Robby Alomar is so intelligent as a player, he has no time for those who don't understand the game. He can also be tough on managers. "I love Grady Little," says Alomar. "The two managers and coaches that I respect the most are Cito [Gaston] and Grady. Grady asks for your opinion. In Cleveland [while filling in for Charlie Manuel], he made a pitching change. I told him he was making a mistake, we needed a groundball pitcher in the game. We lost the game on a flyball. After the game, he said, 'You were right.' How many managers would say that?"
Not many. Then again, Grady Little is a little different. He talks like Forrest Gump, he's a fusion of North Carolina, Texas, a million bus rides in the minor leagues and hundreds of games in the major leagues as a coach. "I've told him, 'Your exterior is NASCAR, but inside you're all baseball,'" said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. Little tells a good story, he isn't afraid to share a joke occasionally with the media, he's flexible, he allows music in the clubhouse after wins, he isn't a hard-rules kind of guy and he protects his players. But they all know if they cross him, they won't cross him again.
"He's great, he's a player's guy," said Boston center fielder Johnny Damon. "He's always joking around. If we win, and I go 0-for-5, he'll say, 'The team sure did good, but you didn't do [expletive].'"
Little's way is working. The Red Sox have the best record in baseball, 30-13 through Wednesday. Their 24-7 start was the best by a first-year manager since Kid Gleason of the 1919 White Sox. By the time he'd managed 31 games in the major leagues, Little had a longer winning streak (nine) than Gene Mauch, who won 1,902 games, ever had.
"He's great, he reminds me a lot of Bobby Cox," said pitcher John Burkett, who played for Atlanta the last two years. "He backs his players. He wants them to do well, not because it helps him, but because he really wants them to do well. He'll re-direct the focus from negative to positive."
The 2001 Red Sox were all about negatives. The manager and general manager didn't get along and both were eventually fired. The new manager, Joe Kerrigan, wasn't a favorite of the players; the players felt he was a self-promoter (Little is anything but that). The clubhouse was a miserable place to be -- "The worst clubhouse I've ever been in," said one former player. The team was for sale; the owner, John Harrington, rarely made contact with the players.
That has all changed. Fenway Park is a friendlier place to be. The clubhouse is filled with good guys, including newcomers Damon, Burkett and first baseman Tony Clark (all acquired by former GM Dan Duquette). Little is right in the middle of the joy. Oh, he has had distinct advantages, including having better players than either Jimy Williams or Kerrigan had last year. Little also was a coach for the Red Sox for three years (1997-99), so he knows these guys, he was immensely popular and he understands the importance of the team and its role in the city.
Little also had a good relationship with Lucchino when they worked together in San Diego. He worked with star outfielder Manny Ramirez in Cleveland, and understands Ramirez's moods. When Ramirez didn't run out a groundball this year, Little said matter-of-factly, "Manny doesn't always run out all groundballs." The next day, Ramirez was running hard. Cross him once.
When Rickey Henderson complained about playing time and his salary, Little blew it off, saying, "Rickey is Rickey. Rickey has always been Rickey." Little knows that every player is different, and every player needs to be treated differently. "He has been awesome," said Red Sox utility man Carlos Baerga. "He is honest. He tells you what's going on. Not enough managers do that. He told me right from the start, 'You're a utility guy; you're coming off the bench." He'll tell me the day before that I'll be playing. That really helps a player."
Burkett, who is 5-0, has not been visited on the mound this year by either pitching coach Tony Cloninger or Little, but says of his manager, "When he does come out, I'm sure it will be funny." A little humor, a light touch -- that can help a player. "But his knowledge of the game is really something," said catcher Jason Varitek. "And, he never panics. He's always in control. Always."
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