The Measure Of A Manager

Posted on May 12, 2009

Two Years In, Dave Trembley Gets High Marks. But, Is He The Man For The Long Haul?

By Kevin Heitz

Dave Trembley never played an inning of professional baseball.
(Mitch Stringer/PressBox)
Dwight D. Eisenhower, somebody who knew a few things about leading troops into battle, said of leadership: "No matter how bad things got, no matter how anxious the staff became, the commander has to preserve optimism in himself and in his command. Without confidence, enthusiasm and optimism in command, victory is scarcely obtainable. Optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head downward than in any other direction."

It has been nearly two years since Dave Trembley was charged with leading the Orioles into a fierce battle for respectability and a return to winning ways. The problem: How does a first-time manager lead a big league team rich with history but stuck in a decade-long malaise in Major League Baseball's richest division? A profound love and respect for the game is a good start.

"I care about the integrity of the game, maybe to a fault," Trembley said. "I can't accept less than what I think it should be. That eats on me sometimes."

He may resemble William Shatner, but Trembley as Captain Kirk was not put in charge of a sparkling Enterprise when he was named interim manager on June 18, 2007. His ship more resembled the flying bus from "Spaceballs."

Trembley spent 20 years plying his trade in the minors. He won Manager of the Year in three different leagues, had produce tossed at his head while coaching in Mexico, and never played an inning of professional baseball, but when he got the nod he was ready to leave his mark in the Baltimore clubhouse. The interim tag (which he wore until Aug. 22, 2007) didn't bother him. Neither did the fact that president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail was wooing Joe Girardi to Baltimore. This was, at least for a little while, Dave Trembley's team.

Before his first game as manager, Trembley sent his squad out on the diamond for infield practice -- something rarely done in "The Show." Always one to stress the importance of sound fundamentals, Trembley did the same thing earlier this month following a stretch that saw his Birds lose nine out of 11 games.

When you take over a team that hasn't tasted success since 1997, going back to basics is all you can do. It was one of the reasons MacPhail decided to give Trembley a shot at managing a full season in 2008 and then signed him to a one-year extension for 2009.

"I think that the managing job, more so now than ever, is a custom fit," MacPhail said. "You have to look for a guy that fits your circumstance. What Dave brings is that he imparts on the players the importance of doing fundamentals, respecting the game and doing those things that you are going to want to have done during your career while you were privileged enough to wear a major league uniform. We're trying to build a culture that this is a privilege, an opportunity to play in the major leagues."

Trembley is a throwback to a time when Baltimore baseball was king -- and the game was played the "Oriole Way." Losses happen and mistakes can be worked on, but Trembley has no patience for those who disrespect the game.

"I've had several conversations with Dave about what baseball is all about, what it means," said Boog Powell, owner of two World Series rings from his playing days in Baltimore. "Going back to basics, executing the fundamentals. I think it's the right way to go about it. As far as a manager goes, I haven't seen too many tactical situations where I would have done anything different."

"There is a certain way the game needs to be played," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who won three World Series under three different Orioles managers (Hank Bauer 1966, Earl Weaver 1970, Joe Altobelli 1983). "And I think Dave understands this. He's dotting as many I's and crossing as many T's as he can."

"I like his focus on fundamentals," MacPhail said. "I often have scouts tell me what a joy it is to watch our team's pregame because they'll do things and work on fundamentals throughout the year that you seldom see other clubs working on beyond spring training. It's just common sense that those things need to be brushed up on from time to time."

There's no shortage of things that need to be brushed up on around Camden Yards, but Trembley has remained focused -- and optimistic -- on the task at hand, and he refuses to dwell on the past. But when losing seasons keep stacking up, and empty seats swallow the few fans in the stands, it can be a tough sell to the players.

"The most difficult part is to get the point across to your players," Trembley said. "Just control the things you can control. Preparation, play hard, take yourself out of the equation. Don't beat yourself up. Do something that's positive to contribute to the success of the team. These guys are so good that when things aren't going well, everyone wants to take it upon themselves and carry the club and make the big difference. I think that just makes the situation worse.

"The cake's in the oven, the hay is in the barn. What happened yesterday is done and over with. All you can do is learn from it."

***

If anyone can teach the O's how to learn from their mistakes, it's Trembley, who has a master's in education from SUNY-Brockport and taught and coached at Los Angeles' Daniel Murphy High School in the late '70s. In 1984, he landed an area scouting gig with the Chicago Cubs. By the next year, he was coaching the Cubs' Wytheville, Va., team in the Appalachian League -- the beginning of a two-decade career helping to mold young talent into big league stars.

