Re: Fredi Gonzalez

All my boss does is complain about the Braves’ manager. To shut him up, I proposed a story showing him how lucky he and Atlanta baseball fans actually are.

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Date: October 8, 2013
To: [email protected]
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Condolences—and a story idea

Steve,

Sorry about your Braves. I’m sure you watched to the bitter end, right? I mean, it was the playoffs, after all.

They had it. Up 3–2 on the Dodgers. Game 4. Six outs from tying the series. Then David Carpenter gives up that double to lead off the eighth. Camera cuts to Braves dugout, Fredi Gonzalez chomping on his sunflower seeds. Then a shot of Craig Kimbrel, only the game’s best closer, in the Atlanta bullpen, just waiting for the call. A call that Fredi wouldn’t make. You’re probably screaming, Jesus, Fredi, put in Kimbrel! Instead, Juan Uribe parks Carpenter’s hanging curve in the lot beyond left field. Etc., etc. Braves choke again. I swear I could hear the chant in my neighborhood: Fire Fredi! Fire Fredi!

Sorry. Didn’t mean to mock your misery. (Well, maybe a little.) I’m still relatively new to town, not a Braves fan. But I’ve followed baseball most of my life, and I’ve gotta say that some Braves fans seem to have an inflated sense of their own suffering. You’ve had, what, two losing seasons in the past twenty-three? Fifteen division championships? Five pennants? C’mon!

And what has Fredi done but continue that success?

Since taking over the Braves three years ago, he’s won more games than any manager in major league baseball except the Rangers’ Ron Washington. Fourth-best record in the majors in 2012, second-best in 2013. But you guys still hate him. The sarcastic Twitter handles. The Fire Fredi Facebook page. The whining about his one career playoff win.

Look: Fredi’s fifty years old, and he’s been a big-league manager a total of seven seasons. In their first seven seasons, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and your own Bobby Cox combined got only one playoff win. Fredi has the sixth-highest career winning percentage among active managers and more wins in his career than Torre, LaRussa, or Cox had at the same point in their careers.

Anyway, my story idea: It would be about Fredi—sorta—but would actually be about the baseball fans around here who need to stop complaining and appreciate what they have.

Let me know.

Best,

Tony

Date: October 10, 2013
To: [email protected]
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Fredi

Steve,

Quick follow-up: Any story would have to look at what a baseball manager actually does. Sure, he makes the lineup, shifts the fielders, calls the bullpen. But much of the game is out of his control. Hitters have to hit. Pitchers have to pitch. There’s this sabermetrician, James Click, who studied manager-driven statistics like bunting, intentional walks, and stolen bases. He couldn’t find a single manager who consistently helped his team win more by trying these things. So, this infallible tactician you’re looking for? Sorry, he doesn’t exist. And let’s say we get to July and you’re more tired of Fredi than ever. Firing him won’t work either. Analysts have found that midseason managerial switches have negligible impacts on winning. Maybe you should ask yourself who built the team you have? That would be general manager Frank Wren, using money from Liberty Media. In 2003, when Time Warner still owned the Braves, payroll was $106 million, third-highest in the majors. In 2013 it was $89 million, which ranked sixteenth. News flash: The sixteenth-best team has never made the playoffs. Meaning that Wren has spent the money pretty well—except when he hasn’t. Nearly a third of last year’s payroll went to B.J. Upton (.184) and Dan Uggla (.179), who combined for 322 strikeouts. All Fredi’s team did with the rest of the money was win ninety-six games.

And you’re blaming him?

Meanwhile, the young players who carried the team (Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Kimbrel) have developed almost solely under Fredi. Sure, that has more to do with their skill than Fredi telling them when to bunt. But even high-priced players aren’t machines. The manager has to tend to twenty-five egos. Bobby Cox told me that 80 percent of the skipper’s job is setting the clubhouse thermostat—an overstatement, but the point is, you have to keep the players disciplined and comfortable.

