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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Expos Boss Rodgers Just Plays It Like He Sees It

January 29, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

On last Christmas Eve, a group of Bob Rodgers' friends and neighbors gave him a monograph in a picture frame saluting him as baseball's 1987 National League manager of the year. They figured he should have something and it's still the only tangible evidence he has of his award.

The real statue, presented by the Baseball Writers of America, was broken in packing and never arrived at the Montreal Expos manager's Yorba Linda home--and still hasn't been replaced. A similar award from the Sporting News languishes in Rodgers' office in Canada.

"It's too heavy to ship," Rodgers said, "and besides, it would cost me $80 to get it through customs."

So much for being appointed as the National League's best manager for taking the Expos, a team that was dismissed in spring training as not being of major league caliber, to within four games of the National League eastern division championship.

Rodgers takes all this in stride. He has been around the course a few times, and not too much surprises him anymore. He is pleased but not ecstatic. He knows that a few sore-armed pitchers and flaky outfielders could turn his managing genius into goat horns very quickly. He has been there, too. So, just in case, he spent a good deal of time during this off-season helping one of his 22-year-old twin daughters find a site for a floral-arrangement store she plans to open in March.

"We're partners," Rodgers said laconically.

On this day, he was wearing a red sweater, slacks, loafers and a toothpick. He looks like a catcher, which he was for almost two decades in the major leagues--including a long stretch with the Angels. Big shoulders. Formidable girth that has been allowed to expand a mite since he started managing. Bemused eyes. The long view that only catchers--who command the whole field--can have. A philosophical, sometimes whimsical approach to the game--and business--of baseball in which he makes his living.

Rodgers might very well be the most low-key manager ever to be recognized as the best in his league. He is about as far from Tommy Lasorda in temperament as the Grateful Dead from Lawrence Welk.

"Every manager has his own style, " Rodgers said. "I see my job as setting the tempo and attitude of the team--and I see that as happening behind the scenes. I delegate a lot of authority. I guess my style is based on the conviction that people come to ball games to see the players, not the manager. So I like to see my players in the headlines."

Rodgers pays a price for that. Considering the fact that major league baseball players, and especially managers, are in constant demand as speakers, that Rodgers is a accomplished raconteur with a dry and acerbic wit, and that his recent award is not exactly chopped liver, it is mildly astonishing that he has lived in the same house in Orange County since 1965 in almost public anonymity. Rodgers shrugs it off. "Being manager of the year in Montreal and living in California limits the demand for me in both places," he says. "Besides, I'm not around here all that much."

His relative lack of visibility is compounded by some very special problems that go along with managing in Canada.

"The good fans up there know the game as well as American fans," he said, "but the big difference is that there just aren't as many of them. Their big game is hockey, and during the hockey season, the first four or five pages of the sports sections are devoted entirely to hockey. You have to realize that when you manage a baseball team up there."

Since 80% of Montreal's Quebec Province is French, Rodgers has no shot at the kinds of TV perks most managers enjoy. "The only people who could understand me are whatever part of the English-speaking 20% is interested in baseball--and that doesn't excite TV or radio sponsors very much."

He admitted that he might be able to change that by learning to speak French, but so far he hasn't made much headway. "I took a couple of shots at learning," he said, "but that's all. I've been there three years now, and I should have done better."

Given the normal longevity of baseball managers, Rodgers' reluctance to invest too much time in French lessons is understandable. But he doesn't offer that as an excuse, even though he knows what it is like to be fired. It only happened to him once, but the scars are deep.

After more than a decade of coaching in the major leagues and managing successfully in the minors, Rodgers was named manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. He won a division title for Milwaukee in the strike-shortened 1981 season and had his team playing at .500 and within striking distance of the lead two months into the 1982 season.

The Brewers were playing in Seattle on June 2, 1982, when Rodgers was summoned to the general manager's hotel room. "Certain dates," Rodgers said, "stick in your mind. Like Pearl Harbor and John Kennedy's assassination--and the first time you got fired.

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