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Little Goes a Long Way

Dodger manager can't escape one decision in 2003, but he won't let it define him either

February 12, 2006|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

PINEHURST, N.C. — Grady Little is nothing if not a man of perspective, able to whittle down the sharp angles of harsh judgment and reconcile baseball's oddities, ironies and outright cruelties with impregnable reason cloaked in authentic Southern drawl.

This, though, was tough to shake. How many mornings before that self-pitying mix of high-pitched whining and low-slung rumbling emanating from Boston would cease, before that disquieting swirl of a distant nor'easter bearing down on Little in his bucolic brick home tucked alongside fairways and bunkers would dissipate?

Those folks honestly believed they were cursed. They believed Little's decision to stay with Red Sox starter Pedro Martinez despite the familiar warning sign of a mounting pitch count in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League championship series against the rightfully, spitefully superior New York Yankees was merely the latest proof.

Little had to go. The 188 regular-season victories in his two years as manager didn't matter to a fan base afflicted by multigenerational psychological distress, and neither did coming back from a two-game deficit to defeat the Oakland Athletics in the division series that made facing the Yankees possible. Peter Gammons wrote that many New Englanders were feeling "pure, unadulterated hatred for a wonderfully decent man."

So this is how it ends? Little couldn't help but wonder. Sixteen years of managing in the minors, another six as a major league coach, finally getting a shot at age 52 to do what he knew in the root of every silver strand on his head he was born to do, and this is how it ends?

He went home to his sleepy enclave in the sand hills of North Carolina, surrounded by good friends and in-laws, and did not enjoy watching the dogwood trees blossom, not one bit, because they blossom only in springtime and spring is for training in Florida or Arizona, not for staring out the back porch, or playing 18 holes, or watching the grandchildren, pleasant as that might be.

The perceived unfairness of it all gnawed at Debi, his wife of more than 30 years, and at their adult son, Eric, who had spent a delightfully nomadic childhood watching his father take teams to farm league titles in myriad mid-Atlantic outposts -- Richmond, Durham, Greenville, Kinston, Pulaski and Hagerstown. Maybe it was the sum of beating all those bushes, but Grady himself was oddly bemused by this so-called unfairness.

Criticism came with the uniform, the tiny office off the clubhouse, the lineup cards and the daily thrust and parry with the media. He understood that. And he wanted nothing more than another chance to make a tough decision with a World Series berth in the balance.

Not to redeem himself. Not to right a wrong. Little is at peace with making that particular decision at that particular time under those particular circumstances. He just loves to manage, and wanted to do it again.

"I realize there are only 30 of these jobs in the world," he told Debi. "So the reality is that everything doesn't happen the way you want it to."

Would somebody give him a second chance?

*

It's a baseball thing, this clinging to a numbing routine. Maybe it's the only way to get through a 162-game season on an even keel. But away from the game, a routine becomes a rut. Grady Little walked into the Players Cafe a block from the historic Pinehurst golf resort nearly every day at nearly the same time and ordered a Rueben sandwich -- every time.

He'd become a friend of the owner, Bob Scalzi, a transplanted Bostonian and former Fenway Park season-ticket holder, of all things. Scalzi made an offhand suggestion one day: Here's a way to clear your head and have some fun besides.

The next day Little bought a Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic motorcycle, got the motor running and headed for the highway. In less than two years he has racked up 14,000 miles, mostly taking solitary rides, winding through the horse farms near his home, past the scarlet berries of the mountain ash to the west and to the historic coastal communities along the Cape Fear river to the east.

"He hadn't been on a motorcycle since the '70s," said Eric, father of Grady and Debi's two grandsons. "But it's really been great. It puts him at ease, it's more or less therapy."

It's everybody else who needs therapy, that's what Little wanted to say, but he didn't because, well, he learned a lot about human nature managing for so long. And maybe the motorcycle did have something to do with putting that fateful night in New York in his rearview mirror and zooming as far away from it as possible.

"What bothers me most is that people keep bringing it up and won't let it go," he said. "People try to judge Grady Little by that one game. You know, I was a successful minor league manager for all those years, and I was a successful big league manager.

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