Scioscia is guardian of the Angels
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Scott Schoeneweis hasn’t played for Mike Scioscia in five years and, in the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium, there’s no way Scioscia could overhear a conversation from his office across the ballpark.
Yet Schoeneweis lowers his voice and leans in.
“I was always trying to please him,” he says. “I wanted him to like me.”
They had met in the spring of 2000. Scioscia, the Los Angeles Dodgers icon, had replaced Joe Maddon as manager of the Angels. Maddon had finished up the season before for Terry Collins. The Angels had lost 92 games in 1999 and hadn’t been to the playoffs in 13 years, a period in which they had employed and dismissed 10 managers.
Scioscia knew a little about Schoeneweis, mainly that the Duke product was talented but so cocky as to be nearly uncoachable. In his first team meeting, the “Hi, my name is Mike and I’m the new skipper” meeting, Scioscia asked players to stand up and talk, answer a couple questions for the group. But this was no random exercise.
Midway through, he pointed to Schoeneweis, then a 26-year-old prospect who had glided through the Angels’ farm system, made 31 big-league appearances the previous season and was on the verge of winning a place in the starting rotation.
“Hey, Scott,” Scioscia said, “you were in (Triple-A) Edmonton some last year, right?”
Schoeneweis stood and nodded.
“Tell me,” Scioscia demanded, “who was the biggest jerk on that team?”
Only he didn’t say “jerk.”
“Uh,” he began.
The room demanded an honest answer.
“Probably me,” he finally said.
The room was satisfied. Players burst into knowing laughter. Having established exactly where he stood with the new manager, Schoeneweis sat down.
More than eight years later, Scioscia leaned back in a chair that’s been his ever since. He is the longest-tenured manager in Angels’ history, this season passing Bill Rigney, who guided the club from its 1961 birth until 1969. There are few organizations that reflect precisely what their manager is about. The Atlanta Braves are one. The St. Louis Cardinals. The Minnesota Twins. And the Angels, who play to Scioscia’s view of the game, to his expectations, to every stinkin’ pitch of every stinkin’ game, or fail trying. They’ve made the playoffs in four of his eight seasons, in 2002 reaching and winning the only World Series in franchise history. Schoeneweis made 60 appearances for that team, six in the postseason.
“He had a lot of talent and really pitched well for us at times,” Scioscia said of Schoeneweis. “But, with Schoney, if we were going to get what we expected out of him, you couldn’t let him off the mat.”
The imprint of which lingers on Schoeneweis’ cheek. Others bear the same markings.
“It was everything,” Schoeneweis says. “I was kind of a young punk, very strong-willed, thought I knew everything. He definitely thought he knew everything. And we battled.”
He’s still speaking softly, well beneath the din of pre-game preparations, his New York Mets attempting to organize themselves. The manager was fired two nights earlier, Willie Randolph here and gone. Three managers would be fired in baseball over the same week. Scioscia, though, was sturdy as ever, in first place again, presumably at that moment insisting on preparation and execution from some other guy. Five years later, Schoeneweis is still hoping.
It’s like one of those sappy afternoon specials on TV, Schoeneweis says, where the father is dying and the long-torn relationship with his son is mended, right there in the hospital room.
“You know,” Schoeneweis says, “I love you, son. I love you too, dad.”
He smiles. “And then everything’s OK in the world. I think enough time’s gone by. I think deep down he likes me, cares for me. And it’s mutual.”
These are big jobs, pressurized by impatient owners who require full ballparks and winning ballclubs to run their businesses, and by general managers who balance today’s outcome against tomorrow’s promise and the following day’s employment. The manager runs his clubhouse, along with his Triple-A clubhouse, along with a few prospects in his Double-A clubhouse, and then nine innings a night. The good ones can manage a man at a time.
Chone Figgins claims Scioscia welcomed him to the big leagues in late August 2002 and that it was the last conversation they had for at least a year. Not one word, he said, or none that he could recall. Then, one day, Figgins swears, Scioscia turned to him in the dugout and asked Figgins to get him a Gatorade.
“That didn’t happen,” Scioscia said, laughing. “Well, if it did, I was joking.”
Either way, Figgins recalls, the next afternoon Scioscia pulled him aside and refreshed his scouting report on Barry Zito. Fastballs up, Scioscia told him, and lots of curveballs. Gotta stay on top of the curveball. After reasonably successful at-bats that night against Zito, Figgins said, Scioscia returned and said, “There you go. Now go back to what you do.”
“With Chone,” Scioscia said, “he had a fearlessness of just getting out there and playing baseball. You just wanted to wind him up and let him go.”
As a late call-up in 2002, Figgins watched Scioscia mold and prod and encourage players such as Darin Erstad, David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. He watched them respond, stacking good at-bats upon good at-bats, sprinting from first to third on singles, standing in the proper places on defense, insisting on the same from teammates. Scioscia’s broad philosophies grew from them, from the accumulation of their simple yet trained mechanics, and then he watched when the machinery jammed, and Scioscia’s response.
“It’s how you take it,” he said. “Some young players can handle it and some can’t.”
Along the way, Figgins said, most of Scioscia’s players have been better for it, as have the Angels. Those that haven’t probably wouldn’t have been long for the system anyway, or even long for the game.
“I think when some guys don’t have the mentality for it, they can’t take when somebody’s telling them to be better at it,” he says. “It’s going to be hard. I’m sure a couple players came through here that couldn’t handle it. Some younger players take things better than others. It’s not for everybody. For me, who likes to come play every day and leave it on the field, a line-drive hitter who likes to steal bases, it works for me. He thrives on perfection, just like I do.”
