Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Tracy tries to make it right in L.A.

Badin grad handed Dodgers' reins

        VERO BEACH, Fla. — Jim Tracy sits down behind his desk, but his trousers fail to ignite. If his Dodger blue swivel chair is the hottest seat in baseball, Tracy has yet to show any scorch marks.

        “They're all hot,” he says, leaning forward for a conspiratorial whisper. “The others are set at 300 degrees. Maybe this one is set at 375.”

        The rookie manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers recognizes the need for immediate results. He is the Dodgers' fifth manager since 1996 and the first one ever entrusted with a $110 million payroll. He owns a two-year contract, a one-year mandate and a quiet
confidence born of repeated resilience.

        “I've always been a guy who probably comes across in one situation or another like he's not going to be able to handle it,” Tracy said. “But I'm a guy who likes to think I thrive on challenges.”

        Tracy's career path has been defined thus far by his ability to deal with detours.

Football career aborted

        He was a senior at Badin High School, a wide receiver bound for Xavier University, when the Musketeers' football program was abandoned. Tracy enrolled, instead, at Marietta College and starred, instead, in baseball.

        Initially overmatched in the minor leagues, a .228 hitter his first season in pro ball, Tracy made himself sufficiently useful to merit a longer look. He survived to win a minor-league batting title and endured to play in 87 major-league games for the Chicago Cubs.

Reds hired, fired him

        Fired as the Reds' minor-league field coordinator in a salary dispute, Tracy resurfaced as manager of one of the great minor-league teams in recent memory — the 1994 Harrisburg Senators. This led to a job as Felipe Alou's bench coach with the Montreal Expos.

        In 1998, preparing to pitch batting practice at an indoor cage at Denver's Coors Field, Tracy was struck in the face by a stray swing of Brad Fullmer's bat.

        “The guys said it looked like somebody had hit a golf ball with a sand wedge, off my face,” Tracy told a re porter in December. “I looked like the elephant man.”

        Before he returned to Montreal for plastic surgery, however, Tracy insisted on making the Expos' road trip to Cincinnati to spend an off day with his parents, Jim Sr. and Virginia.

        Such a man is not easily deterred.

        Whether Tracy is equal to his new challenge is speculative. Yet he appears more compatible with Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone than was his predecessor, Davey Johnson. And he has gained a valuable (and voluble) ally in Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers' vice president of extemporaneous speechmaking.

        “I like him a lot,” Lasorda said, surveying spring training from the driver's seat of his personalized golf cart. “I like his ideas. I like his philosophies. I like the way he handles himself. I think he's going to do a good job. I think he's going to be a good manager. But it's like driving a car — you don't know how to drive a car until you actually drive it.”

Experience aplenty in minors

        Tracy has managed nearly 1,000 games in the minor leagues, but the big leagues are a decidedly different ballgame. Minor-league managers seldom have to contend with star players refusing to show up for camp — as Dodgers slugger Gary Sheffield has done. Their strategic moves are not subjected to the same kind of scrutiny. Their authority is not subjected to the same sort of challenges.

        The benefit of minor-league managing is an appreciation for what goes into the job before the lineup card is inscribed and after the final out is recorded. Hundreds of guys can pick a propitious time for a pitchout or a hit-and-run, but only a few can handle the high stress of high-strung millionaires on a daily basis.

        “Lou Piniella told me one time in 1990 that the first thing your successful managers learn to do is making the clubhouse right,” Tracy said. “Players want stability. They want consistency. They want structure and they want you to follow up.”

        The manager who survives on a hot seat is one who can keep others cool.

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