Fredi does that. After turning around the Miami Miracle, an unaffiliated team of minor league washouts in the Florida State League, he got a job in the Marlins’ farm system in 1993. He laid down rules in Spanish and English. No facial hair. Socks five inches above the shoes. Be on time. Work hard. I talked to Kevin Millar, an analyst on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk who played for Fredi twice in the minors. He said Fredi was especially strict with high-paid prospects, like a position player who had just signed a $1.6 million signing bonus but showed up at 9:08 for a 9 a.m. stretch. “Fredi stayed on him,” Millar told me. “The rest of the players respected that.”

Fredi wound up managing in the Braves’ system partly because he reminded Frank Wren of someone. Frank told me, “He has an easy manner, like Bobby Cox, that makes you feel you’ve been friends for a long time.” After one season of watching Fredi take Triple-A Richmond from sub-.500 to second place in the International League South Division, Bobby tapped him as his third-base coach.

Fredi learned from Bobby, who perfected the laid-back approach to managing. The old skipper loved his players, good and bad. You talk to those players now and they say things like, “I’ll be loyal to Bobby Cox for as long as I live.” Forget sabermetrics. It just makes sense that players would perform better for a guy like that.

Fredi told me a story from Greg Maddux about giving up eight or nine runs on opening day. Bobby said he didn’t think Maddux pitched that badly. The next start, Maddux got shelled again, and Cox shrugged and said he didn’t think it was that bad. Third start, Maddux was untouchable. Bobby’s reaction: He pitched fine. “Whether I pitch bad or pitch well,” Maddux told Fredi, “I always know what Bobby’s going to say.”

Fredi spent four years with Bobby before the Marlins offered him their managing job in 2006. I have more to say about how the Marlins relate to your plight as a Braves fan, but I’ll save that—like maybe for when we meet to discuss this story?

Patiently,

Tony

Date: November 4, 2013
To: [email protected]
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Re: Fredi

Steve,

I know—being a Braves fan is a special kind of hell. Always coming so close, always falling just short. But would you really rather have the Astros, who’ve lost 324 games the last three years? The Pirates, who just had their first winning season in two decades? The Cubs, who haven’t won a championship in more than a century? Cubs fans might say losing is comforting. But they drink a lot of Old Style in Wrigleyville.

Maybe you should be a Marlins fan. They’ve won two World Series since 1997 and never lost a playoff series! But after dumping all their talent, they don’t even contend anymore. No disappointment. But no hope, either. And here’s the best part: They fire managers all the time. Heck, they even fired Fredi.

Marlins fans should want him back. He was their only semblance of consistency. In 2007 he replaced Joe Girardi, the National League manager of the year, who had made the mistake of asking team owner Jeffrey Loria to stop berating the umpires from his seat behind the plate.

Going into 2007, the Marlins were one of the youngest teams in baseball and the second-lowest paid. I talked to Clark Spencer, beat writer at the Miami Herald: “They were supposed to be total horseshit. Like possibly worst-record-ever bad.” But Fredi kept things steady. When the team banned music in the clubhouse because reporters couldn’t conduct interviews, Fredi offered to buy each player an iPod. (Remember iPods?) Fredi was like Bobby, but cooler. The Marlins hovered just below .500 for the first half of the year before ultimately winning seventy-one games—not good, but not historically bad. Next year they finished third in the division, and Sporting News named Fredi manager of the year. In Fredi’s third year, with no high-priced additions, the Marlins just missed the playoffs with eighty-seven wins.

