By Mike Salk
When the Mariners narrowed their managerial candidates to five names, the pattern was obvious. They were clearly looking for someone with experience (all five guys had at least one previous stint as a manager) and they wanted someone who could make the players accountable.
From everyone I have talked to, Eric Wedge fits that description.
First of all, you know the bio. Wedge managed for seven years in Cleveland â€“ no mean feat considering how many skippers see their time cut far shorter than that. During his tenure, he oversaw a rebuilding process that culminated in 2007 with a division title, an ALDS victory (over the Yankees), and nearly a trip to the World Series. Along the way, he developed young players like Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Jhonny Peralta, Franklin Gutierrez and CC Sabathia. He transitioned the Indians from the leadership of veterans like Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon into their next era.
â€œHe was great with young players,â€ said utility infielder Lou Merloni when I talked to him over the weekend. Merloni played for Wedge as a veteran in 2004 and again in 2006. â€œHe did a fantastic job of teaching. He always stressed how to play the game the right way and the players bought in. They would run through a wall for him.â€
When the organization decided to rebuild again in 2009, Wedge was done. But with seven years at the helm and one rebuilt team to his credit, he certainly has the experience the Mariners have sought.
Every manager preaches accountability, but as we well know, it is incredibly hard to enforce in the big leagues. We discussed this ad nauseum this past season as Don Wakamatsu struggled to discipline players with long term contracts and short term attention spans. Wedge has his own philosophy on accountability and I’m sure he’ll reveal it to us over time. But his former players appreciate that element of his personality.
â€œIf there was an outrageous offense, he would pull you aside,â€ according to one former player. â€œMostly though, he used the veterans. He’d have them talk to the younger guys to make the point.â€
Merloni was one of those veterans and he remembers being asked to talk to younger guys on occasion.
â€œI was just a utility guy but I’d been in the league a few years and he knew me from Boston. He would sometimes send me to talk to a young guy.â€
Wedge’s philosophy sounds simple: respect the game, respect the veterans and play hard.
â€œHe expects you to be prepared and to work hard,â€ according to shortstop John McDonald who played for Wedge in Triple-A and as a young player in Cleveland. â€œIf you love baseball and you love to play hard every day and you pay attention to the details, he’s your guy.â€
But that motto was definitely tested by a young Milton Bradley in spring training in 2004. By now, everyone knows the story. Bradley had numerous issues but they all came to a head when he didn’t run out a ground ball and was pulled from the game. Wedge eventually went to management and offered an ultimatum (him or me) which led to Bradley being shipped out of town.
â€œThat was a VERY young team,â€ according to Merloni, who was there for the incident. â€œWedge HAD to handle it that way because he needed the kids to understand how he wanted the game played. Bradley didn’t get it.â€
Wedge acted the way we all hoped Wakamatsu would when he was challenged by Chone Figgins. Wedge had the support of his front office, and he used that power to rid his team of a problem and set an example at the same time.
â€œI was in the dugout for that and he handled it the way you would want every manager to handle it,â€ McDonald told me. â€œHe asked if [Milton] was hurt, because he would have understood if he was toughing it out. But when Milton said he wasn’t hurt, he pulled him. He said, ‘if you’re not hurt, you better run’ and we appreciated that.
â€œWedge expects a lot. He lets you play but he can jump your butt when has to. But it’s not like he’s a tyrant. Just as important as the accountability, he’ll back his players too. That’s important.â€
The descriptions I’ve heard of Wedge make him sound similar in many ways to Wakamatsu but with some important differences. Both are former catchers who struggled to make it at the big league level. Both were knows as intense guys who would preach accountability and communicate with their team. But whereas Wak was in his first job, Wedge has some success in his past. He also sounds like a guy who will be quick to defend his player with an umpire or anywhere else.
We won’t know what kind of a manager Wedge is now until we see him over the course of a season or two. But the personality, philosophy and history sure seem to fit what the Mariners wanted.