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Sunday, November 6, 2011

My excellent adventures with Red Sox managerial candidate Pete Mackanin

When Pete Mackanin was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as a candidate for the Red Sox managerial job this past week, the first thought most Bostonians had was "Who's Pete Mackanin?"

Although Phillies fans know him as the bench coach and trusted adviser to skipper Charlie Manuel, and astute seamheads might remember his workmanlike nine-year career in the majors and brief interim posts managing the Reds and Pirates, the majority of New Englanders had never heard of Mackanin. They joked about how he looked like Ted Danson with his heavy mane of wavy gray hair, and asked when Norm from Cheers would be coming in for his turn to interview.

I was in the minority. I had not only heard of Mackanin, I had actually spent many late-summer nights talking to the guy. 

Back in the spring of 1993, as a young sports correspondent for The Washington Post, one of my first assignments was to profile the new manager of the Frederick Keys—an Orioles minor league club that played in rural Maryland. I figured I'd be writing the standard cliche-filled piece about a guy who loved baseball and teaching it to others, but it wound up being more of a study in the harsh realities of the game. From the first time I talked to this guy, he held nothing back.

"Late last June, Pete Mackanin was a Class AAA manager with the Cincinnati Reds organization, looking forward to a major league promotion he believed was imminent," my story began. "One year later, he was alone in a hotel room in rainy Woodbridge, Va., a Class A manager with the Frederick Keys who no longer dreamed of the majors."

Mackanin was 41 at the time, and with his studious glasses had an air of maturity about him. He loved the game all right, but he was also bitter that after five years managing just one rung below the show in Iowa and Tennessee, he was back in the low minors. 

The previous year, he told me, he had been promised by Reds scouting director Jim Bowden that a big-league coaching job was his if he spent just one more season managing at Nashville—but after his club lost 10 straight Mackanin was fired instead via a 6:30 a.m. phone call. For six months he collected unemployment and spent $600 sending out resumes, until Orioles scouting director Doug Melvin offered him a one-year contract at Frederick with no guarantee of advancement. Rather than making the six figures promised by Bowden, he was bringing home $30,000 and looking for a winter job.

I was surprised that Mackanin would be so open with me about his travails, and even his salary, knowing that his words would soon be in print where Bowden and others could see them. But as he told me more, and I began covering his team on a semi-regular basis, I realized that this was just the way Mackanin was—and I developed a quick respect for this frank, passionate baseball lifer.

This was a guy who was a fighter, going back to when he was "amazed" to be drafted by the Washington Senators in 1969 despite a .209 average as a junior at Chicago's Brother Rice Catholic High. Although he told me he figured his pro career would be a short one, he impressed Washington manager Ted Williams with his toughness and versatility and made the majors as an infielder in '73—by which point the Senators had moved to Texas and become the Rangers. To further hone his skills, he spent winters playing in Venezuela.

He failed to hit in a couple stretches with the Rangers, ending up traded to Montreal after the '74 season. He got to start at second base for the Expos the next year, and although he batted just .225, he showed some pop with 12 homers. Back-to-back .224 averages in 1976-77 cost him his starting job, however, and he was on the move again in '78 to Philadelphia.

He saw very little big-league action in two years with the Phillies, after which another trade led to his best ML season as a utilityman with the woeful 1980 Twins. He saw time at every infield position and hit a respectable .266, but Minnesota was starting a youth movement, and Mackanin—now an ancient 28—signed on with his hometown White Sox as a free agent after the '81 season. When he failed to catch on in Chicago or another big-league club over the next three years, he was set to finish his business degree when he was offered a job managing the Cubs' Class A Peoria club. Realizing baseball was what he knew and loved best, he took it as a way to stay in the game.
Eight years later, he was resigned to the fact he might never make it back to the majors. But in his job as "part babysitter, part father figure" to young Orioles prospects, any resentment he had never showed. He led the Keys to the 1993 Carolina League North title with a fine 78-62 mark, then was promoted by Baltimore to Double-A Bowie for the '94 campaign.

Bowie was another Maryland suburb, which meant I came along for the ride, watching another Mackanin-led club led by the likes of flamethrowing reliever Armando Benitez and future big-leaguers Curtis Goodwin and Alex Ochoa. The Bowie Baysox played in a new, not-yet-completed stadium, so many of my post-game chats with Mackanin now took place in a makeshift trailer office that one approached carefully through the muck and mud of the construction site.

When the major leagues went on strike that summer of '94, the Baysox were suddenly the highest-level baseball team playing in the entire Maryland-Virginia-DC area, and Mackanin and I both got a lot more ink. By the time Bowie made it to the Eastern League playoffs we were on the front page of thePost Sports section, above the fold, and after the Baysox took a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five series against Harrisburg the road to coaching (for Pete) and covering (for me) the Orioles seemed to be opening up. Harrisburg won three straight, however, and our big-league dreams were dashed.

Both of us moved on after that—Mackanin to the Expos as a Triple-A manager and me back to my hometown of Boston—and I lost touch with his whereabouts until he resurfaced as the Pirates interim manager in 2005. He led Pittsburgh to a 12-14 record the last month of the year—quite an improvement from their 55-81 mark under predecessor Lloyd McClendon. But the Pirates brass wanted a "name" manager at the helm and gave former Dodgers skipper Jim Tracy the full-time job for 2006.

Mackanin had another interim shot with an awful Reds team in '07—and I was cheering from afar when Cincinnati went 10-4 after he took over. Even after a late-season slide they finished a very respectable 41-39 under his leadership, not bad for a team that had failed to finish .500 in seven seasons, but once again Mackanin was passed over for a veteran manager in Dusty Baker.

Now Mackanin is being considered for the open full-time post in Boston and perhaps Chicago. Most experts and fans figure he has little, if any, chance of getting either job, but I'm still quietly rooting for him. He's the same open, honest guy I remember, as Boston baseball writers discovered when they interviewed him after his day with the Red Sox brass. He also seems at peace after 40-plus in pro ball.

"Of course I've wondered," he said to reporters when asked during his Boston visit why he's never gotten a permanent managerial job. "I don't know. If you believe you need a big-name manager, I can't convince you otherwise. That's just your opinion. I don't happen to believe that's important."

Once you've managed out of a trailer, he probably figures, you can manage anywhere.

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