In spring of 2010 Loria announced he expected the Marlins to make the playoffs. But the team stumbled at the start. In May, shortstop Hanley Ramirez accidentally kicked a grounder a hundred feet into the outfield. Instead of sprinting after it, Ramirez barely jogged. Two runs scored. Fredi pulled Ramirez, a two-time All-Star and 2009 MVP runner-up. The next day, Ramirez vented to the press. “It’s [Fredi’s] team,” Ramirez said. “He can do whatever he fucking wants.” The shortstop claimed he had been injured. “[Fredi] doesn’t understand that,” Ramirez said. “He never played in the big leagues.” (This was true: Fredi’s career .199 minor league average gave him many hours to observe from the bench.) In response, Fredi benched Ramirez for a second game. His teammates supported the move. Ramirez apologized to Fredi and to the team and was reinstated. But a month later, with the team only two games below .500, Loria dropped the ax on Fredi. Did they get better?

Marlins in 555 games with Fredi: winning percentage .497
Marlins in 578 games since firing Fredi: winning percentage .431

Anxiously,

Tony

Date: December 10, 2013
To: [email protected]
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Re: Re: Fredi

Steve,

I was kidding about you becoming a Marlins fan. Sorry. Know you’re swamped with the budget and the holidays, but maybe you could respond? In the meantime I’ll just assume that you, like a good baseball manager, are “letting the players play.” So here goes.

Fredi got fired by the Marlins just in time to replace Bobby Cox in 2011. The message of continuity was unmistakable. I got Chipper Jones on the phone; he told me that Fredi “was the guy I wanted to succeed Bobby.” Bobby Cox himself told me that Fredi was his recommendation, calling Fredi “one of the great up-and-coming managers in the game.” Granted, he probably wasn’t the guy Braves Country wanted. Fired from the Marlins but he’s good enough for us? Also Fredi is Cuban, not a good ol’ boy like Bobby. As the AJC’s Braves reporter David O’Brien put it to me, “People on my blog say he’s a ‘dumbass.’ I think the fact that English is his second language plays into that, consciously or unconsciously.” Third, Fredi was stern-faced and sort of gruff and quiet, which could have given some fans the wrong impression.

In any case, the Braves were winning. Chipper + Brian McCann + O’Ventbrel, the Three-Headed Bullpen Smoke-Thrower = contenders. After sweeping a doubleheader against the Mets on September 8, 2011, the Braves stood at 84–60, seven games ahead of the Cardinals in the wild card standings. Then came St. Louis, and a chance to put their rivals away.

The Braves led the opener 3–1 in the ninth. Kimbrel was looking for his forty-fourth save. But with the bases loaded and two out, he gave up a two-run single, blowing his first save in three months. The Braves lost in ten. They lost the next day, and the next. The offense dried up and the bullpen wore down. One night in Florida, the Braves led in the ninth when Chipper lost a ball in the lights, allowing the tying run to reach the base and eventually score.

Did you want Fredi to lose his cool? He didn’t. No tirades for the players or the media. He called only one team meeting. “Today was going to be the day we turned things around,” said Chipper, remembering the clubhouse atmosphere. “Today was going to be the day we won.” Fredi shuffled his lineup but stuck with his guys, hoping they’d play their way out of the slump. He kept faith in Heyward, whose average had dropped fifty points from 2010, and in veteran pitcher Derek Lowe, who would lose a career-high seventeen games.

Entering the second-to-last day of the season, the wild card lead had shrunk to one game. Fredi started Lowe, a former postseason hero in Boston, against the Phillies, even though he had a 9.18 ERA in his previous four starts. The Braves lost 7–1. The lead was gone. Atlanta needed to win the final game against the Phillies to ensure a playoff against the Cardinals, and again they led in the ninth. But Kimbrel blew another save, the Braves lost, and their season was over. Sports Illustrated looked into this, and for the record, it wasn’t the worst collapse of all time. Just the fourth-worst—or the eighth, depending on your criteria. Small consolation, I know. Fredi wasn’t making excuses. “I felt like I didn’t try enough things,” he told me. “I kept doing the same things. After the season, I hid in my basement for ten days and didn’t want to come out.”

