Item: Should the Red Sox Go High Tek?

ESPN’s Gordon Edes, running with something the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman floated, hoists another name into the pool of Bobby Valentine’s prospective successors by direct way of Sherman himself:

A high Tek successor?

I am not here to fire Valentine, a man I like and think had the thinnest possible chance for success in a soap-opera environment poisoned well before his arrival. But fair or not, if he truly is one and done, then my managerial suggestion for Boston would be Jason Varitek. He would allow the Red Sox to co-opt the idea of their main rival while honoring what is in vogue in the sport right now. 

Like Joe Girardi was for the Yankees, Varitek is a former championship catcher for the Red Sox. So he comes with built-in credibility within this group. Look, we can say the Red Sox players need to look in the mirror and not the manager’s office for the problem. But the reality is this core is coming back again next season and, if that is the case, the Red Sox are going to need to find someone who commands instant respect and who can begin to re-establish sanctity and sanity within what has become a Wild West baseball setting. Varitek should have that immediately with this group because it is so familiar with his preparation, professionalism and sturdiness as a teammate. 

“In the past, you would dismiss someone who was just a year out of the game with no professional managing experience. But the success this year of Robin Ventura of the White Sox and the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny — both returning to old haunts as first-time-anywhere managers — is changing the rules. In addition, Don Mattingly is having great success with the Dodgers after never previously managing.

Varitek did earn a sterling reputation as a handler of the Red Sox pitching staff. He does have an equal reputation for game knowledge. And he was one of the best-respected men in the Red Sox clubhouse, until his retirement before this season.

The prospect can be intriguing, especially in light of Girardi’s success.

The bad news: It can backfire, and sometimes has. Hark back to 1964, when another Yankee catcher—who won a lot of pennants and World Series rings in and for The ‘Stripes—was plucked, when his playing career had barely ended, to manage the Yankees for the Year of the Beatles. Unfortunately, Yogi Berra was perceived as being weak enough on team discipline that, despite the Yankees making a late-season surge to reclaim the pennant, before losing a thriller of a seven-game Series to the Cardinals, he was executed* the day after the Series ended.

Jason Varitek may well want to manage. He may well jump as high as he can if the Red Sox offer him the chance. But he may well say his prayers that the Red Sox under his command don’t get anywhere near as wild and crazy as the 1964 Yankees were thought to have gotten for most of Yogi’s single-season reign, never mind as wild and crazy as they continued to get under Valentine’s divide-and-conquer rule.

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* Yogi Berra’s October 1964 execution had a little too much of a stink to it, as things turned out. The man who defeated Berra in the Series, Cardinal manager Johnny Keane, had been approached about taking the Yankee job about midway through the season, when the Yankees got wind that Keane was miffed over a backchannel move to dump him in St. Louis—in fact, the Cardinals were considering a wholesale housecleaning in mid-1964, when they looked to be out of the pennant race, which included dumping general manager Bing Devine, who was close to Keane, in mid-season.

At about the same time, with rumours that owner Gussie Busch—who may or may not have been prodded that way by broadcaster Harry Caray—was thinking about unloading Keane in favour of then-Dodger coach Leo Durocher at season’s end. Keane may have let the Yankees know, just as informally and just as quietly, that he would be interested in managing the Yankees if he was going to be out in St. Louis and Yogi was indeed going to be out in New York. A Daily News writer and Berra biographer, Joe Trimble, suggested then-Yankee general manager Ralph Houk (who’d been kicked upstairs after managing the Yankees from ’61-’63, after his predecessor Roy Hamey decided unexpectedly to retire) was planning to dump Berra even if the Yankees won the 1964 Series in four straight.

Yogi Berra (r.) congratulated Johnny Keane on the Cardinals’ ‘1964 World Series conquest—bless his heart, Yogi didn’t know the machinations that would end with his dumping and Keane’s succeeding him within 24 hours . . .

Keane then stunned Busch, when Busch called a press conference to announce the manager would be re-upped. Keane dropped his resignation on Busch as the Yankees were sending Yogi to the electric chair, and took the now-vacant Yankee job. (Berra would join the Mets—and his former manager, Casey Stengel—as a coach for 1965.)

It’s open to debate which man had it worse—Berra trying to step into Ralph Houk’s shoes, or Keane trying to step into the Yankees’. He lasted until the Yankees opened 1966 with a 4-20 record and sat in tenth place in the pre-divisional American League. Keane was hobbled by a veteran team who didn’t respond to Keane’s station-to-station game strategy (“We were used to going for the big inning,” first baseman-outfielder Joe Pepitone would remember) and, apparently, his penchant for “sacrificing a season to win a game,” as pitcher Jim Bouton would remember it. 

The real reason Keane failed in New York—other than his game style and sacrificing seasons to win games approach—was that the Yankees were aging, often injured, and parched on the farm; they’d unloaded a few too many solid prospects following the end of the Stengel era, especially when then-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb were trying to sweeten the deal as they pondered and consummated selling the team to CBS during 1964. Bouton also believed, on the record, that the stress of trying to manage a team whose dissembly he couldn’t comprehend, even as he held the team in awe, may have contributed to Keane’s shocking death of a heart attack in January 1967, just a month or two after the Angels hired him as a scout. At 55. 

As for Yogi, he’d end up managing another pennant winner—after seven seasons as the Mets’ first base coach, where he was just as popular a figure as he’d ever been with the Yankees, Berra found himself named to succeed Gil Hodges as the Mets’ manager . . . after Hodges suffered a fatal heart attack in spring training 1972. (Even worse a stress manager than Keane, Hodges died at age 48.) A year later, Yogi skippered the Mets to another miracle, winning the National League East after they’d started September at rock bottom, then winning the pennant in a thriller of a League Championship Series against the burgeoning Big Red Machine, before coming up a game short of overthrowing the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.

Over a decade later, of course, Berra would be another on George Steinbrenner’s merry-go-round of throwing out the first manager of the year, Steinbrenner dumping Yogi when his 1985 Yankees broke out of the gate too slow for the ever-so-patient Boss . . . and dispatching Clyde King to give Berra the news, causing a rift between Yogi and the Yankees that lasted until 1998.

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