THE AX FALLS
The Redbirds fired, er, reassigned manager Tom Spencer last week, 63 games into a dreadful season, the worst since the franchise moved to Memphis before the 1998 campaign. Was this a ritual slaying, the typical team-stinks-so-fire-the-manager? Or were there enough shortcomings in Spencers managerial style for him to shoulder blame for a 22-41 record (six more losses than any other team in the Pacific Coast League)?
The answer is probably yes to both questions. If you want a microcosm for Spencers abbreviated stay in Memphis, look back at the Redbirds game with Albuquerque May 25th. Tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth at AutoZone Park, Memphis loaded the bases with only one out. What transpired next defies explanation. With the runner at third (Jon Nunnally) sprinting home on the pitch, the batter (backup catcher Willie Morales) squared to bunt. Yep, a suicide squeeze with the bases loaded.
Both Morales and Nunnally botched the play, Morales popping the ball up and Nunnally stopping when he saw the ball go up instead of down. (Theres a reason they call this a suicide squeeze: the runner should never stop, never.) When the ball was inexplicably allowed to fall by the Isotope third baseman, Nunnally was still forced out at home. The next batter grounded out, and Albuquerque won the game in ten innings.
Spencer failed his squad here in two ways. First, he showed absolutely no confidence in his hitters. A bases-loaded squeeze with one out and the winning run 90 feet away? If youre that insecure about your batters ability to at least get the ball in the air for a sacrifice fly, then pinch-hit for him. Secondly, Spencer committed the cardinal sin for any coach in any sport. With this call, he put his players in a position where they were more likely to fail than succeed. Memphis hasnt been in many tight games this season. When they are, its incumbent on the manager to find a way to win.
But what if we ignore Spencers game-day frailties? The way these 2003 Redbirds have played, you have to wonder if John McGraw himself would have this club out of the cellar. Among the teams 41 losses under Spencer, 14 were lost by at least four runs. The team never mounted so much as a three-game winning streak under Spencer. (Ironically, they finally pulled this trick the night Spencer was dismissed.) So which is the chicken and which the egg? Losing -- like winning -- is contagious. Which makes it easier to understand how Spencer might be a little skittish with a game on the line.
Ive argued before that the St. Louis Cardinals, as one of the major leagues big-spending buyers, essentially uses the less wealthy big-league franchises -- the sellers -- as their de facto farm system. The more time and money invested in big-league scouting and payroll, the less there is to build up a minor-league operation. Talent thins out, losses accumulate . . . and managers wind up on the chopping block. Let it be known that Spencer had very little to do with bringing the likes of Morales, Mike Peeples, or Jose Nieves to Memphis. (Each of these talent-thirsty players was booted by the Cards before Spencer.)
On the two occasions I was able to briefly visit with Tom Spencer, he was as pleasant as the day is long. Enthusiastic about his job, with an easy smile. He arrived in Memphis with a solid resume, having won an International League title with Charlotte only four years ago. He seemed like a great fit, one of professional baseballs straight-up, by-the-book nice guys. Alas, we all remember what Leo Durocher said about nice guys.