“Good organizations don’t make changes just to make changes,” Fredi Gonzalez said. Then, scanning the room: “All the faces are the same.”
And that’s the part that worries me. Fredi Gonzalez is a good baseball man, but he’s a product of The Braves’ Way Of Doing Things. “This organization, the past 25 years, they win,” Gonzalez said Wednesday, but even Bobby Cox, the man Gonzalez succeeds, was moved to correct the new manager.
“We haven’t won as big as we’d have liked recently,” Cox said.
Over 14 completed seasons the Braves finished nowhere but first. Since 2005 they’ve made the playoffs once as a wild card. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, haven’t graced the World Series this millennium. The Braves we see now aren’t quite the Braves we beheld.
In many ways Gonzalez is the ideal person to follow Cox: He’s a former Braves’ third-base coach who still lives in Marietta and who happened to be out of work when this job came open. Frank Wren, the general manager, started serious talks with Gonzalez on July 2 at a cabin in Wedowee, Ala. One hundred three days later, Wren hired Gonzalez without having interviewed another candidate.
With a chance to hire the first manager from outside the organization since Chuck Tanner in October 1985, the Braves waited not two full days after being eliminated in the Division Series to unveil the new man, who really isn’t new at all. John Schuerholz, the team president, would surely cite this as another in a series of seamless Braves’ transitions. But it was Stan Kasten, who as Braves president hired Schuerholz as GM, who said: “If you’re going to make a change, make a change.”
Going Cox-to-Gonzalez is almost like promoting the chief assistant when the head coach finds a better job. It’s the thing to do, but it’s not always the wisest course. And continuity is the least of the Braves’ problems. If anything, this “great, grand organization” — Schuerholz again — suffers from its insularity.
Asked how he’d differ from Cox — if, say, he’d delve heavier into statistical analysis — Gonzalez said: ” I just joined those guys [meaning the Society for American Baseball Research, or Sabermeticians].” Then this: “I’ll use all the numbers you give me, but for me to sit here and say I’m always going to go by numbers, I’m not going to do that.”
What will Gonzalez trust? His “gut”, he said. And that’s fine: On some level, every decision is made at a visceral level. But it was Cox’s gut that persuaded him to stick with Derek Lowe one batter too long in the last game he ever managed. Other organizations, the Red Sox chief among them, have come to rely on data as a guide for the gut.
The Braves’ way has been old-fashioned. Indeed, hitting coach Terry Pendleton expressed surprise earlier this season when informed his club was leading the National League in on-base percentage. (This might help explain why Pendleton was reassigned to being the Braves’ first-base coach Wednesday.)
Wren had known since Sept. 23, 2009, that he’d have a managerial opening come 2010. Over the winter he compiled a list of candidates numbering in the teens. (Gonzalez headed the list even though he was employed by the Marlins.) Wren wound up hiring his No. 1 choice without ever speaking to Nos. 2, 3 or 4.
Maybe Gonzalez will work out. He’s an impressive guy whom Wren has known since before either man came to work for the Braves. Still, I can think of three others I’d have at least interviewed — Jose Oquendo, the Cardinals’ third-base coach; Scott Ullger, the Twins’ third-base coach; and Dave Martinez, the Rays’ bench coach — before deciding. But this GM, as we know, is forever in a hurry.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Braves at the major-league level haven’t exactly been cutting-edge in their approach. “I’m not going to come in here and change the whole culture,” Fredi Gonzalez said, but he’d better be ready to change some things. Because the Bobby Cox Method won’t work for anyone but Bobby Cox.