(UPDATED: 11 p.m.)
One refreshing thing about Fredi Gonzalez, unlike so many in his position, is that he’s not going to try to project himself as someone who has all the answers.
He’ll listen to criticism. He’ll seek feedback from his Yoda-like predecessor, Bobby Cox. He’ll talk to former managers who are now long into retirement, and even managers on other teams. If ultimately Gonzalez fails as manager of the Braves, it won’t be because of ego, arrogance or obstinance.
“I talk to other managers all the time, people I respect,” Gonzalez said Friday. “Why not? I talk to them about dealing with different situations, dealing with crisis. But the bottom line, what most of them say, is you just have to be yourself. You have to be honest with players. You’re going to make decisions that are going to be second-guessed. That goes with the territory. But at the end of the day, you can’t tell yourself, ‘Oh, I should’ve done this or that,’ even though there are always situations when you’re going to feel like that.”
We can’t be certain what Gonzalez was feeling late Thursday night, except to assume it wasn’t good. As the calendar turns to September, the Braves are sliding again. We know what happened last time they were here. Several decades from now, when Turner Field is gone, people likely will pass by the former stadium site and hear horrifying screams, as if it’s some haunted former battlefield or asylum.
Here are details of the latest bad ending: With the Braves leading 5-4, closer Craig Kimbrel allowed a game-tying homer to Erik Kratz in the ninth and Cristhian Martinez gave up a three-run bomb to John Mayberry in the 10th. The 8-5 loss to Philadelphia, which opened a homestand, buried the Braves another foot in the National League East (they’re now 6½ games behind Washington). The bigger concern is that they’ve now dropped nine of their last 13.
Gonzalez took a lot of heat for the team’s 10-20 slide last season. The criticism wasn’t because of one back-fired decision in particular, but merely because he was the guy in charge when the team caved in like a sinkhole. He tried to stop it. He called meetings. He benched guys. He changed the lineup, the batting order, the color of his socks. If he overused the bullpen, it’s only because the Braves’ starting rotation had imploded. It’s not like he had a lot of options.
But the Braves went down on his watch, so it was on him.
If they go down again, it will be on Gonzalez again. The only difference this time would be that he would be left with less certainty about his future. Ownership would be criticized because, well, has anybody ever actually met a Liberty Media executive? General manager Frank Wren will be criticized because he was content to come back this season with largely the same team this season.
But owners don’t get fired and Wren is afforded more of a platform to convince decision makers that he handed Gonzalez a playoff roster despite budget constraints (albeit, constraints created in part by Wren’s decisions to give big deals to Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami and Dan Uggla). So really, this home stretch is on Gonzalez.
“I took heat last year, but that’s OK,” Gonzalez said. “You have the bulls-eye on you when you’re the manager or you have the head coach’s title.”
The Braves aren’t a bad team. They’re just not great, or currently stable. It’s only natural when there’s a losing streak and fans hear thunder that they’re going to look up and wonder, “Oh no. Not again.”
Gonzalez said before the season that he had gone over last year’s demise a zillion times in his head. When asked what he would do differently in a similar situation, he said he wasn’t sure but he’d try anything. He didn’t offer any more insight Friday.
“You have to be patient,” he said. “You can move guys down in the lineup, give them a day off. But in the end they’re your guys. Every move you make, if it works people say, ‘Great job, Fredi.’ If it doesn’t work, it’s, ‘Fredi created a panic situation.’ At the end of the day, you can’t have regrets.
“We chose this profession. I was watching Jon Gruden interviewed on HBO, and I think his dad was quoted in his book saying, ‘Jon, if you don’t change your ways, this job is going to kill you.’ They asked Gruden about that and his eyes started watering. That’s the stuff that we take home every day.”
What Gonzalez has been taking home of late can’t be good — and his team is not giving any indication that’s going to change.
By Jeff Schultz
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