Mystery Achievement: Reds Doing Better Than Critics Admit

Jerry Narron notched his 110th victory as the Reds manager on Aug. 20. Earlier that day, the morning paper ran a column in Narron's defense. It should be counted among the wonders of sports that

Jerry Dowling

Jerry Narron notched his 110th victory as the Reds manager on Aug. 20. Earlier that day, the morning paper ran a column in Narron's defense.

It should be counted among the wonders of sports that fans are so venomous toward those who do the best work for them. Many fans, it seems, can't tell Narron is doing a good job when he obviously is. Then again, a recent Harris poll showed that half of Americans still think Iraq held weapons of mass destruction in 2003, so we probably shouldn't be too surprised by what we hear in the street.

Maybe fans don't see progress under Narron. After all, the Reds went 46-46 under him after he took command last year, and they're 65-60 through Aug. 21 this season, so it's not obvious the Reds have improved by leaps and bounds.

But it's not that simple. That 65-60 record perhaps doesn't show that the team has improved by leaps and bounds, but they have improved by leaps and bounds, and they've made the improvement as Narron manages on the fly.

No one should suggest that 65-60 is or ought to be satisfying, but it is tangible progress. The Reds are succeeding and competing during a transitional phase while General Manager Wayne Krivsky continuously wheels in his own players and Narron integrates them with positive results.

The manager, of course, manages not only today's game, but he starts from events of the past few days as he also manages the next week's games and down the line. He manages not just the moment-to-moment decisions and proven production but enduring personality issues and unproven potential.

We've all lived those moments of doubt when Narron makes a decision in game that doesn't follow the book. Narron could have saved himself a bit of criticism if he put Edwin Encarnacion at third base more during the past few months, because how else is the kid going to learn? And Narron also has fended off critics who outsmart themselves by saying someone other than Junior Griffey should be hitting third.

But these decisions that seem so obvious to observers are less obvious to a manager who factors in volumes of information of which only he is aware. That's why, in the end, a manager must be judged on his total results. Narron passes.

Narron is managing the Reds on two fronts. The Reds are rebuilding and trying to win at the same time. Most clubs, regardless of what they say, are trying to do one or the other.

On the first front, Narron is responsible for integrating the parts of an ever-changing roster that includes 20 players acquired by Krivsky. In large part, Narron looks good by making Krivsky look good.

Narron's job is to put Krivsky's acquisitions in position to succeed. When those players work out, it's not altogether because Krivsky is such a genius. At the same time, Narron's job is to soften the blow when Krivsky's moves don't or can't work. For example, the Washington trade isn't looking all that great right now, mostly because of Gary Majewski's sore arm. Narron has papered over the losses by finding a home for Ryan Freel in right field and putting Rich Aurilia's production at shortstop.

On the second front, Narron is trying to win with a ball club in constant flux and uncertainty. A large part of managing flux and uncertainty is minimizing them. Much was made, especially around the time of the Washington trade, about Narron's appreciation of reliable veteran players. That's because reliable veteran players are gold on a ball club in flux.

Of course fans would rather have seen Encarnacion at third base more through the year because he's an exciting young player with huge upside. But he's a kid who will make mistakes. The Reds already had an erratic performer at shortstop in Felipe Lopez, and your ball club simply isn't going anywhere if every ground ball to the left side has to be an adventure.

But as it's become clear that Royce Clayton's defense won't compensate for his flimsy offensive production, Narron has adjusted by moving Aurilia to shortstop and expanding Encarnacion's opportunities at third base. You certainly can't argue that Narron's management has hurt Encarnacion.

Narron kept the Reds afloat, allowed Encarnacion to learn without exposing him to damaging mistakes and threw him back in the fire when he was ready to help. Narron has done what's best for a young player, bringing him along slowly. During the first 20 days of August, Encarnacion responded with a .350 batting average, seven homers and an 1.192 OPS.

For some reason, many in the stands and the media have campaigned to drop Griffey from the third spot in the batting order, and their refusal is taken as evidence they lack guts. Again, and to the contrary, screwing around with a great player like Griffey would evidence a lack of taste and good sense.

It's true Griffey slowed down a bit in July, but he's a consummate veteran ball player and you hang with him for two reasons. One, he'll find his groove in the long haul, as he has in August. Two, going back to an above point, Narron's got enough juggling to do already without treating Griffey like some puzzle piece.

Put Griffey third, leave him there and don't fret. It's one less problem to worry about, and it'll work out in the end.

Sadly, it's the nature of reality that folks cut more slack for a bumbling government than for a prospering sports team. In the limited tongue of angry fans and juvenile bloggers, Narron is a "moron," Griffey is a has-been who should be dropped in the order and Adam Dunn, who never begs out of the lineup, plays 160 games and hits 40 homers every year, is "Donkey Man."

On Aug. 20, 2005, the Reds were 56-67, 22 games out of first place in the National League Central division and 10th place in the wild card standings, 9 1/2 behind front-running Philadelphia. A year later, despite all the performances deemed insufficient, the Reds lead the NL wild card race.

There's a pretty good chance the Reds are doing better than their critics.

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