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BASEBALL 2001 | BILL PLASCHKE

Ready to Deliver

New Dodger Manager Jim Tracy Displays a Work Ethic That Served Him Well as a Player, Minor League Manager and Paperboy

April 02, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

The former baseball player was a box salesman.

Eighty-seven career games had landed him in towering butter tubs and giant cardboard cans of soup. He sold grocery displays. He worked the phones until his ear swelled and his ego shrunk.

Still, it was not enough.

He and his wife had one young child, another on the way, little left after paying the mortgage.

"I'll get a job," she said.

"No," he said, wanting her to stay with the children. "I'll get a second job."

He combed the classified ads, searching for moonlight, until something hit him like a thump on the front door.

News delivery agent.

Paperboy.

So it happened that, 15 years ago, Jim Tracy would awaken at 2 a.m. and drive through the streets of suburban Chicago throwing newspapers.

The Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Sun-Times. The Wall Street Journal.

In two hours, he rolled and stuffed 400 papers into plastic wrap, then tossed them onto driveways and doorsteps.

Driving down the middle of deserted streets in his yellow-and-white Dodge Omni, he was a paperboy who could hit to all fields. He threw them out the left window, the right window, and even over the roof.

During the winter, on icy roads, with both windows rolled down and the heat blasting on full, he worked with a ski mask and a prayer.

When his front passenger seat emptied, he returned home, slept for an hour, then awakened to life-size cutouts of Mr. Clean.

Two years. Two jobs. Six sets of brake pads.

A sense of survival that will carry him into Dodger Stadium today as perhaps the most unlikely, but unflappable, new manager in Dodger history.

His wife Debra talks about those days and her throat thickens.

"What Jim has done for his family . . . I cannot even describe," she says.

Tracy talks about these days, and his voice hardens.

"I respect this Dodger job, but I am not awed by it," he says. "I am not awed."

*

He's not a skipper, he's a typo.

Wilbert Robinson. Casey Stengel. Leo Durocher. Walter Alston. Tom Lasorda. Jim Tracy.

Jim Tracy?

He wasn't even the best player on his high school baseball team.

"That's accurate," said Dick Fiehrer, his coach at Badin High in Fairfield, Ohio. "Nobody expected him to be anything."

Jim Tracy?

He was a Chicago Cub outfielder, but the only thing he had in common with greatness was No. 23. Tracy rented it until Ryne Sandberg immortalized it.

Tracy kept his major league jersey as a souvenir until somebody stole it from a minor league clubhouse in Rockford, Ill.

With only one more major league hit than years spent on this earth--46--Tracy figured the thief wanted to sell the jersey as Sandberg's.

"A bunch of us will never forget how we drove up to Wrigley Field to see his first major league plate appearance," recalled hometown friend Bobby Schuster. "He struck out looking."

Jim Tracy?

He declined his first chance to become a minor league manager because it would be a cut in pay from the twin jobs as the box salesman and paperboy.

A year later, he began his managerial career in Peoria, Ill., then Chattanooga, Tenn., then Harrisburg, Pa., then Ottawa, Canada, and don't you dare say a word.

"We are Harrisburg kind of people," said wife Debra. "We are Peoria kind of people."

Jim Tracy?

His only major league leadership experience is six years as a bench coach for strong-willed Felipe Alou and Davey Johnson. He has never been involved in a World Series, a major league playoff series, or even an All-Star game.

He went 3-1 last season as temporary boss when Johnson suffered heart problems, but there's a catch. Under major league baseball rules, those games belong to Johnson.

The major league managerial debut of this most anonymous major league manager fittingly never happened.

Jim Tracy?

This town doesn't know him from Adams (Terry). He has virtually no Dodger history, scant baseball history, and a post-game rap that sheds little light on either.

This spring, while Tracy was spouting his usual Muzak above the usual Dodger cacophony, a writer sitting on his office couch fell asleep.

Jim Tracy?

At first glance, beneath the giant glasses and jutting jaw and goofy grin, there is nothing there.

But maybe, on this glorious opening day, we should do what Tracy has promised to do.

Maybe we should examine little things.

Instead of looking for home runs, maybe we should look for hit-and-runs.

Maybe we should search for Jim Tracy not in places he has never been, but in places he has been forever.

A minor league outfield. A Catholic school playground. The heart of a small Ohio town.

At the cloudy dawn of another Dodger season, perhaps we should not judge Jim Tracy without ever leaving the house.

Perhaps, hearing this thump at the end of our driveway, we should walk outside and have a closer look.

*

Jim Tracy's favorite piece of baseball memorabilia?

Nothing from a prep and college career that included inductions into the sports hall of fames of Badin High and Marietta (Ohio) College.

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