With the possible exception of Tom Landry, Hank Stram and Vince Lombardi, baseball managers have always seemed more epic, uniquely American characters than football coaches. (Basketball coaches are always trying to sell you something.) These men, these old salts, they're not John Wayne: It's difficult to be stoic and taciturn when you are pulling a base out of the ground and throwing it. They're more like sea captains, grizzled veterans of maritime battle, prone to eruption, prickly but soft underneath. They are tempestuous, difficult-to-please fathers, whose approval we strive for, collectors of a Great Wisdom, hard-earned, that they have passed from generation to generation. To win their respect, a man must pay his dues. The great teams all had managers who guided them to the mountaintop. At the end of the season, through a champagne-soaked mustache, they would, at last, smile.
At least that's how I always imagined them. But then advanced baseball analysis came about, and it began to appear that managers didn't do all that much at all. Lineup construction was proven negligible. Specialization limited the number of decisions a manager had to make in the first place. High-def cameras placed within inches of every manager's face led to the sneaking suspicion that a large part of one's managerial job is sitting down, chewing gum and trying to avoid being caught picking one's nose. The job of a manager was broken down into: Don't destroy the young pitchers, don't punch your players in the face and don't sign up for Twitter. Like most revelations sabermetrics bring us, this made total logical sense and took a lot of fun out of the whole matter.
How, then, to explain the 2009 Colorado Rockies? At the time the Rockies fired manager Clint Hurdle, they were considered a lost cause. Bringing in Jim Tracy, a likable enough fellow but a retread who had crapped out of two jobs in three years, was seen as an interim solution to an unsolvable problem. Yeah, good luck with that, Tracy, we thought. Those crazy fluke Septembers only happen once a decade. The Rockies, of course, then took off, and were the best team in the National League the rest of the way, Tracy won Manager of the Year and all of a sudden the Rockies are healed and well and positioned for the future again. Now, a certain part of this is a misconception in the first place: Colorado wasn't as bad as they were before Tracy was hired, and they weren't as good as he was afterward. But look at that: 18-28 before, 74-42 afterward. That's not managing; that's alchemy.
How did he do it? You get the usual answers. He "changed the culture of the clubhouse" — under Jim Tracy, everybody sambas! — he squeezed out the most of the Rockies' natural talent, he provided a "steady, experienced hand." Baseball Prospectus 2010 says the answer lay in his lineup construction, which ... man, I thought that didn't matter? So confusing. (Theoretical land is difficult to navigate.) Now that Tracy has re-established his reputation, he's back doing what managers do best: Overmanaging. (Circling The Bases points out he rejiggered his spring training rotation so the Giants wouldn't see Ubaldo Jimenez pitch too often. In spring training.) He is now re-instituted as Manager Of High Regard. Until the Rockies finish one or two games below what people expected them to. Then he's just another schmuck like the rest of us. I doubt he has much to do with it either way.
If it goes wrong — and the Rockies are certainly talented this year, but we see how quickly our perception on that can alter — then he can become what all managers who aren't Tony LaRussa, John McGraw or Bobby Cox ultimately become: Fired managers. Tommy Lasorda once said, "Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it; not hard enough and it flies away," but that sounds like Tommy Lasorda trying to sound important. I prefer Earl Weaver: "A manager's job is simple. For one hundred sixty-two games you try not to screw up all that smart stuff your organization did last December." A manager is a figurehead we love when we win and we hate when we lose. He is a totem. We project all that we lack and want onto him. Last year, Jim Tracy was a genius. This year, he might not be. Either way, we'll hold him responsible. At the end of the day, that does seem to be the job. He's just another guy without much control over anything. Like the rest of us.