Sunday, February 12, 2006

Little Goes a Long Way

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Dodger manager can't escape one decision in 2003, but he won't let it define him either

By Steve Henson
Times Staff Writer
February 12, 2006

PINEHURST, N.C. — Grady Little is nothing if not a man of perspective, able to whittle down the sharp angles of harsh judgment and reconcile baseball's oddities, ironies and outright cruelties with impregnable reason cloaked in authentic Southern drawl.

This, though, was tough to shake. How many mornings before that self-pitying mix of high-pitched whining and low-slung rumbling emanating from Boston would cease, before that disquieting swirl of a distant nor'easter bearing down on Little in his bucolic brick home tucked alongside fairways and bunkers would dissipate?

Those folks honestly believed they were cursed. They believed Little's decision to stay with Red Sox starter Pedro Martinez despite the familiar warning sign of a mounting pitch count in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League championship series against the rightfully, spitefully superior New York Yankees was merely the latest proof.

Little had to go. The 188 regular-season victories in his two years as manager didn't matter to a fan base afflicted by multigenerational psychological distress, and neither did coming back from a two-game deficit to defeat the Oakland Athletics in the division series that made facing the Yankees possible. Peter Gammons wrote that many New Englanders were feeling "pure, unadulterated hatred for a wonderfully decent man."

So this is how it ends? Little couldn't help but wonder. Sixteen years of managing in the minors, another six as a major league coach, finally getting a shot at age 52 to do what he knew in the root of every silver strand on his head he was born to do, and this is how it ends?

He went home to his sleepy enclave in the sand hills of North Carolina, surrounded by good friends and in-laws, and did not enjoy watching the dogwood trees blossom, not one bit, because they blossom only in springtime and spring is for training in Florida or Arizona, not for staring out the back porch, or playing 18 holes, or watching the grandchildren, pleasant as that might be.

The perceived unfairness of it all gnawed at Debi, his wife of more than 30 years, and at their adult son, Eric, who had spent a delightfully nomadic childhood watching his father take teams to farm league titles in myriad mid-Atlantic outposts — Richmond, Durham, Greenville, Kinston, Pulaski and Hagerstown. Maybe it was the sum of beating all those bushes, but Grady himself was oddly bemused by this so-called unfairness.

Criticism came with the uniform, the tiny office off the clubhouse, the lineup cards and the daily thrust and parry with the media. He understood that. And he wanted nothing more than another chance to make a tough decision with a World Series berth in the balance.

Not to redeem himself. Not to right a wrong. Little is at peace with making that particular decision at that particular time under those particular circumstances. He just loves to manage, and wanted to do it again.

"I realize there are only 30 of these jobs in the world," he told Debi. "So the reality is that everything doesn't happen the way you want it to."

Would somebody give him a second chance?

It's a baseball thing, this clinging to a numbing routine. Maybe it's the only way to get through a 162-game season on an even keel. But away from the game, a routine becomes a rut. Grady Little walked into the Players Cafe a block from the historic Pinehurst golf resort nearly every day at nearly the same time and ordered a Rueben sandwich — every time.

He'd become a friend of the owner, Bob Scalzi, a transplanted Bostonian and former Fenway Park season-ticket holder, of all things. Scalzi made an offhand suggestion one day: Here's a way to clear your head and have some fun besides.

The next day Little bought a Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic motorcycle, got the motor running and headed for the highway. In less than two years he has racked up 14,000 miles, mostly taking solitary rides, winding through the horse farms near his home, past the scarlet berries of the mountain ash to the west and to the historic coastal communities along the Cape Fear river to the east.

"He hadn't been on a motorcycle since the '70s," said Eric, father of Grady and Debi's two grandsons. "But it's really been great. It puts him at ease, it's more or less therapy."

It's everybody else who needs therapy, that's what Little wanted to say, but he didn't because, well, he learned a lot about human nature managing for so long. And maybe the motorcycle did have something to do with putting that fateful night in New York in his rearview mirror and zooming as far away from it as possible.

"What bothers me most is that people keep bringing it up and won't let it go," he said. "People try to judge Grady Little by that one game. You know, I was a successful minor league manager for all those years, and I was a successful big league manager.

"When we were playing that game that night, there were 27 other managers sitting at home watching on TV wishing they were there with an ability to [mess] it up like I did. Yet people to this day always bring it up. And one of these days, I'm just going to quit talking about it."

He had daily reminders in 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, putting to rest the supposed Curse of the Bambino and giving blessed relief to scapegoats living and dead — Denny Galehouse, Johnny Pesky, Joe McCarthy, Calvin Schiraldi and Bill Buckner are among those who preceded Grady Little.

"I watched that Series toward the end, like I always do," he said. "But I didn't watch it religiously. I'd say that I kept up with it."

He deeply appreciated calls that came from Red Sox players during bus rides to airports in August and from champagne-splattered clubhouses in October.

"I pulled for those guys to do good and win," he said. "I felt good when some of the players called and told me I was there in that locker room with them. That gave me a comforting feeling. It's something I knew in my heart."

