Good News for Eric Wedge

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Mariners’ recent fall from grace is the lack of acrimony inspired by it.  There are plenty of stories in the national media breaking down the quantitative futility; everyone, after all, loves an outlier.  The local fan base is mourning the loss of Eric Wedge’s mustache almost as much as the team’s season.  Wedge, although capable of throwing out his share of baffling lineups, is generally respected as a manager.  Jack Zduriencik, unlike his predecessor, has made the kind of mistakes that at least follow some line of logic.  Expectations were reasonably tempered.  Even on the fifth of July, when the team was .500 and two and a half games out of first, everyone secretly knew that this was a roster capable of dropping a dozen games in a row.

Of course, as of July 26, 2011, the Mariners have outdone themselves, accomplishing a feat only twenty teams have done since the American and National Leagues merged in 1903.  And with a truly historical run of failure, Wedge and Zduriencik have been put on the hot seat almost by default.  But as it turns out, losing fifteen or twenty games in a row isn’t the death knell for a career one might think.  The list:

Eric Wedge, as it turns out, has joined some pretty respectable company in the past two and a half weeks.  This isn’t as surprising as it seems; if you stick around the game for thirty or forty years, you’re bound to see some streaks, good and bad.  Still, several of these managers (Herzog, Kuhel, and Mauch) were first-year managers, and were given at least another year to prove themselves.

Many of the teams who fired coaches after losing streaks did so under extenuating circumstances.  Tenney and Collins plied their trade during the player-manager era of baseball; Tenney was traded after his 1907 season, and released at the age of forty after 1911.  Collins, the Hall of Fame third baseman, was stripped of his managerial duties mid-season, a full eighty games after the end of the twenty-game losing streak.

Ted Turner gave Dave Bristol a ten-day leave of absence in 1977 so that he could manage the team himself, until N.L. President Chub Feeney stepped in and slapped the rulebook in his face.  Turner somehow persuaded Bristol to come back as a lame duck.  The world remembers the 1988 Baltimore Orioles for its staggering 0-21 start to the season, but Ripken, Sr. was actually fired after only six games.  Replacement-level manager Frank Robinson lost the other fifteen.

Of the nineteen managers, three of them were fired after and because of their losing streak (Collins, Fohl and Bristol).  Four were enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Where does this leave Eric Wedge?  Probably in neither category.  Miller Huggins once said that “a manager has his cards dealt to him, and he must play them.”  Nobody envies Wedge’s hand.  He can’t be accused of losing the players, and he’s shown a willingness to be flexible with his roster without making constant, desperate changes.  But for lack of a better alternative, we continue to measure managers by wins and championships.  Gene Mauch might prove a solid comparison: a pretty good manager who led some pretty awful teams.

The Seattle Mariners are a fascinating ballclub right now; rarely has a team lost so much and had so little meaning attached to it.  Usually, this kind of unabated failure beats down even the sensible fan, wears them raw until they need something, anything to be done.  They attach responsibility to whatever they can reach, and usually the field leader is the first in line.

In the case of the Mariners, however, there are no mutterings about intangibles, no hidden knowledge of winning.   They’ve lost sixteen times to teams that are better than they are.  Ordinarily, inferior baseball teams win their share of games against superior opponents; right now it isn’t happening.  It feels like an inevitability, but one of probability rather than fate.  Sooner or later a team is going to lose fifteen or twenty games; why not now?


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