Richard Justice

Dismissing coaches always a tough decision

Justice: Dismissing coaches always tough

Dismissing coaches always a tough decision
The Astros cleaned house at the 2004 All-Star break, dismissing manager Jimy Williams, hitting coach Harry Spilman and pitching coach Burt Hooton. It was not personal. In fact, Hooton and Spilman were so highly regarded that they were immediately offered other jobs in the organization. Both are terrific coaches, good with people and good at the technical aspects of their craft.

Why dismiss them in the first place?

"Sometimes, you need a new voice," then-Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said.

Sound familiar? Those are pretty close to the same words Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto used this week in dismissing hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. There's one huge, critical difference in Hatcher's dismissal, and we'll get to it in a moment.

Back in 2004, it was probably then-Astros owner Drayton McLane who pushed Hunsicker to make changes, but Hunsicker was out of answers. The club had already made an impact trade in acquiring Carlos Beltran, but was a lackluster 44-44 at the break.

Still, Hunsicker so dreaded the moves that he got sick to his stomach during the All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park and drove home. Months later, when he reflected on how things played out, he was conflicted.

Hunsicker believed in the men he let go, but he also believed, as many baseball people do, that sometimes the smallest things can have the largest impact. His other choice was to do nothing and hope the Astros got themselves straightened out.

"There's never a right answer," he said. "Do you do nothing and risk letting the club continue in its malaise? But if you do something, when is the right time? I'm telling you, there is no science to this stuff. It's just a feel thing."

Phil Garner took over for Williams as manager of the Astros, pitching coach Jim Hickey and hitting coach Gary Gaetti were promoted from the Minor Leagues, and the Astros caught fire in August, winning 36 of their final 46. They clinched a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season, eliminated Atlanta in a five-game National League Divisional Series and lost a Game 7 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

It's impossible to know what role the coaching changes had in the Astros getting hot. When a team goes 36-10, a dozen little things have to fall into place. But there was no question the clubhouse atmosphere lightened under Garner's folksy style.

On the other hand, the clubhouse atmosphere would have been pretty nice under Williams or anyone else if the team was going 36-10.

What goes around comes around. Spilman and Hooton had been hired four years earlier at midseason when two of manager Larry Dierker's coaches -- Tommy McCraw and Vern Ruhle -- were let go in an effort to shake up the club. In that case, the changes did nothing, and the Astros lost 90 games and finished 23 games out.

So in letting Hatcher go, Dipoto wrestled with some of the same issues that dozens of general managers have dealt with through the years. It's just insane to think that Hatcher suddenly didn't know what he was doing.

He'd been with Mike Scioscia since the beginning, in 2000, and helped with the development of a long list of players, from Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus to Tim Salmon and Kendrys Morales.

That was then. Dipoto -- and surely his boss, Angels owner Arte Moreno -- looked at a club with baseball's fourth-highest payroll ($155 million) and most-disappointing record (15-21 when the decision was made).

Was Dipoto expected to do nothing? Should he have waited another 10 days? Another month? There's absolutely no way Hatcher can be tied to Albert Pujols' slow start. Veteran hitters, especially accomplished veteran hitters, understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

They also know where to turn for help, and it's very, very unlikely that Hatcher was going to do or say anything to snap Pujols out of his funk. And until Pujols starts to hit, the Angels aren't going to contend.

But new Angels hitting coach Jim Eppard does have a history with much of the clubhouse, including shortstop Erick Aybar, who is hitting 81 points below his career average. In a perfect world, Eppard would develop a relationship with Pujols, too, but let him walk before he attempts to win the Boston Marathon.

This personnel change was different because Scioscia hired Hatcher, because he and Hatcher are extremely close, and because Scioscia had never let a coach go during his 13 seasons. He clearly thought it was ridiculous to connect Hatcher to a team that has been one of the American League's worst offensive clubs.

There clearly is something else at work. Hatcher's dismissal indicates that it's now Dipoto, and not Scioscia, who is in charge of the Angels, and it'll be interesting to see how their relationship plays out, whether or not they can co-exist over the long haul.

There's no right and wrong in all of this. Scioscia went to bat for his guy, just like anyone who knows him knew he would do. But Dipoto -- and probably Moreno -- had tired of watching the Angels underachieve. Their alternative was to do nothing, which didn't seem like much of an alternative at all.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.