To this day, Figgins maintains that simple relationship with the only major-league manager he’s ever had.
“I don’t really talk to him,” he says, laughing. “We don’t talk much. When it comes to him, I’m really quiet.”
Scioscia gestured to the clubhouse and a room of men stepping away from a loss, and not a good one. The Angels hadn’t played well, lost to the Mets and would leave the next day for Philadelphia, near where Scioscia had grown up to become a first-round pick of the Dodgers in 1976.
“That’s a talented bunch of guys in that room,” he said. “They’ve gotten to this level for a reason. They’re not in that room by a fluke. Now we put the pieces together, my staff and I. There are important things in baseball that get overlooked, things like secondary leads and going first to third and breaking up a double play. And always playing defense. That never stops, even if you’re 0 for your last 37.
“Those types of things are laid out very clearly, so there are no misunderstandings. Those kids we just signed that are in Tempe right now? They’re getting the exact same message. Philosophically, you have to give these guys direction. And I don’t do it for any other reason than, ‘Hey, we want to win, too.’ We bring them together to win. I didn’t invent it. This was stuff that was instilled in me since I was 17.”
Before he retired in 1992, Ace Bell taught and coached baseball for 40 years at Springfield High School, 10 miles from Philadelphia, for 40 years. Mike Scioscia was his catcher for three of those years.
“A natural,” Bell said of Scioscia. “Everything he touched.”
Early in Scioscia’s sophomore season, Bell, as he had for more than two decades, called the pitches from the dugout, which the catcher would relay to the pitcher. Between innings, Bell approached Scioscia about an opposing hitter.
“I already got it, coach,” Scioscia told him. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“Mike, you’re on your own,” he told him and, indeed, did not call his next pitch until after Scioscia graduated.
After the 2002 World Series, Scioscia called Bell.
“Mr. Bell,” he said, “it’s unbelievable the way this team played. You would have loved it.”
They reminisced about Bell standing in front of the team at that old blackboard, shooting balls into gaps with chalked line drives, challenging every player to align themselves against that screeching, gritty arc. Everybody wants to win, Scioscia conceded. But Bell was the first to provide him with the steps to win, the first to talk to him about the focus necessary to make the next play and forget the last mistake, “the first guy I was around who preached the finer points of baseball to me.”
“I knew,” Bell said, “he was destined for something.”
Scioscia played 13 seasons for the Dodgers, batted .259 and won two World Series. His ninth-inning, game-tying home run against Doc Gooden in Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS remains one of the pivotal moments in Dodgers history, and his savage plate-blocking is still recounted in the corridors of Dodger Stadium. Now, however, 14 years since he retired, going on eight since he left a dead-end job with the Dodgers to become one of the premier managers in the game, he has crossed a career bridge. He is no longer an ex-player managing, but a manager who once played. He’s reminded that that’s not so bad, as Joe Torre, a one-time MVP, has covered the same ground.
Scioscia got a laugh out of that.
“I crossed that line a lot earlier than Joe did,” he said.
Among active managers with at least 1,000 games of service, Scioscia is third in winning percetnage, behind Bobby Cox of the Braves and Ron Gardenhire of the Twins. His staff has produced two current managers, Bud Black in San Diego and Maddon in Tampa Bay.
“He always believed that he managed to win and did not manage to prevent losing or to cover his butt,” Maddon said. “I considered him fearless and prepared, with a sharp mind that was able to stay ahead of the game. His strength lies in his passion for winning and the way he goes about it.”
In a corner of the Angels’ clubhouse, Garret Anderson listened with some amusement to the stories of Scott Schoeneweis and Chone Figgins, the manner in which Scioscia managed them, how he dragged one along and simply pointed the other to the ballfield. It speaks to Scioscia’s versatile leadership, he said, even while demanding the same game from them all.
“The day they hired him, that’s when things changed,” Anderson said. “The attitude changed. How we go about our business changed. How we’re viewed as an organization changed. He played in L.A. They won. They were an arrogant bunch of guys who knew they were going to kick your behind every night. That works in this sport. You hear it enough, you start thinking, ‘I guess we’re going to get it done.’ You have no choice.
“In my mind, there is no perfect manager. But, one thing I can say honestly, he’s fairly consistent with his demeanor and he’s fairly consistent in how he treats people. It’s tough to perfectly manage 25 people. But, he’s fair. His demeanor on a daily basis is a positive thing for this team.”
Though he’d played for only the Angels, he’d been around long enough to hear all the speeches. By the time Scioscia walked in, Anderson, in parts of six big-league seasons, had reported to four previous managers.
“It was different coming from him,” he said.
Certainly it was for Schoeneweis, for others like him, for those who have come along since. The Angels don’t always win and, indeed, they are 4-12 in the postseason since 2002, advancing out of the division series once in three Octobers. But, the baseball is familiar and reliable and end-to-end assertive. It is Scioscia’s game, Scioscia’s way. It’s made something of the Angels.
Schoeneweis shrugs. It’s almost time to go.
“I don’t want any of this to sound like a negative,” he says. “It’s what he expected. And I didn’t know any better. What he’s done here and what I was a part of, it’s tremendous. They just win. They find a way to win. Those teams, especially that World Series team, they weren’t the most talented teams. But, they found a way.”
Besides, he says, “He’s got his own style. I’ve talked to a couple of the older guys, they say he’s changed. Softened, maybe.”
He looks back and shakes his head. “Probably not,” he says, smiling. Probably not.