Notes from La Russa guide Geren in hard times

ANAHEIM, Calif. – What he once learned over breakfast, what he endeavored to keep in his head on his drive home and what he hurriedly typed into his computer before the insights floated away, Bob Geren now keeps on a flash drive.

The file is called “Notes from Tony.”

The “Tony” is Tony La Russa.

Geren had asked him, by his own rough estimate, “10,000 questions” over a couple hours five winters ago. Geren was weeks from his first spring training as manager of the Oakland Athletics, his first big league job.

Bob Geren is in his fifth season as manager of the Oakland Athletics.

The pocket knife-sized gadget holds advice on management and motivation, on preparation and follow-through, on the first inning through the ninth, all that La Russa downloaded that morning.

Geren carries it with him still, nearly 700 games into a tenure that’s been saddled with average teams, that hasn’t yet seen a winning season and that, over the past few days, has been knocked for Geren’s own leadership capacities.

The modern ballplayer’s exile, of course, is the manager’s incompetence, a place where accountability dare not tread.

And so when A’s reliever Brian Fuentes(notes) is the losing pitcher in four consecutive appearances, it is not Fuentes’ unwillingness to throw a strike that resonates, but Geren’s inability to make Fuentes feel comfortable and worthwhile. And, from a time zone away, it was not Huston Street’s(notes) inability to hold the closer’s job in his final season in Oakland, but Geren’s worth as a human being that blew all those ninth-inning leads.

It’s not enough to fill in a lineup card and cover for the player’s failures. Hasn’t been for years. Generation Y needs to know why, needs to know it is loved, needs to be paid, needs to be coaxed onto the field, and then coaxed off.

Near the end of a six-game losing streak (of which Fuentes contributed four), and as the A’s collapsed into last place in the AL West, and as their disabled list grew to capacity, Fuentes griped, Street texted the San Francisco Chronicle with backup, and suddenly Geren was the problem.

He was a poor communicator. He was an uninspiring leader. He was bland. He hardly ever hugged anyone. What a monster.

As the week began to play itself out, Geren stood in a hallway outside the A’s clubhouse in Anaheim. Fuentes had apologized for going public. Geren had held a meeting. General manager Billy Beane and owner Lew Wolff had stood behind the man and the office. The team was about to win for the second time in three days.

Yet, these things linger.

Geren shrugged. Yes, it was disconcerting to have the clubhouse go sideways, to be raked through the papers, to get kicked around (and in the final guaranteed season of his contract).

But, he has a way through these things, straight from the flash drive. La Russa called it “the mirror test.”

“Everyday before you walk out on the field,” Geren said, “you look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Have I done everything I can to prepare for this game?’”

Then, four hours later, after a post-game shower, “Did I do everything I possibly could to win today?”

The rest is for Fuentes to sort through, Fuentes and his teammates, whether they bat second or seventh, whether the ball comes in the seventh or the ninth. They can whine about it later if they have to. That’s what Twitter’s for.

“I just believe,” Geren said, “you try to do the right thing by the team first.”

Perhaps, indeed, Geren could express himself better. And perhaps everybody could be a little less needy. Meet halfway like that. Maybe get a hit, take the ball when it’s handed to you, and get out of last place like that.

“When things don’t go the way you planned, this happens,” catcher Kurt Suzuki(notes) said. “Everybody knows we haven’t played as well as we can.

“What happened, happened.”

The rest is for the A’s to clean up.

Their revamped lineup is one of the worst in baseball. Geren batted .233 in the big leagues. He certainly won’t hit for the A’s now. Only the Texas Rangers have committed more errors. That certainly isn’t helping the league’s best pitching staff, particularly now that it’s light Andrew Bailey(notes), Dallas Braden(notes), Brandon McCarthy(notes) and Tyson Ross(notes).

Given all the low-scoring and close games, every pitch is game changing for the A’s. So is every at-bat. And so is every one of Geren’s decisions.

For that reason, they might want to stick together on this.

“So, let’s fix it and go forward,” Geren said. “Just focus on the day. Each day. And try to be focused on the day.”

Maybe that’s too boring, too simplistic, and not fawning enough. The players will decide.

But, it plays in the mirror.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, May 28, 2011