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When is the right time to fire a manager?


This is a tough column to write because it centres on a topic that is painful. It’s something I’ve lived, and it is no fun. 

I fired trainers, coaches and managers during my time as general manager of the New York Mets. I fired minor-league staff member and scouts. I was fired too. It’s awful, no matter which side of that conversation you are on. Obviously, it hurts worse when you are the one getting the pink slip, but they both hurt.

Firings impact families, not just individuals. Sure, it affects the employee being let go most, but it’s also tough on husbands, wives, children and friends. It’s an unfortunate part of sports. Many times, people get fired for things that are out of their direct control. It doesn’t always feel fair or just. There are times when the person doing the firing doesn’t know if the change they are making will actually make a difference, but they do it anyway.

Decisions like these are not taken lightly, and are often the cause of fear, worry, anxiety and loss of sleep. Rarely is a decision based upon lack of effort or caring by the employee. It’s usually based upon process, results, or a combination of both.

The job of a coach or manager is to work with the players to produce results. Sometimes, the process of coaching is perfect, but the players still fail. Since you can’t fire all the players, the coach or manager is the one to go.

Coaches can also their jobs if they don’t follow the process the way the front office desires. That can be in the form of contradicting direct instructions from above, using the wrong terminology, not helping the players prepare properly for competition, etc. Sometimes it can be interpersonal conflicts that lead to a dismissal.

Often it’s a friend firing a friend. It’s brutal, but decisions aren’t based on personal relationships when you’re running a team. It’s about what is right for the franchise at that time in the best judgment of the general manager.

I fired my hitting coach, pitching coach and bullpen coach in June of 1999. The team was 27-28 at the time and underperforming. We were at a turning point, and our season was teetering. I had identified areas in which the preparation process was not what I thought it should have been. I decided a change needed to be made, especially since I had internal candidates to take over responsibilities.

I didn’t include my manager, Bobby Valentine, in the decision because I didn’t want blood on his hands. He was always accused of assigning blame on others, and I wanted to protect him from. I got ripped in the media for firing the coaches out from under the manager, as I knew I would. I wanted coaches who were loyal to the organization more than loyal to the manager. Sometimes, when coaches are close with the manager, they don’t think or act independently.  I saw this going on and thought we needed freethinkers.

Valentine shared his displeasure in my decision. I would have changed my manager too at the time if ownership was open to it, but they were not. When asked about the moves, Valentine told reporters, “Ask me after the next 55 games, whether it was the right decision.” 

We went 40-15 in the next 55 games and went on to win 95 games and made it to the playoffs. My owner told me the move to fire the coaches was a $30 million decision for the organization. We sold more tickets as we played better and made more money because we made it to the postseason. We also made more money the following season in ticket, sponsorship and ad sales because we were selling a playoff team. 

Valentine and I worked together for a few more years before we fired him. We won a lot of games together despite our contentious relationship, including making the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history and going to the World Series in 2000. 

I’m writing about this because I feel the Toronto Blue Jays are teetering on the edge. Their season may go up in flames if something doesn’t change.

The offence is underperforming and the pitching isn’t as good as it was a year ago. The team is underachieving in almost every area. The results aren’t there for a team that sold the fans on internal improvements from last season being the key factor in their success. I have no knowledge about the preparation processes being subpar in anyway.

I dislike talking about anyone losing their job, but as a former general manager who made these decisions, my experience has taught me that these thoughts and conversations are likely happening now. The likely discussion is about what to do spark the offence and shake the overall team malaise that exists. Baseball is a results-based business. If you don’t produce, we find someone else who will.

Jays manager John Schneider is ultimately responsible for the overall performance of the team. He is vulnerable to losing his job, especially considering the way last season ended with his decision to replace Jose Berrios with Yusei Kikuchi even though Berrios was dominating in Game 2 of the wild-card round against the Minnesota Twins.

Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez is beloved by everyone in the organization. He works hard and he cares. He would do anything to get his players to hit, but the team is not responding or making the necessary adjustments. He is vulnerable, as are assistant hitting coaches Hunter Mense and Matt Hague.

If the Blue Jays do decide to go down this path, it will likely happen on a day off so that they have some time to communicate properly to those involved and make the transition.

As a GM, I always looked at a change in the coaching staff as a step before making a change at manager. It doesn’t mean that the changes won’t happen together, but often the coaches are the barrier before the manager goes. I also knew that once a change in coaches and manager were made, the general manager was then vulnerable. I lived it exactly that way – I made changes with coaches, then with Bobby Valentine, and then I was next out the door.

The best way to avoid all of this is for the Blue Jays to go on a good 10-game winning streak and a run to the playoffs. Let’s hope for that, because the alternative is awful.