First, two things:
- I cannot speak to the dismissals of Rick Adair, Ty Van Burkleo, and Steve Hecht. Evaluating a manager is hard enough; trying to evaluate a pitching coach, a bench coach, or a performance coach is practically impossible. I don't know why they were dismissed, and suspect it was simply because they were parts of Wak's coaching staff, but the fact that I won't talk about them for the rest of this post is in no way intended to pass off their dismissals as insignificant.
- No, this mess is not Don Wakamatsu's fault, nor is it the fault of his coaching staff. That's not the point. The Greater Internet will snark away until the next headline comes along, but snark is in no way a substitute for meaningful evaluation.
It turns out there's been serious talk about Don Wakamatsu getting fired for at least two months. I know this, because it was two months ago that I emailed a few local media members to get their opinions on what a manager is actually expected to do. I'm just a guy on the outside, some idiot sitting in his office in Portland. The media is on the inside, so they know what's up. They can paint a clearer picture of a manager's true job responsibilities. And by knowing the things for which a manager is responsible, we're then able to seriously consider how he's doing.
The responses I got matched up with one another, and what they boiled down to - perhaps unsurprisingly - is that, above all, a manager has to be a leader of men. It isn't about strategy. It's never about strategy. No manager ever gets hired or fired based on how he answers a question about bunting. It's about leadership, and passion, and determination, and communication, and all those words that, one after another, start to sound hollow until you pause for a minute to really think about what they mean.
It is the manager's responsibility to set a certain tone in the clubhouse. To set the right tone, and to press the right buttons. A manager has to keep everybody focused and determined and aware of their roles. As the last sentence of one of the emails I got back reads, "If all goes well you end up with a club that reflects its manager." Well, it all didn't go so well this year. Which is how we wound up with what we have, instead of what we had.
The focus I've been seeing in a lot of places so far has been on how this season wasn't Wakamatsu's fault. That much is true. Though Wak might be the reason the Mariners are 42-70 instead of 44-68, he's not the reason they're 42-70 instead of 62-50. I just can't bring myself to believe that a manager can have that kind of impact. The people at fault here are the players, the front office, and then the field crew, and the sentiment seems to be that it's a shame that the field crew has to pay the price for everyone else's mistakes.
However, what's important here isn't assigning proper blame for the larger disappointment. It doesn't do anyone any good to try and figure out exactly how much of this is everyone's fault. What matters, at any point in time, is making the best decision you can make from that point forward. As Zduriencik talked about in the press conference, there is a constant evaluation process going on, with everybody. The reason this is the case is because focusing on the present is a lot more productive than focusing on the past. And out of this constant evaluation process, it was determined that Don Wakamatsu needed to go.
Why did he need to go? Z obviously didn't open up about this issue, but it doesn't take much of a leap to figure out that he no longer saw Wak as being a capable leader. Of this team. We've heard whispers that Wak had lost the clubhouse for a while. There have been incidents with players that were widely reported, and there have been incidents with players that were not reported at all. There have been incidents with a lot of players. The Ken Griffey Jr. thing, of course, played a huge part, but that wasn't all of it. There have been other things. Separate things.
Yes, you can argue that it shouldn't be like this. You can argue that, at different times, players have acted selfishly, or inappropriately, or stupidly. You can try to trace some of this back to Junior being a negative Nancy after he got off on the wrong foot. But it doesn't matter who started everything, or where things went wrong, or who was being a lil bitch. What matters is what is. Don Wakamatsu was hired to manage a group of people. He was hired to manage a group of baseball players. Baseball players will not always act the way you would expect a thinking man to act. But a huge part of Wak's job was to prepare for that sort of thing, and manage it, and he hasn't. Wak has not done a great job of situation handling this year.
A line you'll come across pretty often at a time like this is that it's easier to fire one manager than 25 ballplayers, and there's a lot of truth to that. Many of the players in the Mariners' clubhouse had lost a lot of respect for Wakamatsu, and many of the players in the Mariners' clubhouse are going to be here for a while, trying to form the next good Mariners team. So in a situation like this, it's a lot easier to dismiss the leader than to dismiss the people being led. And while you could argue that no one should have been dismissed, that the losing set everything south and caused friction between Wak and the players, there's no guarantee that winning would get everything righted. Once you lose respect for a manager, I imagine it's hard to get it back. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that the situation between Wak and many of the players was beyond repair. Or at least, considered to be. No front office ever wants to fire its field manager. I doubt the Mariners would have gone this route if they thought the situation with Wak could be fixed.
I think I'm starting to ramble, so I'll cut myself off. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that, while I think and the front office seems to think that Don Wakamatsu could be a quality big league manager, there was good reason to doubt his ability to be a quality big league manager of the Seattle Mariners, and for that reason he has been let go. Though he and the rest of his coaching staff are not the reason the team is where it is, he has nevertheless failed to act as a capable leader of a sinking team, and if the Mariners believed that the situation between Wakamatsu and many of the players was irreparable, then they made the right call. It's never about assigning blame. It's about doing the best you can with what you have.