Of all the sports, the leadership of a baseball club is the most random and uncontrollable. For Dave Miley, 26 years with the Reds organization, during which he mostly performed very well, it came down to less than three months of horror before his eyes and he could do nothing about it.
In times like the first half of this Reds season, the panic impulse is to do something, anything, which the Reds have done up to the point of everything except eating Eric Milton's contract. But Miley and General Manager Dan O'Brien, though their relationship must have been professional enough, couldn't put together the answers between them. Mostly, it's because the answers usually lie with the players, but O'Brien's quick trigger tells us that he feigns no chance of finding answers in the other cases.
Miley couldn't have been too surprised if he went into this season without the autonomy a manager might like, considering, for example, that the club re-signed D'Angelo Jiminez to play second base when Miley didn't want him. After a quarter century with the same operation, he must have understood how it works. The Reds never have been the kind of organization to dilute the general manager, except during the Lou Piniella-Bob Quinn years when the manager's strong personality, Marge Schott's desire to align with his popularity and the general manager's inability to politick created an unusual situation.
Otherwise, it's always the general manager's game with the Reds. The GM decides who will be on the club, and the manager plays with it.
If the manager can't play with the GM's players, then the GM finds a manager who can.
It was up to Miley to make Jiminez and Austin Kearns work. It was up to Miley and pitching coach Don Gullett to make Eric Milton, Danny Graves and others work. They couldn't do it. Last week, O'Brien relieved Miley and Gullett as heads continued to roll like thunder across the ground walked by Cincinnati baseball fans.
The bad news for O'Brien, at this point, is that he's running out of heads to roll. Like a Machiavellian prince trying to mollify an angry public with shows of severed officers, O'Brien already has put his second baseman, relief closer, pitching coach and manager to execution, while the right fielder is imprisoned in Louisville. Tough town.
O'Brien is every bit as inexperienced of a general manager as Miley is as a major league manager. O'Brien's weakness and lack of composure under pressure show up at every wrong turn. One pictures him as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies: "Failure will not be tolerated by the organization!"
The fact that he so quickly gives up on people is his admission, on the face of it, that he just doesn't possess the skill to deal with these personnel problems constructively.
The Reds have never operated under such a skittish administration so blatantly and publicly enervated by the Cover Your Ass mentality. Their lack of management experience, not to mention a lack of veteran leadership in the clubhouse, came down hard on this club. Unless O'Brien can convince ownership that his infrastructural improvements really are improvements, his turn will come soon enough.
In the other sports, the field boss works up offensive and defensive plays and drills the players until they get it right. It's a little different in baseball. Outside a few specialty situation plays, the manager fills out the lineup card, hands the pitcher a ball, moves around a few fielders based on the pitching plan and puts on a bunt, hit-and-run or steal. His main job is to keep the players on a professional keel so they might master the moments of a game without playbooks.
A great former manager, Whitey Herzog, said the manager doesn't win the game. Players win the game, and it's the manager's job to put the players in position to win the game. When Herzog stepped down from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990, he said simply that the players stopped playing for him.
The Reds didn't play this year for Miley. They didn't play for themselves. They didn't play for anybody. They played for a few days after Miley's firing, which is the usual run of success for a ball club after a managerial shake-up.
See how this plays out. Maybe interim manager Jerry Narron, O'Brien's selection for the coaching staff, goads the club into a better performance. Maybe O'Brien then argues to ownership, albeit subtly, that he should have been free to hire his own manager in the first place.
A cynical prediction, it's true. But what else should one expect from this ball club under O'Brien, who is, to all appearances, a very nice man? The old Temptations lyric sounds wise: "Smiling faces pretend to be your friend."
The losing is bad enough. What's worse is to consider if O'Brien's method for dealing with it will ever prepare the ground for a constructive environment in which the uniformed personnel aren't always looking over their shoulders. How does one concentrate in the midst of an earthquake every week? Paranoia will destroy ya.
It doesn't speak at all well for O'Brien's management of the Reds that he resorts so often and so quickly to final solutions. Good general managers bring expertise, people skill and finesse to the job.
A guillotine is a last resort, not a pat answer to have handy. But fans love guillotines and hangings, and the Reds so obviously lack confidence in themselves as a baseball operation at this point that they're happy to pander to the public with bloodshed. If the Reds can't satisfy fans any other way, maybe they ought to let go the pretense of playing baseball and stage executions instead.
If O'Brien can think of no other way to deal with a crisis, the Reds need to find someone who can. Firings merely get rid of people. O'Brien's job is to get the best out of them.
If the culture of the Reds is such that O'Brien's approach is acceptable, then the problems for this organization go a lot higher up. Somehow, that doesn't seem like a very big "if."