(Updated: 4:30 p.m.)
It’s quite possible that Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez was the leading candidate to replace the Braves’ retiring manager, Bobby Cox, even before this week. If he’s not at the top of the list now, something is seriously wrong.
Gonzalez was liked and respected in the Braves’ clubhouse when he was here as a coach. He reaffirmed what kind of leader he was this week.
On Monday night, he pulled his best, but probably most immature, player, Hanley Ramirez, out of a game for loafing after the ball.
On Tuesday, he benched Ramirez from the Marlins’ lineup in the aftermath of Ramirez throwing a fit and ripping his manager for not having the proper perspective since, “He never played in the big leagues,” and adding: “It’s his team. He can do whatever he [expletive] wants.”
Smart people are blessed with having a stop sign between their brain and their mouth. Ramirez is not among them.
When a manager or coach lets something like this slide, he loses credibility in the locker room. Part of Jim Mora’s downfall with the Falcons could be traced to a lack of accountability with the players, particularly his constant defenses of DeAngelo Hall when Hall was going through the motions in practices and games. Mora lost the team. I know this because players told me.
Gonzalez made it clear he would not play favorites, even though Ramirez hit a league-leading .342 last season with 106 RBI, a .953 OPS (baseball’s fashionable stat: on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). He immediately scored points in the clubhouse. Former Brave Wes Helms defended Gonzalez. He also said of Ramirez, “Everybody has a bad day. But I don’t think a bad day comes from not hustling. That can’t be stood for.”
Then he said Ramirez needs to apologize to the team, even invoking the memory of one John Rocker in Atlanta. “I was in Atlanta when the Rocker thing went on,” Helms said. “He was made to do the apology , but when he apologized to the whole team and held a 30-minute meeting, it gives you a little sense of easement. Kind of puts it to rest a little bit. Because right now when you don’t hear that, there’s still anger built up inside of you. One of the best things to cure anybody is to talk about it.”
Back to Gonzalez. It shouldn’t take much convincing for him to, 1) leave Florida and, 2) come back to Atlanta. In his four seasons as Marlins manager, the team’s payroll has ranked 29th, 30th, 30th and 26th (this season). You complain because the Braves’ payroll this year is at $85 million. Try managing a team at $30 million less.
Yet, Florida is over .500 for the third straight year. The Marlins are coming off a sec0nd-place finish in the National League East. In 2008, voters were so impressed with Gonzalez managing the Marlins to an 84-77 record and a third-place finish in the National League East — despite a sickly $21 million payroll (less than half of the next closest team) — that he was named the league’s Manager of the Year by The Sporting News.
The Marlins have little fan support. They have a kooky owner, Jeffrey Loria, who actually balked at bringing Gonzalez back this season. (Loria denied an ESPN report last October that he was exploring hiring Bobby Valentine to manage. But given the report came from the best national baseball writer, Buster Olney, I know who I’m siding with.)
There was a time with coach Terry Pendleton seemed like Cox’s heir apparent. I don’t believe that’s the case any more. The team’s general hitting woes don’t help his cause, and there’s a sense that general manager Frank Wren is not as closely tied to Pendleton as his predecessor, John Schuerholz.
For what it’s worth, Gonzalez’ contract runs through 2011. There are ways around these things. The Braves need to find that way. When Cox steps down, they will never have an easier decision.