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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Tinker Bell Might Have Been a Better Choice

June 05, 2005|Tim Dahlberg | Associated Press

As city milestones go, Buddy Bell's hiring by the Kansas City Royals doesn't exactly rank up there with the pairing of white bread and barbecue.

Tinker Bell might have been a better choice to manage the inept Royals. Tinker, at least, had that magical pixie dust thing going for her.

Even pixie dust isn't enough to make these Royals fly. This is a team so unaccustomed to the idea of winning that it gave up four unearned runs to blow a five-run, ninth-inning lead the other night in Anaheim -- er, Los Angeles.

The Royals aren't merely bad. They're awful, which makes you wonder why Bell would give up a nice seat on the bench with the Cleveland Indians to take over a team that loses three games for every one it wins.

Probably because the New York Yankees weren't calling.

The problem with wanting to manage in the major leagues is that good teams rarely need new managers. Joe Torre isn't leaving the Yankees any time soon, Mike Scioscia is entrenched in a town near Los Angeles, and Bobby Cox is in his 16th season with Atlanta.

That leaves few options for guys like Bell, who was so eager to get what might be his last shot at managing that he'd have us believe the Royals are this bad only because they are in the midst of rebuilding.

Truth is, the Royals have been bad for a long time. So bad, they haven't even gotten a whiff of the playoffs since winning the World Series 20 years ago. The team has only one winning record since 1994, can't keep its best players, and has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball at about $39 million.

"It's going to take some time to figure this out," Bell admitted Tuesday.

More time than Bell has, that's for sure. Hired today, fired in a few years, that's the pattern for most managers who take on hopeless causes.

Bell is a prime example of that himself. His first managerial gig was with the Detroit Tigers, who promptly lost a staggering 109 games in his first year before rebounding to 79-83 his next year.

The euphoria of a near .500 team didn't last long, though. The Tigers slipped the next year and, when Bell made the mistake of asking management to clarify his status, they did so with a pink slip.

Bell had one winning season in Colorado, but just barely at 82-80. Soon he was out of a job again, when the Rockies went into a funk.

That's not to say Bell isn't a good manager. He might be a very good one, but the economics of baseball may never let him prove it.

The Royals may not, either. Bell got a contract only through the 2007 season, giving him little more than 400 games to work miracles.

Blame baseball's goofy caste system, which relegates small market teams like the Royals to being perennial also-rans. When they do have an occasional decent season (83-79 in 2003) they're forced to trade stars like Carlos Beltran because they can't afford to keep them.

The teams that share their penurious ways aren't much better.

The Yankees may not win the World Series every year just because they have the highest payroll, but it's almost automatic that the teams that pay the least won't win much. The bottom five teams in payroll this season all have losing records, with the combined record of the two lowest paying teams, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, a miserable 32-70 going into Tuesday's games.

Bud Selig insists that the disparity between teams is shrinking and the economic playing field is more level than ever. But until baseball starts sharing revenue and puts a salary cap in place, small market teams will be eliminated from contention before summer even begins heating up.

That deals some managers a losing hand no matter how hard they try. Look at Bell's predecessor, Tony Pena, who was hailed as a bright young manager when he led the Royals to a winning record in his second season. Pena didn't last long, succumbing to the inevitable once the losses started mounting.

Likewise, managers such as Dave Miley in Cincinnati, Lloyd McClendon in Pittsburgh and Eric Wedge in Cleveland are almost inevitably doomed to failure because they'll never have the players to win consistently.

There are only 30 jobs available for managers in the major leagues, and the good ones don't open up very often. For every manager handed a team with promise -- Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota or Jim Tracy in Los Angeles -- there are 10 others hired only because the owner needed somebody to blame.

Bell won't win in Kansas City, but not because he is 345-462 as a big league manager. He won't win because the system is stacked against teams like the Royals, who are spending about as much this year on their entire team as the Yankees are on Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

It's tough for guys like Bell to turn down a chance to manage again. Not nearly as tough, though, as trying to turn teams like this around.

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