A similar collapse in Boston cost Red Sox manager Terry Francona his job. I know you wondered, Why not Fredi? Well, here’s the thing: Francona had lost the clubhouse. Pitchers were eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games. Here in Atlanta, Braves executives and players stood behind Fredi. Sure, sure: Teams like the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cardinals—they demand championships. The Braves have lulled the blind, die-hard fans into contentment with being perennial also-rans. Hey, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want your team to repay your passion, loyalty, and ticket money with an occasional trophy. But I do think demanding that result is a bit naive.

Look at the Yankees: twenty-seven championships, sure. But since winning it all in 2000, they’ve spent more than $2 billion for one title in thirteen years. And Joe Torre, the manager who’s supposedly better than Bobby Cox, was at the helm for seven of those “failures.”

Which brings me to my point about equating championships with managerial success. The baseball regular season is a grind, 162 games, and the best teams rise to the top. I’d argue that it’s the only major sport where making the playoffs is still an accomplishment. But then it comes down to a best-of-seven, best-of-five, or, gulp, single-game playoff where one bad pitch or blown call could end your season.

Take Bobby Cox, for instance. Torre won four titles and LaRussa had three; Bobby won only one. But if Charlie Leibrandt doesn’t hang that curve to Kirby Puckett in 1991 or Mark Wohlers doesn’t serve up that blast to Jim Leyritz in 1996, Bobby has three rings (and Torre three, too). Likewise, LaRussa had three all-time (if juiced) squads with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in Oakland in 1988, ’89, and ’90, but won only once. He won 100 games in both 2004 and 2005, and came up empty. But TLR’s Redbirds got hot late in 2006 and 2011, sneaked into the playoffs, and went on to glory.

What you want is a manager who can get you a place at that postseason craps table. The rest is a roll of the dice. Look at Bobby’s last season. They could’ve beaten the Giants, eventual champions, if not for the infamous Brooks Conrad Meltdown. What was Bobby supposed to do? Put on a glove and play second base?

Frustratingly,

Tony

Date: January 15, 2014
To: [email protected]
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Fredi

Steve,

Hope you enjoyed your holidays. Had a lot of time to think about The Collapse (sure you did too). Obviously it’s the biggest tomahawk you can hurl at Fredi. But you could also argue that, in retrospect, it was his defining moment. It changed his approach. This is what he told me: “If you don’t learn from something like that, you do yourself an injustice.”

Hear me out.

In 2012 he was more judicious with his bullpen. Relievers Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Kimbrel made forty-nine fewer appearances than in 2011. Fredi was also quicker with the hook. He benched Dan Uggla, an All-Star and the Braves’ highest-paid player, when his batting average plummeted. The Braves finished strong this time, 94–68, six games ahead of the Cardinals in the wild card. Unfortunately, Major League Baseball had introduced that silly play-in game between the top two teams not to win their division. One game, loser goes home. Even under that scrutiny, Fredi had the guts to start backup catcher David Ross over six-time All-Star McCann, who had struggled through the season’s last two months. And all Ross did was get three hits, including a two-run homer to put the Braves ahead early. Genius, you’d have said—if Chipper hadn’t then thrown a would-be double-play ball into right field, handing the Cardinals a lead. In the eighth, as the Braves tried to rally, umpire Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule—an automatic out—on a pop-up that dropped fifty feet into the outfield. You were there. Fredi was furious. He rushed to the umpire, got in his face, squawked in his ear for a solid minute. When he finally stormed away, you could read his lips: “You’ve gotta be shitting me!” Your compatriots hurled enough trash onto the field to delay the game for twenty minutes (surely you wouldn’t toss a $9 beer). But the rally had been snuffed. Another Braves season ended early.

Even you couldn’t blame Fredi for that loss. The front office certainly didn’t—they extended his contract through 2014.

