|Saturday, January 18
Updated: March 13, 4:45 PM ET
Tracy fashions himself after the late, great Alston
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
LOS ANGELES -- Jim Tracy has quickly established himself as a manager of several dimensions during his two years in charge of the Dodgers. Communicator. Tactician. Leader.
Little did we know he had another: historian.
While flying back and forth from Los Angeles to various ports of call this offseason, Tracy often can be found with a manila envelope in his briefcase. It contains a bunch of articles, book chapters and other material that he has collected on his Dodgers managing ancestor, Hall of Famer Walter Alston, a man to whom Tracy is likened more often than Vin Scully to molasses. Tracy is fascinated by the material, reads it, studies it, and seeks out more at every turn.
Not surprisingly, the manager whose players compare to a professor doesn't mind learning himself.
"There were several things I read that were very reassuring -- I've done some things very similarly to him," said Tracy, whose teams have won 86 and 92 games respectively in the past two years. "The flattering part is when you're compared to someone of his stature, and his stature is created by what he did throughout the course of his career. You're very flattered by that."
The similarities between Tracy and Alston, who managed the Dodgers to seven pennants and four World Series titles from 1954-76, lie somewhere between staggering and spooky.
They grew up in tiny Ohio towns just 12 miles apart, Alston in Darrtown and Tracy in Fairfield. They enjoyed nondescript major league careers -- Alston struck out in his only at-bat for the Cardinals in 1936, while Tracy didn't last much longer, batting .249 in brief trials with the 1980 and '81 Cubs. Both managed their way up the minor league ladder and became the Dodgers' manager to the utter bafflement of the local press. (A New York paper ran "Walt Who?" on the front page, while one Los Angeles Times writer coughed about Tracy, "He's not a skipper. He's a typo.") And each used his Midwestern, rise-at-dawn work ethic to win over both doubters and players, which, alas, are occasionally indistinguishable.
Tracy is so fascinated by the coincidences that he has gathered articles on Alston so he can learn more. On airplanes, at home or in his office, he'll note anything to lend texture to the trivia:
From "Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia": Although low-key in many ways, Alston had a temper ... One such occasion came in 1963, when Alston, at age 51, halted the team bus after players complained about a lack of air conditioning. He dared anyone on the bus to have it out with him. Nobody did. Yet this was only one side of this usually quiet, complex man. He had a sense of stoic perspective as well. "Look at misfortune," he recommended, "the same way you look at success. Don't panic. Do your best and forget the circumstances."
From "The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers": (Alston was) an optimist. He waited for six and a half years for Sandy Koufax to find home plate. I doubt that any other manager in baseball history would have, except perhaps Connie Mack ... He found work for everybody. Alston pulled every lever frequently ... If there was no professional baseball, what would he have done with his life? He would have been a schoolteacher.
From Leonard Koppett's "The Man in the Dugout": Alston was purely an employee -- the most loyal, low-key, untroublesome employee any employer could wish for -- and neither craved nor sought any authority beyond the carefully delineated duties assigned to him. Within the parameters of his job, he executed all necessary authority with confidence and dispatch ...
Tracy's confidence would only grow with each paragraph; when it comes to reassurance, there's a difference between needing it and appreciating it. "The one thing that I'm very flattered by when people draw comparisons is the similarity in the personalities," he said. "Walter was not a top-step guy. He was not a guy who needed the attention brought to him -- he deflected it to his players. 'It's not about me. It's about my players.' That's one dynamic about myself that will never change."
Outwardly placid and studious, with perfect-print handwriting and shirts typically buttoned up to the neck, Tracy also maintains that he also can lose his temper -- behind closed doors. "Have I ever told the bus driver to pull over because I wanted a couple guys to step out with me? I haven't gone that far," claimed Tracy, no pushover at 6-3, 205. "But I have that side. I just don't like to display it. But when I have to display it, I don't need to do it so that everyone knows that I have it -- back to the top-step idea, 'Here we go, throw the limelight on him, look how mad he is.' I've had to go down that road a couple of times. The hell with it -- then we're screaming and hollering."
Few Dodgers players know who Walter Alston was -- they probably think it's a brand of fine breakfast sausage -- but they can't help to know him through Tracy, whom they invariably praise both his warm but firm communication and his respect for even the 25th man on the roster.
When it comes to no-name talents, perhaps it takes one to know one: The life of the current Dodgers team comes from how players such as catcher Paul Lo Duca, center fielder Dave Roberts and closer Eric Gagne have gone from scrap parts to the engine under Tracy, who is impressed more by performance than payroll, character than charisma. Lo Duca calls Tracy the most honest man he's known in baseball.
"He relates to guys like me," says Roberts, who became a credible leadoff man, stole 45 bases and made no errors last year in his first extended shot at age 30. "I can't think of another manager who would have given me that opportunity. There were guys making millions ahead of me."
Though the word might have still been "thousands," the same could have been said about Alston. Other parallels: He was a schoolteacher in the offseason? Lo Duca calls Tracy "Explanation Man" because, "Every scenario, he's gone through it and can explain it." Alston also spent time as a carpenter. Tracy? After he retired in 1984, to supplement his salary as a corrugated box salesman, he became a paperboy -- from 3 until 6 a.m. every morning, he would climb in his yellow and white Dodge Omni and deliver the Barrington Herald and other breakfast fare to his good neighbors in suburban Chicago, for $150 a week.
Tommy Lasorda, who succeeded Alston and preceded Tracy by only five seasons, can't get over the likenesses. "They have the same type of feeling," Lasorda said. "Jim's just a little bit more outgoing than Walt is -- than Walt was -- but he handles players like Walt did. I played for Walt for six years and coached under him for four years. If you couldn't play for him, you couldn't play for anybody. That's the same tag I'd put on Jim Tracy."
Last year, during a trip to his Cincinnati hometown, Tracy had the thrill of meeting Walter Alston's sister, who still lives in Darrtown. She invited him to see Alston's old den and office, which remains exactly the way it was the day he died in 1983.
"You know," Tracy said, looking at the articles on his desk, "I think I'm gonna take her up on that."
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.