The 2004 team was bolstered by two key additions — starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke.

"They had them that year and won the World Series; we didn't have them in 2003 and we didn't make it," he said. "They didn't have them in 2005 [because of injuries] and they didn't make it.

"I'm not taking anything from the guys who contributed, but it wasn't the same team."

Little lost out to Mike Hargrove to fill the Seattle Mariner managerial opening after the 2004 season. Meanwhile he took a job advising the Chicago Cubs about minor league prospects and potential trades.

At home he seemed to be preparing for life beyond baseball. He bought 11 undeveloped acres, close to where Debi grew up in nearby Southern Pines, cleared out a patch and made plans for a dream house. There would be a tennis court for Debi and a dirt track for the grandkids to ride their four-wheelers.

Construction was to be a family affair. Debi's father would build the house — he already had built numerous homes throughout the Pinehurst area — her brothers would pitch in, and Little and his wife would do the painting.

Little enjoyed the monotony of spending a day with a brush in his hand and walls to cover. In a strange way painting was like riding the Kawasaki, or eating those Rueben sandwiches. In a strange way it was like managing a baseball team.

And that was something he still believed he could do, even if others weren't so sure. Baseball America honored him in 2001 as the best minor league manager of the previous 20 years for his record of 1,053-903, five league championships and four manager-of-the-year awards. Director Ron Shelton had even employed him as a technical advisor for "Bull Durham," the definitive 1988 film about the bush leagues.

All well and good, but wasn't managing nearly 2,000 minor league games a diamond definition of obscurity?

When Jim Tracy parted ways with the Dodgers a day after the 2005 season ended, Little didn't think twice. In all his years in baseball, he'd spent only one away from the Atlantic seaboard, serving as San Diego Padre bullpen coach in 1996.

The Dodgers had five candidates, and Little wasn't one of them. It became clear that General Manager Paul DePodesta planned to hire Dodger farm director Terry Collins, but owner Frank McCourt balked at the choice, sending DePodesta back to the drawing board.

Little still wasn't on the radar, even when DePodesta handed McCourt a list of out-of-work managers and challenged him to identify someone more qualified than Collins, who had led teams to five second-place finishes in six seasons.

McCourt fired DePodesta, hired Ned Colletti in his place, and the names of Lou Piniella and Jim Fregosi came to the fore. Little, in fact, contacted Fregosi and asked him about becoming his bench coach if he landed the job.

Not until Colletti finally called did Little dare believe this might be the opportunity for him. Of course, Colletti asked him during his interview about leaving Martinez in the game."His explanation gave me great confidence in who he is," Colletti said.

Primarily because Little exuded great confidence himself.

"I take a lot of pride in the way I can handle situations," Little said. "I can get the most out of people.

"I do have confidence. I think it's a blessing to have a team that can win. But it's not luck that these players do the best they can playing for Grady Little. I try to keep them in a frame of mind where they can do their best."

The Pinehurst Pilot sought a bold reaction from Little about landing the job, and he didn't disappoint, saying: "The McCourt family knows I'm a winner and that winning follows me around."

It sounded familiar to Eric, who like everyone back home was ecstatic that his father had landed the job.

"He's laid back, but he feels he can do anything," he said. "He feels invincible. You don't notice that right away, but the confidence comes through slowly.

"He called me and said, 'I'm back in the fast lane for a while.' I don't think he's stopped smiling yet."

Yes, the Dodgers can expect a heaping helping of down-home, marinated-in-the-minors perspective from their new manager, who incidentally will become the first man to manage two of baseball's more storied franchises, the Red Sox and the Dodgers.

When a pitcher is overthrowing, Little is apt to tell him, "Stop trying so hard, just like your first coach told you in Little League."

When a player is pressing, seemingly putting the weight of the world on his shoulders, Little will dispatch him to a children's hospital for an afternoon.

"I'll let it be known that when we win a game, the players are responsible," he said. "And when we lose, I'm going to take the blame because I deserve it."

I know the way players play for me. They are going to do exactly what I tell them. So when we lose, it will be my fault."

Few have worn culpability as commendably as Grady Little. It is his fervent wish that when his new team takes the field, everyone gains a smidgen of the perspective he seems to have in abundance.

"Once I manage one game for the L.A. Dodgers, people are going to quit asking me about Pedro," he said, skipping a beat before the punch line. "They are going to start asking about what I screwed up in the game tonight."

He has long known the next day's game is the best salve for sins of all stripes on a ball field. And he has thought it through enough times, from the quiet of his country spread — where the new house is on hold — to the seat of his motorcycle — which is for sale.

During his last visit to L.A. for a staff meeting, Little couldn't sleep. He checked out of his hotel at 2 a.m. and drove empty streets from Silver Lake to Pasadena to Hollywood to El Segundo until reaching the airport for a 6 a.m. flight.

His mind raced from his last game to his next, and made all the stops in between.

"Dang," he thought, allowing himself a smile. "It's been a long time between games I've managed."

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

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