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The best managers
So why not jump ahead, I thought, and name the game's top 10 managers?
1. Jim Leyland, Detroit. He combines the job's basic requirements _ people skills, in-game strategy, roster management and media relations _ better than anyone else. He's crusty, but it's sort of "crusty with a wink"; you know there's a method to his madness. He has incredible instincts for when to lift a pitcher. Remember when he changed pitchers in the middle of an at-bat against the Yankees in the 2006 playoffs?
2. Mike Scioscia, Angels. A relative youngster to rank so high _ he's in his ninth year as a manager _ but Scioscia has earned universal respect for his strong personality, great bullpen management and utilization of his entire 25-man roster.
3. Tony La Russa, St. Louis. It would be hard to rank The Genius any lower than this. Despite his arrogance, his huge presence in baseball's steroids era and the fact that we can blame him for teams that change pitchers four times in an inning, La Russa consistently gets the most out of his clubs. His 2006 postseason was his masterpiece.
4. Bobby Cox, Atlanta. I've yet to find a player who didn't enjoy playing for Cox, whose consistently upbeat approach is appreciated by his charges. His status as the Ejection King confirms that he fights for his players, even if that makes him a tad jerky to the rest of us.
5. Joe Torre, Dodgers. Some of you probably think this is too low, others too high. I admit, when I did some research for a Billy Wagner column the other day, I was blown away by how often Torre used Mariano Rivera last year in situations that were anything but high-leverage. Torre's bullpen management seemed to grow increasingly worse the last few years.
Now, on the flip side, Torre can navigate through stress better than anyone else, and it would be interesting to see how numbers one through four on this list would have functioned with the Yankees of the past 12 seasons. Torre generates incredible respect from his players, and he is the best, of course, at managing the media. He should make a significant impact this year replacing Grady Little, who clearly lacked in these areas.
6. Terry Francona, Boston. Like Scioscia, a relative young'un on this list, but he's impossible to ignore. Francona and his general manager, Theo Epstein, exemplify the modern management template of manager and GM operating in sync with one another. It's a model that Brian Cashman is attempting to emulate now with Joe Girardi. Francona has earned the respect of his players and the public by not getting caught up in the day-to-day "narrative," as Epstein calls it, of Red Sox Nation.
7. Lou Piniella, Cubs. Like Torre, he is no tactical genius, and he has a disquieting tendency to throw players under the bus when things go wrong. Yet Lou's teams play hard for him, always. Even when he managed the Devil Rays, he got far more out of that roster than most would have.
8. Ron Gardenhire, Minnesota. Another "organizational" guy like Francona, "Gardy" replaced an institution in Tom Kelly and is becoming an institution of his own. Always keeps the Twins in the mix, although that is going to be quite a challenge this year with Johan Santana gone.
9. Ozzie Guillen, White Sox. Yes, he often comes off as a few Chicken McNuggets short of a Happy Meal with some off-the-wall comments. Last year was a complete fiasco. But Ozzie's 2005 World Series title serves as a work of art _ remember how he and pitching coach Don Cooper allowed the starting pitchers to throw four straight complete games against the Angels in the ALCS? _ and the guess here is he and the White Sox will rebound with an interesting 2008.
10. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco. He comes off like the late Phil Hartman's Frankenstein in "Saturday Night Live," but he has an understated way of dealing with players that seems to work. And in his many years with the Padres, he exemplified a strong grasp of how to use a bullpen.