He rewarded them with a brilliant regular season in 2013. First came the injuries: Ace pitcher Tim Hudson lost when his ankle was crushed by a base runner while covering first; Venters and O’Flaherty pitched only eighteen innings due to hurt arms; McCann (shoulder), Freeman (oblique muscle), and Heyward (broken jaw and appendicitis) all missed significant time. And then there were the $25 million no-shows, B.J. Upton and Uggla.

Yet the Braves spent just one day out of first place. The young rotation held together. Fredi patched a bullpen that finished with the lowest ERA in baseball. When the offense sputtered during the summer, he batted Heyward leadoff, spurring a fourteen-game winning streak. The Braves pulled away in the division. Heading into the playoffs with the second-best record in baseball, he benched B.J. Upton and left Uggla off the postseason roster.
Of course, you’ll say that Fredi’s non-call to Kimbrel in NLDS Game 4 erased all that. But Kimbrel had never in his career gotten a two-inning save. What if Fredi had brought in Kimbrel and gotten out of the eighth only to watch an overextended closer give up the lead in the ninth?

Frank Wren, Clark Spencer, and Kevin Millar are all paid to second-guess managers. For the record, they agree that Fredi made the right choice.

Exasperatingly,

Tony

Date: February 14, 2014
To: [email protected]
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Fredi

Steve,

Hello from sunny Lake Buena Vista, Florida! While you were still pondering the Fredi story, I flew down to spring training (thanks in advance for approving the expense report). You’d love it here. Lots of Braves fans. Like you, they’re yelling at Fredi; unlike you, they just want his autograph. Mr. Gonzalez! Fredi! He answers almost every time, coming over to sign whatever ball or poster they drop over the chain-link. He tells his players to do the same. These fans are like the hundred or so I saw waiting in line to meet players at one of the Braves’ winter caravans. Some diehards wore old Hank Aaron or Dale Murphy jerseys. They remembered the old days, when Braves fans actually had something to complain about.

You should meet some of these folks. Many are transplants like yourself, who only remember the roaring 1990s and 2000s. But more than a few know that in 1991, Bobby Cox started his first full season with a team that had lost 300 games in three years. A .500 record would have been parade-worthy. Instead, Cox took the Braves from worst to first, starting a string of fourteen consecutive division championships. Fredi is the new Bobby, minus the advantage of low expectations. He inherited a fanbase full of people like you: spoiled by twenty years of winning, scarred by nineteen years of shortfall. He puts the team in the race every year, even with a middling payroll, while the free-spending Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Angels have tried and failed to buy as many wins as Fredi’s Braves in three years. Before you flung garbage on the field in 2012, he was out there fighting for you. When his two highest-paid players failed to show last year, he assembled the playoff lineup without them. It was no accident that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted him second runner-up for National League manager of the year.

Bobby Cox’s retired number 6 hangs on the wall above Fredi’s desk. They’re neighbors. Bobby said they have coffee almost every morning during the winter. After that “blizzard” in January, Fredi shoveled Bobby’s driveway. He’s a transplant too, except his family came from Cuba to America when he was two. And a family man, with a tattoo on his left ring finger of the birthstones of his wife and two children. That may not matter to you. But one of these years he’ll give you what Bobby never could: a second World Series trophy.

In the meantime, I think Danny Neesmith said it best. He is sixty-two, grew up in Sunnyside, Georgia, watching Hammerin’ Hank and decades of futility on TBS. Last October, he was in his recliner past 1 a.m., just like you, watching the end of 2013, even though he had to be at work at 3:30 a.m. This can’t be happening, he thought.

“But that’s baseball,” he told me at a McDonough sporting goods store, where he had waited eight hours in line to get a jersey signed by several Braves. He also told me that Fredi is still his man.

“Everybody can pick a winner,” Neesmith said. “If you’re only there when they win, you ain’t much of a fan.”

Resignedly,

Tony

P.S. Falcons schedule should be out soon. How about a profile of Mike Smith, the NFL’s finest coach?

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

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