CHICAGO – Long ago he learned to accept the cruel inevitability of his job. Managing, for all the help provided by bosses and confidants and statistics, is a solitary endeavor, one man riding his feelings and instincts, sometimes against the will of the masses, always knowing he could bump his face against the glass.
"My life is in a fishbowl," Grady Little says, "and in there, it's easy to keep things in perspective. When you get in the middle of a pennant race, every single player, every other person, sees what you do, what decisions you make, and has opinions on them.
"But I'm the one making the decisions. And I'm the one who has got to live with the results."
After almost 20 years of managing, it's still not easy for Little, these days the skipper for the Los Angeles Dodgers. They lead the National League West despite a surfeit of injuries that would have felled most clubs, and with a farm system that is baseball's version of an oil strike, they're positioned for future success, too.
Yet there are nights like Tuesday, when the Dodgers blew a seven-run lead and lost to a wretched Chicago Cubs team that committed six errors, and all Little can do is lean back, hands interlocked behind his head, and watch nothing escape from his lips. He is intimately familiar with nights like these, dating back, he says, to his first job, managing Baltimore's rookie-league team in 1980.
"When you're managing a ballclub, and those players are doing exactly what you ask them to, when you win that game, the players are the ones responsible for winning the game," Little says. "And when you lose that game, knowing the players did exactly what you told them to do – when you lose that game, you'd better be ready to take the responsibility.
"That stays with me every day."
Little believes in his players; that is his key to success, and it is also his fatal weakness. On Tuesday, he let starter Derek Lowe endure five consecutive hits and seven total in the fifth inning, frittering away most of the 7-0 advantage the Dodgers had built. Little believed in Lowe, even if Lowe didn't.
"Hitters," Lowe says, "tell you how good your stuff is."
Much like they did the night Little became a pariah. Until Oct. 16, 2003, Little was a success story: a lifetime minor-league manager done good, an adviser for "Bull Durham" who actually made the big leagues, a winner of 188 games during his two years managing the Boston Red Sox and, on that particular day, a manager looking to take Boston to its first World Series appearance since 1986 and first championship since 1918.
Instead, he is remembered for leaving Pedro Martinez in for one inning too many in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, one the Red Sox lost to the New York Yankees on an Aaron Boone home run in the 11th inning. Little offered no excuses that night and offers none now.
Inside his fishbowl, at the very least, Little made the right decision.
"Comes with the territory," he says, "and if a person is not ready to take that on, he ought to do something else."
For two years, Little did. Fired by the Red Sox, he lived at home in Pinehurst, N.C., and scouted for the Cubs. He would hop on his Vulcan Classic and ride 90 miles or so up Route 1 to Zebulon, where the Double-A Carolina Mudcats played. Little was free of the decisions and second guessing and heartache.
And as much as he enjoyed playing golf and cooking and occasional babysitting duties with his grandchildren, Little felt like he wasn't finished with baseball. The taste of 2003 lingered, stayed with him, and for every Web site hanging him in effigy – SurvivingGrady.com remains a popular Red Sox blog – Little steeled his will and came to grips with his decision.
"I've never tried to change," Little says. "I guess I could. But that's just me."
He slipped into a uniform again and, with the help of first-year general manager Ned Colletti's offseason moves and a farm system stocked under previous GMs Paul DePodesta and Dan Evans, remade the Dodgers. Little likes meandering the clubhouse and talking with his players. He and Brett Tomko laughed about their wives lighting up credit cards along Michigan Avenue. He made sure Mark Hendrickson arrived safely after spending his day off with the family. He chatted with Russell Martin, his rookie catcher and player already worthy of wearing a captain's C.
"I do the best I know how to," Little says.
Sometimes, though, not even the best does much good.
Which is why Little stayed in his office after Tuesday's game while the players sat in their cramped quarters at Wrigley Field eating salmon, meatloaf, lasagna and chicken marsala. Little was unsure what to think, what to feel, what to say. Baseball in September can be an emotional robber.
He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on a tangle of papers filled with numbers. He wasn't reading them. Just staring, isolated in his thought.
Life inside a fishbowl can be awfully lonely.