After stints in the Pirates' and Padres' organizations, Trembley's journey led him to the Bowie Baysox in 2003. He has been with the Orioles since, managing in Bowie, Ottawa and serving as bullpen coach in Baltimore.

Another Orioles manager who toiled two decades in the minors, Earl Weaver, knows just how valuable the lessons learned while climbing baseball's lower rungs can be.

"I spent 20 years in the minor leagues, and it helped me," he said. "It helps you judge players, because you're turning in reports to your organization. And when you send in those reports recommending players, you better be right more than you're wrong."

Relatively unknown when he got the managing job, Trembley has a long way to go before he's compared to Weaver, but his proven track record as a talent developer is one of the reasons he is a good fit for this Orioles squad.

"Trembley's been a teacher as well as a manager over the course of his career," MacPhail said. "And he's likely to have a roster that on occasion is going to be littered with young guys that will need to make adjustments and learn at the major league level."

What those young guys will learn from Trembley isn't anything new, just a return to good, fundamental baseball.

"It's a pretty basic approach," Trembley said. "You have to throw strikes, you have to catch it, you have to hit with men on base, and you have to eliminate mental mistakes. Physical mistakes are part of the game. Mental mistakes, I'm not going to accept. Lack of effort or energy, I'm not going to accept.

"I'm real fortunate, because I have a very good group of players who want to compete and don't like to lose."

***

The culture may be changing, and the attitude improving, but at the end of the day the Orioles are still losing more than they're winning. As of May 10, Trembley's record with the Orioles was 121-165. The skipper may not be on the hot seat yet, but he certainly isn't lounging on a La-Z-Boy enjoying a perfect ass-groove in cracked, aged leather.

The future is bright in Birdland -- we are told. But what fans aren't told, what the skipper isn't told, what MacPhail hasn't determined, is how long Trembley, who is signed for 2009 with a club option for 2010, will be running the show.

With a below-average roster, the expectations for the manager should be lower. But it's still a business, and empty seats never help the bottom line. At this time, everyone knows Trembley doesn't have enough players to win in the ultra-competitive American League East, but by the end of this season -- or next -- will he have enough wins to save his job?

"It's got to be a combination of things," MacPhail said of the eventual decision of whether to stick with Trembley for the long term. "Have we achieved the goals we wanted to achieve? And like any manager, wins and losses come into the equation, but at the same time we have to have a rational and objective view of the talent level here compared to what he has to compete against -- and certainly we'd take that into account."

"No one thought this team was going to be any good," Palmer said. "You just have to judge a manager by the relationship he has with his coaching staff and with the players. To me, Dave is a steward of trying to get this organization to regroup. I'm not going to judge him by the won-lost record. I look at preparation, I look at passion. I look at all the important things and I'm going, 'This guy has those things.'"

The question is whether passion and preparation are enough to right a sinking ship that has been taking on water for more than a decade. If Trembley's seat is getting hot, he's not showing it.

"You can never lose your confidence -- I think that's the key," Trembley said. "You can never lose your confidence. And that's what the players look at in a manager. Does the manager still have confidence in them? You have to remain consistent. You still do the same things, you don't do anything out of the norm, change your whole lineup, ask guys to do things that they can't do. You go with what brought you to the dance."

***

There are certainly flocks of baseball fans in Baltimore rooting for the Orioles to turn it around -- and for Trembley to be in the dugout when success returns to Birdland.

Palmer, who has watched seven managers come and go in his years as a television analyst, says of Trembley, "People don't have any reason to not like him. I think people in Baltimore relate to him because he's done his time in the minor leagues, he understands the game, he's very professional, and he's very respectful not only of the game but of the players."

"Baltimore's a great baseball city, there's no doubt about that," Weaver said. "If you can get it going, they'll love you. I wish that they could get going, because Trembley is a heck of a guy. He's got a great personality, and he's a guy that you love to like."

While managers like Girardi would rather graze in greener pastures than take over as manager of the Orioles, landing such a job was a dream come true for Trembley.

"I'm proud that I was given the opportunity to do this," Trembley said. "If you do things right, if you treat people right and have respect, then it's recognized. I know how special it is, and I'll never take it for granted. … I'm very humbled by it, and I think that's the way it should be.

"This isn't about Dave Trembley. This is about trying to get the Baltimore Orioles back where they should be. Respecting people and understanding the tradition and history that's existed here for a long time. But now trying to establish a new identity of what the future of the Baltimore Orioles is going to be about."

Issue 137: May 2009

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