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Coleman Manages Better From Above : Baseball: He says his season at the helm of the Padres made him a better broadcaster.

May 01, 1990|BOB WOLF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — It wasn't fun, but it was a rewarding experience.

That's the way Jerry Coleman looks back at his only season as a baseball manager, a season that was considerably less than a success. As bad as the San Diego Padres were that year, and as quickly as he was relieved of his command when it was over, Coleman is glad he suffered through it.

In 1980, Coleman stepped out of the Padres' broadcasting booth to manage the team. In 1981, he went back upstairs. A 73-89 record and a last-place finish in the National League West put an end to his managerial career.

As far as Coleman is concerned, the fact that his job-switch didn't work out is incidental.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," said the man who has been the radio and television voice of the Padres since 1972.

Why does Coleman, 65, regard such a negative part of his life so positively?

"When I was broadcasting before the year I managed, I thought I knew the ballclub," Coleman said. "As it turned out, I didn't. I didn't know the idiosyncrasies of the players, who the tough competitors were, who could pitch and who couldn't, who caught the signs and who missed them. Those are the kinds of things you don't notice upstairs.

"Also, there was a different philosophy from when I played (in the '40s and '50s). In my day, a $5,000 raise made a guy happy. Now they're playing for lifetime security. It's a life situation, not just a pay raise. A player today has his entire life staring him in the face.

"That year awakened me to what the game was all about. Not only that, it probably made me a better broadcaster."

Coleman said that since his season as the Padres' manager, he has been more aware of game strategy than in his eight earlier seasons behind a microphone.

"I used to be in it more passively," he said. "I was getting kind of stale and didn't realize it. The change of venue gave me a better insight into the game and the players."

Coleman was a second baseman for the New York Yankees for nine seasons before retiring after the 1957 World Series, but never managed or even coached before he suddenly was put in charge of the Padres.

The transformation of Coleman from broadcaster to manager was the brainchild of Bob Fontaine, then Padre general manager. Perhaps it was only coincidence, but Fontaine was fired before Coleman. Fontaine was replaced in the middle of the 1980 season.

"Fontaine and I grew up together in San Francisco," Coleman said. "We played on the same kid teams, and we were good friends.

"Roger Craig was managing the Padres then (1979), but in the final week of the season, Fontaine said to me, 'I want you to be my manager.' I said, 'Are you serious?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm serious.' I said, 'What about Roger?' He said, 'We're going to let him go.'

"I said, 'OK, if you're game, I'm game, but there's going to be a terrible credibility gap between me and the players.' He insisted, so I took the job."

The fact that Craig has gone on to great success, managing the San Francisco Giants to the National League pennant last year, is no surprise to Coleman.

"Roger is an outstanding manager," Coleman said.

However, Coleman's appointment as Padre manager would have been a shocker regardless of whose place he took.

"When they announced it at a press conference, 17 people fainted and the rest left the room," Coleman said. "I'm kidding, of course, but that gives you an idea how stunned everybody was.

"Here I was, having been out of uniform 23 years, suddenly managing a ballclub. The players probably figured I was born on Mars and arrived on Earth when I was 45. How was I ever going to establish any credibility with them?"

To put it charitably, the Padres were a team in transition in 1980. They had a flock of veterans on the down sides of their careers--pitchers Rollie Fingers, Randy Jones, John Curtis and Rick Wise, first baseman Willie Montanez, second baseman Dave Cash, third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, catcher Gene Tenace and utility man Kurt Bevacqua. In a losing atmosphere, it wasn't the best situation.

"Fingers had a great year (23 saves and 11 victories)," Coleman said. "But no starter won more games than Rollie did, so you can see how good our pitching was. We didn't have a bell-ringer, somebody who could give us seven or eight innings every time out.

"We had Ozzie Smith at shortstop and Dave Winfield in the outfield, along with Jerry Mumphrey and Gene Richards. We had a lot of speed. But besides our pitching, we had holes at third, second and behind the plate, and Montanez at first was going downhill.

"Cash was on the way out, too, and Rodriguez was finished when he got here. Bevacqua had a good year as a pinch-hitter, but every time I put him at third base, the hitters found him and the ball wound up in the left fielder's glove."

Coleman didn't overstate the case when he said the Padres had a lot of speed. They set a club record that still stands by stealing 239 bases, including 61 by Richards, 57 by Smith, 52 by Mumphrey and 23 by Winfield.

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