Hey, Ray, even the best need players

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ray Knight was not looking for headlines. Just answers. When the manager of the Cincinnati Reds offered his resignation Monday night, it was not out of conviction, but confusion.

''No way in the world I would walk away from something bad,'' Knight said Tuesday. ''We could lose 500 and I'd still be in the battle . . . But there's also no way that I would stay here if I thought I was the cause of the problem.''

Knight's ceaseless search for solutions spares no one, even himself. He does not really believe the home team's traumas can be traced to the manager's office, but he cannot seem to shake the feeling that someone might think him at fault.

Knight has yet to learn managing's hardest lesson: Once you've finished filling out the lineup card, most of the game is out out of your hands.

''He shouldn't beat himself up about what's going on on the field,'' said Reds first baseman Hal Morris. ''He can't go out there and make pitches and drive in runs. Ultimately, the players are the ones that have to execute.

''But Ray's so hands-on. It's as if he felt he could will a win or will a difference.''

It doesn't work that way in big-league baseball. The manager's will usually does not come into play until after the manager's funeral. The job is mostly about judgment, but even when you're right things can go wrong. Managing is about putting players in spots where they can succeed, and then keeping your fingers crossed.

Not brain surgery

It is not so much a science as an art form, and as such as imprecise as putting colors on canvas by catapult. Pittsburgh's Jim Leyland and St. Louis' Tony LaRussa - baseball's ranking dugout sages - were tied for last place before their games Tuesday night. Casey Stengel, the only man to manage five consecutive world championship teams, later lost 120 games with the 1962 New York Mets.

The best managers are helpless without the right horses, and Ray Knight has lately been presiding over a team of pack mules. The Reds are not nearly what they were last season, and they are not yet all they seemed in spring training. Some of this has to do with pitching. Some of this has to do with Reggie Sanders' balky back. None of this has much to do with strategy.

''It's nobody's fault about how things have gone except for us - the players,'' said Bret Boone, the second baseman. ''It's not Ray's fault, and it's not the staff's fault. If we don't win enough, it's our fault. Nobody but us. The guys who have got to turn it around are the guys in this clubhouse.

''It's a cliche, but it's early, We have played horribly overall, but I picked up the paper today and saw we're only 2ï games out (of first place). I don't see any reason to panic.''

Don't be fooled by standings

Were the Reds chasing Atlanta or Cleveland, they would already be looking at a double-digit deficit after 40 games. The National League Central, however, is baseball's most forgiving division. Knight says he feels as if the Reds are 100 games behind, yet their current seven-game losing streak still leaves them within one good weekend of the lead.

The risk here is that the Reds could mistake contending in a weak division for an achievement, and resist changes that might make them more worthy of a championship at some later date. The reality is that Reds General Manager Jim Bowden never saw a status quo that suited him.

''Nothing would surprise me,'' Morris said. ''I just think because of Jim's aggressive nature, anything could happen. I could see them pulling off a big trade.''

Knight and Bowden discussed dozens of alternatives in their Monday skull session. Resignation was neither the purpose nor the thrust of the meeting. Knight raised the idea the way a scientist might test a half-baked hypothesis - in order to eliminate it - and Bowden was quick to reassure him.

''I want what's best for this organization,'' Knight said. ''I do with all my heart and soul . . . I'm embarrassed by the way we've played. I'm embarrassed by what I've done. I take so much responsibility for things I can't control. I take it personally. I've got to grow in that respect.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published May 22, 1996.