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A's Macha Wins Game of Chance

Denied an opportunity to pursue Red Sox job in 2002, first-year manager finds success in Oakland.

October 01, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

In spring training, where everyone wears a smile, the silver-haired gentleman sat in the office of the Oakland Athletics, waiting for his friend, Manager Ken Macha.

Billy Beane emerged, and the smiles vanished. The silver-haired gentleman was Buck Rodgers, the former Angel manager. Beane had hired Macha to manage the A's over the winter, but the Oakland general manager had not forgotten the unkind words Rodgers uttered about him after he denied Macha permission to interview for the managerial vacancy in Boston before the 2002 season.

"You said some things about me," Beane said.

"Yeah, and I meant every one," Rodgers said.

Seven months later, as Rodgers tells the story, he laughs.

"I didn't know what the master plan was," he said. "It's worked out very well."

In his first season as a major league manager, after 13 as a coach and another four as a minor league manager, Macha led the A's to the American League West championship. The A's open the playoffs today against the Boston Red Sox, the team Macha longed to manage last year. He has little time to entertain thoughts of irony.

"You can only be thankful you got an opportunity," Macha said.

The opportunity was a long time coming. Macha, 53, coached under Rodgers for six seasons with the Montreal Expos and another three with the Angels. After the Angels fired Rodgers in 1994, Macha took his first minor league managerial job -- at Trenton, N.J., the double-A affiliate of the Red Sox.

"You can coach all you want in the big leagues, but managing is completely different," he said. "You've got all kinds of things to deal with -- the press, disgruntled players, the pitching coach, the hitting coach, guys in a slump. The only way to prepare is to go to the minor leagues and do it."

Even when clubhouse distractions cannot be anticipated, managers must minimize their effects.

In spring training, Oakland co-owner Steve Schott stunned Macha and the players, announcing that the team did not intend to offer a contract extension to shortstop and free-agent-to-be Miguel Tejada, the American League MVP. In July, Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito flew to Chicago for the All-Star game, only to be informed by reporters the A's would not allow him to pitch.

"You've got to be able to handle situations like that," Rodgers said. "I think everybody has got to go to the minor leagues for at least a year. You're not going to learn how to hit-and-run any better. It's the psychological things you need to know. A lot of one-year wonders don't understand that.

"You've got to be the good guy and the bad guy. You've got to learn how to handle the bad guy part of it."

Macha managed two years at double-A and two more at triple-A before accepting a coaching job in Oakland. After four years as affable lieutenant to Art Howe, Macha has handled "the bad guy part of it" just fine, according to first baseman Scott Hatteberg.

Under Howe, if you missed a sign, you might not hear about it, Hatteberg said. Under Macha, you will.

"Art was very lax and very lenient. He let you do what you wanted to," Hatteberg said. "Macha is a little more structured."

Said Beane: "He's as prepared as anybody. He reminds me a little bit of Tony La Russa in that sense."

Macha also tweaked Beane's vaunted offensive blueprint, or so Bay Area folks suspected in April. Beane's approach, considered revolutionary enough to warrant the book "Moneyball," emphasizes walks and home runs and disdains the sacrifice bunt and stolen base.

In the first week of the season, the A's dropped two sacrifice bunts in one game and stole three bases in another. The Oakland Tribune exclaimed "gasp!" in regard to the bunts and "egad!" in regard to the steals, and reports there and elsewhere implied Macha might operate a bit more independently of Beane than Howe had.

"That was writers trying to create a chasm between me and Kenny," Beane said.

The A's finished with 48 stolen bases and 22 sacrifice bunts, ranking next-to-last in the league in each category. In 2002, they had 46 steals and 20 bunts.

Said Macha: "I just try to look at our team and look at the players who can bunt if the situation calls for it. If the situation calls for running and I've got somebody who can run, we try to run."

After more than a decade of apprenticeships, Macha jumped at the chance to interview in Boston last year. As soon as new owners assumed control, midway through spring training, the Red Sox fired Joe Kerrigan and asked to interview Macha.

Baseball protocol frowns on teams preventing a coach from pursuing a managerial job. Beane said no anyway.

"The timing would have put the organization at risk," Beane said. "We wouldn't have had time to react if Kenny were hired. I have to consider an individual's career, but I have to put the organization ahead of everybody."

Although Beane told the Red Sox they could not interview his bench coach, Cleveland General Manager Mark Shapiro allowed the Red Sox to talk to his bench coach, Grady Little. The Red Sox hired Little.

Rodgers publicly disparaged Beane, saying then that Macha got a raw deal and saying now that Beane played "dirty pool."

Said Macha: "Did it bother me? Yeah, it did."

Beane assured Macha that opportunity would knock again. After the season, Macha interviewed with the Brewers, Cubs, Devil Rays and Mets. He got the job in Oakland, of all places. Beane held the door open for Howe, who jumped to the Mets for $9.4 million over four years, then hired Macha, for slightly less than $2 million over three years.

After Beane stood between Macha and the Red Sox, the two men met several times. Never, Macha said, did Beane assure him that he would be Howe's successor in Oakland.

"He just kept saying to me, when the season's over, there would be plenty of opportunities. He just told me to be patient," Macha said.

"He said I'd make a lot of money. But I work for the A's. Even he says, that's why I make the medium bucks."

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