Managing a champion: Let players play

Managing a champion: Let players play

It's safe to say that Clint Hurdle has never been compared to Connie Mack or John McGraw or any of the other men who rank among the best managers of all time. With a winning percentage of .446 during his first five seasons at the helm of the Rockies, Hurdle's managerial career has been less than spectacular.

But it's been proven before that it takes just one historic run to catapult a skipper to hero status. Just ask Jack McKeon and Phil Garner. Like Hurdle, they had some lean years before reaching baseball's big postseason stage.

McKeon, the former Marlins skipper, managed 15 years and experienced a little bit of everything. Some of his teams were simply not very good, and some were better than expected, as was the case in 2003 when he took over a Florida club that floundered through the first five weeks, producing a 16-22 record.

Five months later, McKeon's Marlins were 91-71 and well on their way to their second World Series title in seven years.

Garner was another veteran skipper happily enjoying a relaxed life in 2004 when the Astros pulled him from retirement and convinced him to take over for Jimy Williams. The club was 42-42 at the All-Star break, having fallen far below expectations after building a team peppered with future Hall of Famers and bona fide superstars, including Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran.

By the end of that season, the Astros had put together an improbable 36-10 run that earned them the National League Wild Card on the last day.

In both cases, McKeon and Garner were lauded for their skill, their savvy, and on some levels, their brilliance. But how much credit truly goes to the skipper, and how much rests with the players?

It's probably a little bit of both. And McKeon and Garner both were fortunate in that they were managing without promises for a long-term future with their teams. That may not seem like an ideal situation, but it allowed them to maneuver through the season without worrying about how their moves would negatively affect players and their often-fragile egos.

When the Marlins were closing in on the Wild Card in early September, McKeon had a meeting and told his players to "check their egos at the door." He told the club he didn't care who got the wins or saves, he was going to go with whoever gave the team the best chance to win.

Garner managed by the same edict in '04. He recalled receiving one instruction from former GM Gerry Hunsicker: "Don't worry about what we think."

"It was a short-term idea," Garner said. "We had three months and we had to fix it. I wasn't thinking in terms of saving my job. We wanted to make this thing work for right now.

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"When a manager comes in, you're not somewhat handcuffed by old former relationships. You're a little freer to do things differently. It's easier for a mean manager to come in and say, 'You're not playing anymore.'"

Garner wasn't afraid of the unconventional. He pinch-hit for Brad Ausmus in the fifth inning if need be, even if it left him with only one catching option. He lifted his starters in the fourth inning for a pinch-hitter if the situation called for it. He relied on the two strengths of the club -- the bench, and the bullpen. And it worked.

In Arizona in 2001, Bob Brenly also benefited from a team responding positively to a change of attitude. A rookie manager, Brenly was embraced by players who soaked up a laid-back style that was in extreme contrast to the prickly personality of Buck Showalter.

In his first full squad meeting during Spring Training, Brenly reportedly held up a thick three-ring binder that represented the copious amount of rules that Showalter had enacted and threw it in the trash. He then pulled out a cocktail napkin that had just a couple of rules on it.

Seven months later, the D-backs were World Series champions.

McKeon reached that glory in '03, and Garner's Astros won their first and only pennant in '05. Yet, what do all three have in common? They were eventually replaced, unwanted by the teams with whom they enjoyed the highest level of success.

Hurdle has job security beyond this season after signing an extension on Opening Day this year, so his situation is a bit different. He was given a vote of confidence from ownership and general manager Dan O'Dowd, and the club's willingness to remain a cohesive group eventually paid off.

"It's good for so many different people on so many levels," Hurdle said. "Our ownership group, they showed patience. It's good for Keli McGregor [the club president] and Dan making good decisions and staying tight. I was fortunate to be brought into the loop on everything that's gone on. Basically, my focus is on the game and the personnel down here. They were respectful of that. The coaches have been great."

But Hurdle's situation is similar to McKeon and Garner in that his team exploded onto the scene without warning. Practically overnight, Hurdle went from a target of criticism to the toast of the town as his team won 14 of its last 15 regular season games (including a tiebreaker game), and then won seven straight in the playoffs, sweeping the Phillies in the Division Series and the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.

What's the secret?

"The bottom line is, it has to start with the players," Garner said. "Look at that fabulous run they've had in Colorado. They had a plan and they stuck with it."

In watching the Rockies, McKeon marveled at the similarities between this club and his former world championship club.

"I said about two weeks ago, this Colorado team reminded me of us in '03," he said. "Everything is going their way. They are getting all the breaks. They are playing great, like they really want it. They are playing unselfishly. I think they've got a chance to win it."

Hurdle is careful to shift the praise to those who truly deserve it.

"The bottom line is players play the game," he said. "You can't miss that. Our players play the game. Our players hung together. They were a tight-knit group. They got tighter as the season went on. They believed in what they believed in."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Steve Gilbert, Thomas Harding and Joe Frisaro contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.