more responsibility than ever before for a manager to deal with.

But what if a manager didn’t play hunches at all. What if a manager simply utilized the information from the front office to make all of his decisions? What if pitch counts for starters and relievers were firm, with no wiggle room?

A player-manager would know the clubhouse climate of his team better than most other managers would. He would understand contract squabbles, off-field problems and be better able to relate to the modern player than many current managers.

With many older players making large salaries, teams seeking to save money could offer the dual role of player-manager to an esteemed veteran as a means to keep that player’s salary up while not having to pay a second person to manage the team. The veteran ballplayer would gain a certain level of prestige within the organization and some extra cachet around the clubhouse as well.

A veteran player who has been around the game for a long time can manage now. The only thing holding back the return of the player-manager is perception.

Which brings us back to Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle didn’t kill the player-manager with his performance. Instead, it was his gambling that may have ended this trend.

Certainly, there are teams out there who could use some extra attention heaped on them from the national media. Other than the trade that sent Nate McClouth to the Atlanta Braves, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been dormant this year. The Rockies, before letting Clint Hurdle go, have done little in the baseball universe this year also.

Maybe the Trevor Hoffman saga in San Diego could have been avoided this offseason if the Padres had offered to maintain his rate of pay while also making him the manager. If anyone would know how to handle a bullpen, it would be a closer, no?

I think the idea of the player-manager needs to be revisited. Baseball isn’t rocket science, it’s a game! The front office personnel and owners of teams should loosen the top buttons of their stuffy shirts, let down their hair a little, and bring back the player-manager. It would add excitement, bring in some fans, and possibly create some new traditions and rivalries.

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