His 14-game record is barely better than the fired Larry Rothschild's, but players praise Hal McRae for his communication and understanding.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Numerically, there isn't much different about how the Rays did in 14 games under Larry Rothschild, going 4-10, and how they've done in their first 14 games under Hal McRae, going 5-9.
But in other ways, in many other ways, players say the differences are significant. In two weeks under McRae, players say there are distinct -- and progressive -- differences in the atmosphere, which is more relaxed; in the attitude, which is more positive; and in the levels of communication, which are considerably more open.
"I think he has the ship going in the right direction," pitcher Albie Lopez said. "I think players have a little bit more respect for Hal. They know there are consequences if they're not doing their job. He expects it out of you, and if you don't do it he's going to be the first person to let you know, and guys are realizing that."
McRae, who took over the Royals 1 1/2 months into the 1991 season, said it takes a manager a minimum of six weeks to put his stamp on a team. But the Rays say McRae already has had a dramatic effect.
"It's hard to put into words," catcher John Flaherty said, "but it's almost like there's a feeling in this clubhouse that we're close to getting over the hump, that if we can get things figured out with our performance we might get on a roll here."
Performance, of course, is what matters most, and the Rays haven't necessarily played that much better under McRae than Rothschild. Their offensive and defensive stats have improved, while the starting pitching has digressed. They've been more aggressive on the bases and more competitive later in games, but they've also played considerably weaker teams under McRae (12 of the 14 games against Baltimore, Detroit and Kansas City) than Rothschild (10 of the 14 against heavyweights Boston and Toronto).
"The bottom line is the record and we're still not winning ballgames," first baseman Fred McGriff said. "I guess I'm old school, but to me everything is just wins and losses. You can put the best atmosphere in here possible and if you're still not winning ballgames it doesn't matter. And you can have the worst atmosphere and win ballgames and everybody's happy. Winning solves all kinds of problems."
McRae, from what players say, appears to have them at least headed in that direction, in large part because of his experiences as an everyday player and manager.
On the field, McRae was as intense and hard-nosed as they get. But as a manager, he knows players need to be relaxed to do their best.
He keeps things upbeat and even light around the clubhouse, doesn't concern himself with non-essential details, such as whether there is music in the clubhouse before games or how players dress for workouts. He is similar in his daily sessions with reporters, joking that he doesn't spend much, if any, time on their articles because he won't learn anything from them.
"He doesn't worry about anything but baseball," leftfielder/DH Greg Vaughn said. "With Larry it was, "We're an expansion club,' and everyone had to sit this way or stand this way or wear this. Just certain things that had nothing to do with how you play on the field. With Mac, it's just, "Hey, show up on time and play hard.' And that's the way it should be. Why should it matter that a guy doesn't have his shirt tucked in?"
Players also say there isn't the constant pressure they felt under Rothschild. "Larry was here 24-7 and put a lot of heat on guys," McGriff said, "so it may be more relaxed in that sense."
Another significant difference is how mistakes are dealt with. Rothschild, players say, tended to dwell on the negative, often having coaches revisit the error or miscue the next day. Plus, his body language and facial expressions didn't help. "It just looked like he was so mentally frustrated and down," Vaughn said.
McRae is said to be much more positive, letting players know he understands mistakes are part of the game, offering encouragement and suggestions on how to avoid them. He has even been seen smiling in the dugout.
"He can relate because he's been through the rough times," Vaughn said.
McRae -- with mixed results -- has at times stuck with starting pitchers longer than Rothschild may have, showing his confidence and giving them the chance to develop some in themselves. He has chosen a relatively set lineup and essentially told those players, such as Vinny Castilla and Jose Guillen, that he will stick with them. He has the benefit of a three-season contract and the perspective to know that each night's game is just one fraction of the big-picture goal.
Communication also is a big key. McRae believes not only in telling the players what he is doing in terms of making out the lineup, but often why. As a result, he -- thus far anyway -- has been able to deal with sensitive topics such as using Vaughn as the DH and giving days off to Williams and McGriff. He keeps the reserves focused by telling them several days ahead of time when they will play.
But lest anyone suggest he might be too soft, McRae has also made it clear to the players what is expected of them, and what the consequences are if they don't perform. He took struggling shortstop Felix Martinez out in the middle of a game last week, and stuck with a decision to drop Ryan Rupe from the rotation even though Rupe had his best outing of the season Wednesday.
"He's not afraid of calling you into the office and letting you know, "Hey, you're not doing your job,' or, "You have to do your job better,' " Lopez said. "He defines your job for you. He tells you what's expected of you. You're not going out there blind. That's the biggest change."
So far, it's been a good one.
"We're just a lot more communication-oriented, a lot calmer and a lot more positive," Vaughn said.
Now they just have to be better.