Tuesday, February 19, 2002

SULLIVAN: Ease up on Boone


Give Boone chance before giving him grief

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Bob Boone can hold his tongue. He can sit on his hands. He can manage a ballgame without overmanaging it.

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        Give him the right players, and Boone can be happy pushing buttons in the background. Give him a team of overwhelming power, and he can be content to wait for the three-run homer. Give him a dominating pitching staff, and he won't make so many visits to the mound.

        Give him the tools. Or give him a break.

        Boone took charge of the Reds last spring with a reputation for too much tinkering, a reputation he reinforced with some unorthodox strategy and 132 different lineups in 162 games.

        Yet many of the moves Boone made were dictated by injuries or influenced by the inadequacies of his roster. Collectively, they fell in the normal range of managerial maneuvering. As any experienced boxer can attest, if you can't go toe to toe with the other guy, you had better be able to improvise.

        “You play the game,” Boone said Monday,“according to what you have.”

        Managers succeed or fail primarily because of the talent at their disposal, secondarily on their ability to handle high-strung personalities. Picking the right pitch for a hit-and-run has some strategic value, but it is not nearly as critical over the course of a long season as the ability to diagnose and treat clubhouse tensions.

        You can't fairly judge Boone's record without considering his resources, and you shouldn't trash his tactics until you can put them in context. This is not to say he is a great manager — you won't win awards finishing 66-96 — only that a lot of people have been premature in concluding he is a lousy one.

        Last year's Opening Day starter, Pete Harnisch, won one game in 2001. Scott Williamson, who was widely projected as the team's No.2 starter, pitched 2/3 of one inning all year. Shortstop Barry Larkin missed 117 games because of injuries. Ken Griffey Jr. missed 51 games completely, and played dozens of games as if normal exertion would cause his leg to explode. How any of this was Bob Boone's fault has yet to be persuasively argued.

        “To sit in this chair, you have to be supremely confident in what you know,” Boone said.“And you have to be really thick-skinned.”

        “One of the great things about baseball is that everyone knows a little bit about it. But you might get the guy who comes to one game a year and he wants to know why I didn't use Danny Graves. What he doesn't know is that Danny Graves has pitched three games in a row and he's not available.”

        Second-guessing the manager is an integral part of baseball's appeal. Unlike unwieldy football or frenetic basketball, the pace and scale of the game allows the spectator to weigh alternatives in real time. The spectator, however, is not privy to the same scouting analyses and injury reports that daily appear on the manager's desk. The spectator's guesses, therefore, are inherently less educated.

        Perceptions, too, sometimes suffer from a lack of perspective. While Boone's 132 lineups might seem an extraordinary total, Bob Brenly used 123 lineups en route to winning the World Series last year in Arizona. Bobby Valentine, one year removed from the World Series, used 144 lineups last year with the New York Mets.

        There are other symptoms of overmanaging, of course, but Bob Boone hardly qualifies on those counts. Atlanta's Bobby Cox was much more likely to call pitchouts last year than was Boone (90-25), and much less accurate in predicting runners on the move (20 percent versus Boone's league-leading 32 percent). St. Louis' Tony LaRussa ordered more intentional walks than did Boone (31-27) and used twice as many relievers for one-batter appearances (60-30).

        If Boone was sometimes prone to the quick hook, and he was, he was also burdened by inexperienced and ineffective starting pitchers. If he sometimes tried to force the action on offense in search of a single run, his lineup didn't allow for many sustained rallies. That much could change if the Reds stay reasonably healthy in 2002.

        “If you've got the offense we might have this year, you'll probably play more conservatively,” Boone said Monday, “because you don't want to give outs away.”

        Periodically, Boone will do something so strange the crowd will start rolling its eyes in unison. Last April, Boone became the first manager in nine years to use a pitcher to pinch run for another pitcher who was already a pinch runner. Though that move had no bearing on the ballgame, it was talk show fodder for a month.

        “I sort of work for WLW,” said Boone, referring to his pre-game radio show.“But I never turn it on.”

        Yet he is not so insulated as to be unaccountable. If you ask Boone to explain a decision, there's always a logical basis behind it. He may not be the best manager the Reds have ever employed, but he is certainly one of the brightest.

        Good managing, by definition, involves making effective use of available resources. When the British lacked the military might to combat Nazi Germany, they fell back on their brainpower and developed radar and cracked the ENIGMA code. Similarly, a baseball team with marginal talent must seek other solutions.

        “A lot of guys fold their tents when things go so dire,” third baseman Aaron Boone said when asked about his father's first season with the Reds. “That's not his nature. His passion and his work ethic won't allow him to do that. He's a guy unwilling to surrender.”

        It's hard to see how that's a flaw.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       

       



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