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Rockies manager Jim Tracy resigned on Sunday after three-plus years at the helm. How did things go so wrong that a man who had a deal in place to be the manager as long as he wanted suddenly wanted nothing to do with the organization?
Even from the very start, we knew better than to give Jim Tracy too much credit.
The 2009 Colorado Rockies began their season as an underachieving bunch, and after nearly two months of sleepwalking, Clint Hurdle was canned and Tracy, the bench coach, slid into the big chair. Almost immediately, the Rockies started winning, and they didn't stop until the Phillies eliminated them from their second postseason appearance in three years. But even as it was happening, the plaudits that Jim Tracy received had very little to do with any actual managerial skill. Tracy received credit for the nebulous concept of "letting guys play," for sticking with an everyday lineup and letting starting pitchers work deep into games -- all of which are wonderful ideas provided you're working with legitimate talent.
If anything, the play of the Rockies in the final four months of 2009 served as validation of the ability we thought the team had possessed all along. Tracy? Well, he wasn't Clint Hurdle, and for the purposes of the time, that was good enough.
Over the next three seasons, as the Rockies win total decreased by nine, then ten, then nine again, the criticisms began to mount. Tracy was ripped -- and rightly, most of the time -- for over-managing his team. In contrast to the "set it and forget it" strategy that worked in 2009, Tracy seemed bent on finding out how many lineup combinations he could use in one week, and treated the cleanup spot in the lineup like it was a prize to be won in a clubhouse game of poker. There were players he yanked around, like Dexter Fowler, and players who played entirely too often, like Eliezer Alfonzo or Jonathan Herrera. His grandfatherly tone in interviews became less endearing and a lot more ripe for parody -- nearly every player was "special" or in a "very good place" at one time or another.
In his past, Tracy had worn out his welcome in Los Angeles after a successful start, and had aggravated everybody in Pittsburgh in two miserable years there. His tenure in Colorado seemed to combine the two, an early success with the playoff run in 2009 and two non-competitive seasons in 2011 and 2012. That his hold on the job was tenuous was no surprise, and so in many ways his resignation on Sunday wasn't, either.
But just as Tracy didn't deserve an excessive amount of credit for his handling of the 2009 squad, he doesn't deserve an excessive amount of blame for just how rapidly a seemingly ascendant organization has crashed into a mountain. Jim Tracy didn't injure his three best starting pitchers entering a promising 2011 season, or force multiple DL trips for his two best offensive players. Tracy didn't engineer the assembly of one of the worst starting pitching rotation in baseball history -- if anything, he did about as well as I would have expected he'd do given the constraints placed upon that group once the four-man rotation was enacted from upstairs. His tactical shortcomings probably cost the Rockies some games, but he wasn't the difference between the cellar and the postseason. And while the 2011 team seemed listless for most of the second half, I felt like this year's team, even in their futility, did not play like a team that wanted their manager to be fired. Messages of support on Twitter from players like Jordan Pacheco and Dexter Fowler came immediately after the announcement.
So why, then, is this the time for Tracy to go? The fact is that Tracy's resignation, and departure from a franchise that was willing to let him collect a paycheck as long as he wanted, is, I believe, less of a reaction to a 64-98 record than a reaction to an unstable situation in the front office. After all, this is an organization with a general manager who isn't really a general manager, and a guy who isn't a general manager but is more involved in the clubhouse than even the average person who actually is a general manager. When the Rockies reshuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic ... er, their front office personnel, the role they gave the "promoted" Bill Geivett was essentially a babysitter's role for the manager.
Now put yourself in Jim Tracy's shoes. Yeah, you just lost 98 games, and 89 the year before that. But you had two winning seasons before then. You were the honest-to-God Manager of the Year in the National League in 2009. You've won division titles, been to the postseason, and you know deep down that not even the ghosts of Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher carrying magic pixie dust could have guided this year's Rockies to contention. Do you want anything to do with somebody being brought in to play your wet nurse? Are you thrilled about having to kowtow to an edict about your pitching staff from upstairs, one that they were steadfastly behind until they decided to ditch it just as rashly as it was instituted?
It's a job Jim Tracy could have had as long as he wanted, and now he doesn't want it anymore. Think less about how nice it is to have an unpopular manager out the door, and more about what it says about the situation he was being asked to work through. Think about how bad things would have to get for you to quit a job that's paying you $1.4 million a year for as long as you choose to accept it.
Then - and this is even worse - think about what you'd think of the next person to take that job. Because a job under those kinds of circumstances only attracts three kinds of people - organizational soldiers, desperate men, and suckers.
So while visions of Rays bench coach Davey Martinez or newly-named Phillies third-base coach Ryne Sandberg dance in the heads of Rockies fans, the reality of the situation suggests that the Rockies will most likely look to stay within the organization with the hire. They will try and find somebody who will work under conditions completely unlike any that the other 29 managers deal with. Somebody who will tolerate having their hand held by a front office that is plum out of rational ideas. Somebody who will grin and bear continued futility and hold the company line on excuses -- "we're too young, we're too injured, it's the altitude," and so on.
It's mystifying, really. At the end of the 2009 season, the Rockies seemed to have it all figured out. Their 2007 pennant was still a fresh memory. They had elite young talent, were coming off their best season ever, and had a Manager of the Year in their dugout and an Executive of the Year calling the shots. You're lying if you say you understand how it all went south, because there's no one simple answer. What is apparent, however, is that the downward trend in the win column and subsequent clutching at straws from the Rockies front office suggest a franchise that's far, far away from contention.
Even Jim Tracy, always classy, patient to a fault, couldn't stomach it anymore. If you asked him off the record on his way out of town, he'd probably tell you that the Rockies are no longer special, and not in a very good place.