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Scrutinizing Pete Mackanin on the cusp of his first full season as an MLB manager

A long time ago, Pete Mackanin decided that baseball wasn't going to be the thing that killed him.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The next few years will be positively filled with exciting rookie debuts for the Phillies. Just think of where you'll be standing for the first time Nick Williams starts a huge brawl with a flash of his million-dollar smile, or Jake Thompson starts a huge brawl by fist-pumping too hard after striking out the side, or Jorge Alfaro tosses his famous catching mitt into the stands into a pack of child fans following his first playoff game, ending in a huge brawl. Has my craving for baseball slowly become a craving for blood? Mostly, yes.

But before any of those things happen, Pete Mackanin will be making his debut as a full-time manager at the start of a season; rather than a emergency managerial back-up plan.

Mackanin has been a big league manager before; he's even been the Phillies' manager before. But never has he started a season of major league baseball with his employer's intention being to keep him in that role until he leaves on his own accord, is fired, or becomes a casualty of some sort of horrific brawl. There is no replacement being hunted for Pete Mackanin this time.

The 64-year-old's managing career has been built on other people's failings. Many times before, the manager of a team for which he was a coach was fired, and Mackanin stepped into the role. He did it for the Pirates in 2005, and he did it for the Reds in 2007. In 2015, when Ryne Sandberg's Phillies managing legacy concluded after a brief shouting match with the closer and not a whole lot else, Mackanin was called into service again. The Phillies liked what they saw so much that they brought him on full-time as their manager, forgetting that they had actually fired him in 2012 from a less critical position as their bench coach.

Now, Mackanin is set to make a fresh start, just as the Phillies are making a fresh start as a team attempting to not totally suck anymore, hopefully. Just look at how he has warmly embraced the Philadelphia sportscape.

So, who is Pete Mackanin?

Well, I'll tell you, large, intrusive text from nowhere. Although it's difficult to imagine that you don't know every detail about his life by now.

But, whatever. Before most of his current players were even born, Mackanin was suiting up as a Texas Ranger at the age of 21 from 1973-74. Nobody really wanted to play for Texas in '73, when manager Whitey Herzong dragged his squad through 91 losses with his teeth before losing his job (Billy Martin would carry the Rangers to the finish line with 105 losses). When his best player, shortstop Toby Harrah, had his hand shattered by a beanball, Herzog's glowing praise of Harrah's replacement could be felt from space:

"Pete Mackanin would be summoned from the minors. 'Mackanin has the best glove in our whole organization,' Whitey said. 'He's overmatched at the plate in Spokane right now, so he might as well be overmatched here, too.'"

-Mike Shropshire, "Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog and 'The Worst Baseball Team in History,' €”The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers"

His confidence levels sky-high, in 1974, Mackanin only played in two more games for Texas, but still managed to save a man's life. In a game against Minnesota, the Twins' Dave Holtz was pitching a no-hitter; at least, he would have been if official scorer Bob Fowler hadn't called an early, debatable miscue by Minnesota's third baseman a base hit for some reason. Not even the combined requests of both teams' managers could get Fowler to change the decision and give Holtz back his no-hitter ("I can, but I won't," Fowler reportedly said, ravenous for an ass-kicking, apparently). So, when the ninth inning rolled around, and Holtz was still chucking goose eggs with two outs, Fowler was probably thinking about how deeply reasonable people usually were about lost chances at greatness in sports. Thankfully, up to the plate stepped 22-year-old Pete Mackanin, who hit a triple off Holtz, nullifying the no-hitter debate, and saving Fowler from any embarrassment or retribution.

From Texas, he crossed the border in 1975 to play for the Expos. In three seasons with the doomed franchise, he hit .225, and earned the jealousy of a young Gary Carter when Mackanin was assigned the No. 5 - the same number as Johnny Bench, and the catcher Carter was hoping to emulate. Mackanin hung onto the number, however; but as a light-hitting middle infielder, somehow failed to draw any comparisons to the Hall of Fame catcher.

Mackanin would go on to spend 18 magical games with the 1978-79 Phillies, contributing very little beyond a pair of singles in '78 and a two-run dinger in '79 in a combined 17 PA. His playing career winding down, he landed in Minnesota, where Bob Fowler wrote a column thanking him for his triple years earlier, and Mackanin spent his late twenties hitting .252 with eight home runs until his final MLB game as a player in 1981.

