Black or Baker as NL Manager of the Year? You Might Be Surprised
Not when they look at the stupendous redwood trees near Eureka, or Malibu's inviting waters, or Yosemite's splendor.
Rather, when they discover they're now on Jupiter in terms of national sports perception.
Friday, before his San Diego Padres faced the Cincinnati Reds in a playoff race duel, Jed Hoyer had his first Eureka moment.
Hoyer is a New Englander and former Boston Red Sox staffer who became general manager of the San Diego Padres only 10 months ago, and during batting practice Friday, he looked like I'd just told him that two plus two equals five, or that ESPN won't air another Yankees-Red Sox game in his lifetime.
"You know, there's a chance that Bud Black won't win Manager of the Year," I said.
And that's when incredulity overcame the hard-to-surprise native of Plymouth, N.H.
Hoyer replied with a few words of astonishment. Then he gave me a comment that I could use here.
"In my mind," he said, "the race for Manager of the Year has been over for a long time."
Yeah, Hoyer is biased. He didn't hire Black, but he extended his contract. Nonetheless, given that Black's Padres have the second-lowest payroll in the majors yet are still contending for the National League West title, it's hard to argue against Black as Manager of the Year. At sports books in March, San Diego's over-under was 71 victories. The Padres won their 72nd game on Aug. 18. The $38 million Padres widely were picked for last.
"That's why it's called a prediction," said Reds manager Dusty Baker, who should be second to Black for the award.
My working theory is, if Black worked in a time zone where more people could watch his team, which is thick with role players, the award would be his regardless of how the Padres fare in the next nine games.
It's not that the folks from the Evil Coast and Flyover Land disrespect what Black has done. My guess is, they probably don't know what he's done, or, for that matter, know that San Francisco Giants crowds are among the liveliest in baseball, or that watching a football game in Eugene, Ore. is one of the college game's best experiences. It's human nature. What happens out of sight tends to be out of mind, which is why I created West Coast Bias. The Internet Age connects people and events in warp speed, but people still do sleep. And when teams in the West play at home, a lot of the country is in the Land of Nod.
Black may win the award, but I'm far from sure he's the leader. Not after gleaning some Big Media buzz, which can influence the managers who double as voters.
Take friend Peter Gammons' recent tweet that Houston Astros manager Brad Mills "has to be NL Manager of the Year."
Gammons has forgotten more baseball than I'll ever know. Mills seems to have done a terrific job. Someone in Houston has prettied up an eyesore of a team. In that regard, the spunky Astros resemble Black's Padres of 2009. They're winning a lot of second-half games without an ounce of pressure on them, because they were out of contention by May.
A Phillies baseball man tells me that Charlie Manuel is having his best year as a manager because he's dealt well with so many injuries. Seems plausible, but when ESPN and a Phillies broadcaster recently pegged Manuel as the Manger of the Year should his Phils reach the playoffs, Black's name wasn't even mentioned, which is like talking about Philadelphia's colonial history without mentioning the Liberty Bell or the Declaration of Independence.
Reds reporters who were in San Diego asked about Black. They marveled that any team with a $38 million payroll is sniffing first place in September.
Baker, for his part, isn't surprised that Black's Padres lead the NL in several pitching categories, or that their bold running game fueled a quick start to the season, or that the youthful club held steady for five months. When Baker was managing the Giants in 1993-94, Black was one of his pitchers. The unflappable left-hander left a firm impression.
"Blacky's cool," Baker said. "That's his demeanor. He's always been cool. Not fazed by much. That's why Blacky's one of my favorite guys."
Baker was among those who interviewed for San Diego's managerial job in 2006. At the time, contrary to the club's public stance, the Padres had decided on Black, who, after hearing from Padres officials, held off on applying for Oakland's job. The interview of Baker seemed strictly for show, which probably was unfair to Baker. Yet Baker was happy to see the Padres hire his former pitcher, who, like Baker, became a major league manager without having managed in the minors.
Baker looks to the mound when asked about these Padres, and there he sees Black's footprint.
"They're pitching-strong," Baker said. "That's probably one reason they leaned toward Buddy in the first place. Especially in this ballpark. You have to lean toward pitching in their ballpark."
Baker would land in Cincinnati's hitter friendly ballpark in 2008, which may explain the extra salt sprinkles in his hair now. Partial to pitcher's parks such as the San Francisco yards where he flourished as a younger manger, Baker suffered along with the Reds' patchwork pitching staffs. Baker's first Reds team lost 88 games and finished fifth in the NL Central. His second team dropped 84 games. But, as Baker predicted to FanHouse in March, this year would be decidedly different. The Reds are 86-68 going into Saturday's game, marking their first winning season since 2000. They're likely on the verge of their first playoff berth since 1995.
The way Hoyer calls it, Black should be Manager of the Year because the Padres "have played hard day in and day out," and because they somehow made it to late August without a losing streak of more than three games. "That points to leadership," Hoyer said.
Black's current test, though, is his most challenging. To get to the playoffs, the Padres -- who improved to 86-67 by edging the Reds on Friday, 4-3 -- likely must finish ahead of either the Giants (87-67) or the Braves (86-68). The latter two entered the season with payrolls of $98.6 million and $84.4 million.
His former boss Baker isn't saying who deserves Manager of the Year honors, which he has won three times. The first came in 1993, Baker's first season at the helm and marked the last great pure playoff race, Baker's Giants going 103-59 but losing to Bobby Cox's Braves, who then were in the NL West. First-place runs with the Giants in 1997 and 2000 brought Baker two more awards, but he professes not to ponder a fourth.
"I don't think about that," Baker said. "I always thought, 'Next time I'd rather have a championship and they can have that.' I don't think about that too much. I think about winning, that's all I think about."