Baseball Lifers have The Look. Years of seeing out upon the diamonds with a distant gaze produces a common appearance to the men that inhabit the dugouts. Endless hours of absorbing the sights of the game, calculating a next move, and assessing skills on both sides of the ledger all set against a backdrop of constant uncertainty take their toll. They all entered the game as clear-skinned youths. But, the cumulative effect the game takes is written clearly in aged faces. The “Crows’ Feet” etched into the corners of their eyes are not so much like gentle river deltas meeting salt water. Rather the chasms are rough and jagged-edged as if they were made by chisels and hammers struck into sandstone. Tool marks from mishits predominate as if the tiny invisible craftsmen who struck the permanent blows were in a hurry. To look at a Baseball Lifer’s face is to see what decades under pressure does. It’s all there encoded into those ragged cavernous Crows’ Feet. Amassed in the leathery braille in no particular order are hires, firings, blown saves, wins, blown leads, injured stars, playoff losses, celebrations, lost friends, and Opening Days.
The look isn’t unique. Baseball lifers share that motif with old farmers and watermen. These are men who live their life one non-guaranteed season at a time. For them failure is always an option and is never far away. Promising crops can be lost to the vagaries of weather. Crabs are either scarce or plentiful, but the wholesale price changes accordingly to keep the incoming cash at a dribble. And, then the boat’s engine dies. The team jumps to an early division lead only to watch it evaporate. The media, the blogs, and the fans in the stands demand a scalp. Men who put it on the line understand failure. It is inherent in their pursuit. If one is in the game long enough taking a hard blow from the fates is inevitable. But, the price paid is not all onerous. A glance at their eyes reveals a certain calmness. The lack of security grounds them. Ambitions may go unrealized. But, life and living remain. Baseball fans may live in hope. Baseball Lifers are forced to live in reality.
Some careers require moving on an occasional basis. Military families moving every few years know this more than most. Twenty years of that is more than enough to satisfy the vast majority of career personnel. Those that are in the baseball game for good tend to hang on until they are no longer wanted or age/health intervenes. Any longtime manager or coach has a stats page with a fair amount of stops along the way. Hall of Famer Bucky Harris was in the bigs as a player/manager for 34 years. He had 8 different managerial gigs. Amazingly, three of those stints were with Washington. After spending 18 years with the Senators it shouldn’t be a surprise he ended up with a losing record. Al Dark only managed for 13 years. But, that involved five different locations. Find any familiar old manager and look up his record. Odds are that there will be numerous hirings and firings along the way. Walter Alston and his 23 years all with the Dodgers is one of a handful of scant exceptions. Sparky Anderson famously said that managers were, “…hired to be fired.” A scan of the records verifies his claim. Only a few willingly walk away from their lifelong passion.
Most managers and coaches were MLB players themselves. There was a brief period when top players were managing the teams. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Bucky Harris were all “Player-Managers.” Cobb and Speaker got hung up in a game-fixing scandal in 1926 from an incident years earlier. Neither would go on to have managing careers as the hybrid approach fizzled. But, a trend developed: Hall of Fame caliber players rarely moved into the manager’s slot with any success. Rather, they tend to come from players with lesser playing skills. Those men were drawn intractably to the game and deduced early that the key to remaining would be through study and applying intellect. The aforementioned Walter Alston had exactly one major league at-bat. It was with St Louis as he went 0-1 for life. At least he stepped up to the plate in “The Show” once. Earl Weaver never did having toiled in the Minors his entire playing and coaching career before moving up to a Hall of Fame managing career in Baltimore. His ultra-skilled Ace Jim Palmer pedantically noted of Weaver that, “The only thing Earl knew about a curve ball was that he could never hit it.” But, he was given a good club in 1968 and he knew just what to do with it.
Weaver’s minors-only background is the most uncommon of molds. It is, however, not a one-time story. Cut from the same mold is Atlanta’s Brian Snitker. He started in the Braves’ minor league organization in 1977 and never left the company. Given a good club in 2016, just like Earl he knew just what to do with it. Place a call to Central Casting, ask for a Baseball Lifer, and you’ll be lucky to get an actor who looks half as good in the role as Snitker. He’s a solid manager for an organization that has its ducks lined up in a row for years on end. Snitker is 65 years-old. The hope for Nats’ fans is that he doesn’t decide to stick around like Casey Stengel did until age 74.
There are several versions of this story. One of the more popular is this one. In autumn 1952 Casey Stengel’s Yankees were in the World Series against Brooklyn. The series started in Ebbets Field. In those days there was no inter-League play. Ebbets Field was a new experience for many of the Yankees, most notably the second-year phenom Center Fielder Mickey Mantle. The year before Mantle played right field as Joe DiMaggio manned center. In Game 2 of the World Series Willie Mays hit a high fly ball towards right-center. DiMaggio settled under it just as Mantle stepped on a drain grate wrenching his knee. There’s speculation that Mantle played the rest of his Hall of Fame career without an Anterior Cruciate Ligament in that joint. But, now a year later DiMaggio had retired and Mantle was manning center in a new-to-him stadium full of quirks. Stengel, 61 at the time, grabbed a fungo bat, some balls, and his young star as he headed to center field for a lesson. “Now when it hits that wall there it will go farther left than you think.” He’d hit the ball to the desired spot and the ball would react as predicted. Rinse, lather, and repeat. This went on for a while. Finally, Mantle with his boyish grin was just gob smacked. “How do you know all this stuff?” Stengel quickly shot back, “You think I’ve always been this damned old?”
When Ebbets Field opened on April 9, 1913 the Brooklyn Superbas’ Center Fielder was a scrappy 5’11” 175 lb 22 year-old Casey Stengel. The record says he went 0-4 that day. But, Casey went on to play for the same franchise known interchangeably as the Superbas/Robins/Dodgers for five more years. He then stayed in the National League exclusively as a player and manager until 1949. His eyes had seen a many a ball bounce off of those advertisement-plastered walls. Mantle had simply illuminated the paradigm of youth: The old vividly remember being young. The young not only can’t imagine themselves being old, they can’t imagine the old ever having been young.
A baseball season is about 2900 half-innings long. It is an immersive experience if there ever was one. By the time it is over the earth will have moved more than half way through its annual journey around the sun. At the onset the modern tendency is to cast the die based on computer projections, pundit opinions, and internet Keyboard General Managers’ cipherings. But, juggernauts are always a sore elbow or two away from mediocrity. Lightly regarded prospects unexpectedly blossom. Known-commodity veterans suddenly falter. Baseball turns on a dime. Job security goes along for the ride. The Baseball Lifers inside the game know all of this too well. As we settle in to watch the game the Lifers will also but they will watch with that distant gaze. In the din of a game it’s impossible to hear the tiny invisible craftsmen striking new crags into Crows’ Feet. But, rest assured, they are there hard at work. Another year starts. What will it bring?