I like to play baseball video games. The first one I ever played was the original RBI Baseball on my friend's Nintendo when I was five-years-old, and I loved it. I've played baseball games on just about every major gaming system you can think of – Roger Clemens MVP Baseball on the old-school Game Boy, VR Baseball 97 on the original Play Station, Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball against my buddy on his Nintendo 64, and now, these days, the greatest baseball simulation there's ever been: the MLB: The Show series for the PlayStation 3.
The Show's franchise mode doesn't get everything right, but it comes awfully close. You've got the Rule 5 draft, arbitration contracts, outright waivers, the waiver trade deadline, all the little nuances of running the day-to-day operations of a big league club that older games hardly could be bothered with. It's an absolute blast. Where my interest in my season modes on previous games generally petered out about halfway through a 162-game virtual season – blame my stubborn insistence on playing every game and the release of the NCAA Football game in July – The Show engages me enough to play through multiple seasons.
Naturally, I control the Rockies and try and keep the 40-man roster as close to reality as I can, at least through the first season. I even manually injure players at the start of the season to get their DL stints to match up. But while the general manager aspect of the game is great fun, there's still nothing that beats going into the game itself and trying to take the virtual counterparts of the players I watch on TV all summer and try and win a game.
To that end, I try my best to put a lineup out on the field that is the best eight players I can field, accounting for fatigue and the occasional need to platoon. Hot players play more often, cold players take a seat. Once the game starts, not only am I a part of the strategic maneuverings – my preference is to play the old Earl Weaver way and not run much so that I can ensure men stay on base in front of my power hitters – but I also control the players themselves. I swing the bat, I field the ball, I throw the pitches. If my timing is right and my stick skills are on point, then I can hit a 400 foot homer with Jonathan Herrera or throw a complete game four-hit shutout with Esmil Rogers. If not, then I pick up a golden sombrero for Carlos Gonzalez or give up a game-losing home run with Huston Street. But at the end of that game, the successes and failings of the virtual Rockies are mine, and mine alone.
The point? (I mean, aside from 'The Show is awesome', I guess?) At least as a virtual manager, I've got the hit stick and the pitching meter with which I can influence the game beyond 'who's playing?' and 'is this a good time to bunt?'. But stick me in a real big league dugout, and I'm subject to the same randomness of the world's most perfect sport as any other guy – Weaver, Casey Stengel, Terry Collins, or Jack from Wheat Ridge sitting in section 153, wearing a Mike Hampton jersey two sizes two small and trying to get CarGo to throw him a ball.
Sometimes you do the right thing – say, bunting with your two-hole hitter after your leadoff man gets on to start the eighth inning in a tie game – and it ends up all wrong – he bunts it too hard back to the mound and it starts a 1-6-4 double play. Sometimes you do the wrong thing – putting in a low-levergae reliever in a higher-leverage spot – and it ends up being the right thing – he sets down the side in order and helps your team win the game. That's how baseball works, how it's always worked, and while it's certainly a great advantage to have better players than the guy in the other dugout, in the end, you're only pushing buttons.
Look at the aforementioned Stengel's record with Brooklyn and Boston in the 30s and 40s. Did he get a brain transplant when he somehow got the Yankees job? Did Joe Torre get that same procedure after his underwhelming managerial career led him to the Bronx? Sure, you live and you learn, but anybody looks a lot smarter when they're writing 'Mantle' or 'Jeter' into their lineup card every day instead of 'Sisti' or 'Coolbaugh'. As a manager, your path to success involves having the best players, and it doesn't hurt to have the best luck either.
Through almost two full seasons now as Rockies manager, Jim Tracy has posted a record of 175-131. That's a .572 winning percentage, and I don't even need to look to know that's the best mark in franchise history. Prior to that, he won at a .527 clip in Los Angeles and a .417 clip in Pittsburgh. Was he smarter in Hollywood than by the three rivers? Did he regain that brain power a mile high?
Of course, listen to the fans tell it, and Jim Tracy's real record with the Rockies seems like it's 0-131. That's hardly unique. When was the last time you read anything about a manager winning a game? Sure, they might have made a crucial call that worked out in their favor, but the lead in the next day's paper will mention the players that pulled off the play. But if that call blew up – if that intentional walk came around to score on the next batter's double or that particular relief pitcher gave up the game-losing homer – the blame falls on the skipper.
I do not make this point to say 'Pity the poor manager'. They sign up for this, after all. And I certainly do not suggest that managers are merely figureheads. They do have the responsibility of putting their players in the best positions to succeed. Batting a sub-.300 OBP leadoff or putting on a contact play with no speed at third base are not smart moves, and if your manager is doing those sorts of things on a regular basis, then you can make a case that he's hamstringing the team's chances to win.
My only request is to be consistent. Because in the end, the execution falls on the players – until they give Jim Tracy the hit stick and pitching meter, anyway. So in the storied tradition of post-game finger pointing that follows every loss, aim those digits at the players who didn't come through rather than the manager who is every bit as powerless when the ball's put in play as you and me.