Thanks, but I didn't really care about him as a player

Thank you, again, for the increasingly rude interruptions. Fine. I mean, you could have stopped me at any point while I was--whatever. I was about to start on the managerial stuff anyways.

A minor league manager, Mackanin found a home on the Expos' bench in 1997, much as he had as a player, only this time "bench" was in the name of his job as 'bench coach." He returned to the minors to manage from 2001-02, then slid onto the Pirates' bench in 2003, where two years later, destiny eventually took over.

2005 Pittsburgh Pirates

Pre-Pete record: 55-81

Post-Pete record: 12-14

The Pirates were sure that Lloyd McClendon would get it right this time in '05. How could he not? Jason Bay! Jack Wilson! Zach Duke! Pittsburgh had simply stacked the deck in their manager's favor. There's no way he was going to have his fifth straight season of fewer than 75 wins.

And he didn't! Because McClendon was fired in September, leaving his bench coach, Mackanin, to finish out the stretch of a 67-95 last place finish in the NL Central.

In exchange for the slog, Pittsburgh sent Mackanin down to the minors to manage in 2006.

2007 Cincinnati Reds

Pre-Pete record: 31-51

Post-Pete record: 41-39

This time, Mackanin had been serving as an advanced scout when Reds manager Jerry Narron got canned. The Reds were hoping to springboard off a third place finish the previous year by adding to a moderately successful roster, only to have Narron's boys plummet in the standings. Mackanin did what he could, and though Cincinnati missed the playoffs, by a lot, his own managerial record improved to .500 (53-53).

2015 Philadelphia Phillies

Pre-Pete: 26-49

Post-Pete: 37-50

Another of Mackanin's former teams brought him into the coaching fold in 2009. Mackanin famously served in many roles for the Phillies, including the scorekeeper of the 2011 starting rotation's season-long hitting competition. Cliff Lee, who once passionately pushed Mackanin for an extra half a point for advancing a runner, was the most affected come season's end.

"Cliff wasn't happy with the results. We might have to adjust the scoring system."

--Pete Mackanin, via Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki in "The Rotation"

The win-loss total for Mackanin's time as manager now sits at 90-104, which isn't bad for a guy who was routinely pressed into service as part of a crisis. As far as the Phillies go, the players certainly seemed to relax in his clubhouse, though that may have been more of a reflection on how much they did not like playing for Ryne Sandberg, who has moved into a "team ambassador" role with the Cubs, which is probably where he belongs.

Mackanin certainly understood the last group of players well enough. Or, at least one of them, according to Jayson Stark's "Wild Pitches:"


How he'll do with the chance to actually be a full-time manager for an entire season isn't easy to predict; this sport has way too many pitfalls and trap doors to allow for measured guesses on something as chancey as managing. However, if you break it down to a rather simple notion, that a manager's job is to keep players comfortable and therefore create an environment in which they can more easily reach their ceilings, wherever they may be, then it's not difficult to feel good about Mackanin.

He's been with the franchise for years, his players seem to like him, and he is able to communicate with them in ways other managers maybe couldn't and the new slick, modern front office felt he reflected their philosophies enough to install him full-time.

Mackanin's more laid back approach was born after a winter league loss in 1988, when he decided that he wasn't going to let baseball drive him insane.

"Then my wife said, 'Are you going to have a heart attack over this? What are you doing?' " Mackanin said. "And it stuck with me. I said, 'You know what? I'm not going to have a heart attack over this. We're either going to win or lose. When I bring in the closer, he's either going to pitch well or he's not going to pitch well.' There's nothing else I can do about it."

--Matt Breen, Inquirer

Mackanin may be entering 2016 as a rookie, and he may not wind up being the manager of the next world champion, but as far as transitions go, no one is more familiar with being part of a change than somebody who has embodied it so many times before.

Thanks ! That was all really interesting. Well, some of it, anyway.

Whatever. I don't have to impress you.

Further reading:

"Minnesota Twins Baseball: Hardball History on the Prairie," by Stew Thornley

"Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog and 'The Worst Baseball Team in History,' €”The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers" by Mike Shropshire

"Still a Kid at Heart: My Life in Baseball and Beyond," by Gary Carter and Phil Pepe

"Wild Pitches," by Jayson Stark