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A look back at Tony Muser

Milk and tequila, boys

Tony Muser #40

Here’s a question that has been debated for decades: Do managers really make a lot of difference for a ball club? After all, Casey Stengel was just a .439 manager in his nine seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Bees/Braves. He was basically an early version of Ned Yost. He didn’t become “the old perfessor” until he moved to the uber-talented New York Yankees, where in 12 seasons between 1949 and 1960, his clubs won at a .623 clip. He closed his managerial career with four seasons of the expansion New York Mets, which were brutal: 175 wins and 404 losses, good for a .302 winning percentage. Ouch. Talent does matter.

When my daughter was in junior high, she played in a local fastpitch softball league. The first year, she had two terrific coaches who opened my eyes to a completely different way of practicing. This team had talent, no question. They went undefeated and won the city championship, but the coaches got everything they could out of each girl. They rarely had full speed batting practice, opting instead to stick with small-scale drills with 3-5 girls at a time at various stations. They kept the girls moving and engaged, working on fundamentals. They made practice fun and the girls looked forward to practice and their games.

A year later, she was unfortunately drafted by what might have been the two worst coaches in the league. This coach often had his 18-year-old daughter throw live batting practice, flinging fastballs at terrified 12-year-old girls, while the other players stood in the field, bored out of their minds. When that team played the team who was led by our pitcher from the previous year, I went to the dugout before the game to give the new coach a scouting report. It went like this:

Me: “With two strikes, this girl always throws a changeup (she had a great one). Tell the girls to be looking for it”.

Coach: “Oh don’t worry about it, we know what we’re doing. We got it under control.”

Me: “Did you hear a word I said?”

Coach: “We’ve coached before, we’re good.”

Me: “You’re an idiot.”

Coach: “We’ve been coaching for years; we can handle it.”

Me: “All right then, good luck.”

You can see where this is going, right? With two strikes, all the girls saw was changeup, changeup, changeup, changeup. Not a single one was ready for it. So, sometimes, yes, a manager does make a difference.

I bring this up because we’re entering the part of the managerial series that deals with the dark ages of Kansas City baseball. The Royals of those years had some talent, but did they have the right manager? Did they have the guy who could wring every ounce of talent out of his players? Kansas City has been a hotbed for producing very solid managers. Whitey Herzog, Dick Williams, Tommy Lasorda, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin and Tony LaRussa all played for the Kansas City Athletics. Lou Piniella, Hal McRae, Bob Boone, Bud Black and John Wathan all played for the Royals. All later became managers, and of that group, only McRae, Black and Boone have a losing career record. McRae had a winning record during his Kansas City tenure, but the two years he spent managing the Tampa Bay Rays, back when they were terrible, dropped him into negative territory. Black has spent his entire managerial career, 14 seasons, with San Diego and Colorado, two franchises that could give Kansas City a run for their money in the worst run franchise contest. Even at that, Black’s career mark sets at a respectable .477. Boone never guided a team to a winning record in six seasons at the helm of two teams. Still, that’s a pretty impressive managerial tree for one city.

Which brings us to Tony Muser. Muser the player was an outfielder and first baseman who got a cup of coffee with the 1969 Red Sox, before sticking with the Chicago White Sox in 1971. He hit .280 in his five years in Chicago, albeit without much power. Of his 197 career White Sox hits, 160 of them were singles. He managed to stay in the game for nine seasons before closing it off with one season in Japan, where he only hit .196.

I saw him play once, in June of 1976. We got to the park a little late and four frat boy types were in our seats. My father asked them to move, whereupon the leader said they were staying put. An usher soon arrived on the scene, looked at our tickets and told the squatters that they were in our seats and needed to move. The leader of the pack basically told the usher to shove off, which was a mistake. The usher grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and the back of the pants, lifted him from our seats and hurled him down the stadium steps. And by hurl, I mean he threw him, whereupon the young man rolled and tumbled down 8-10 steps, ass over tea kettle. His three buddies immediately stood and meekly filed out. It was startling and exciting. I made a mental note to not sit in other people’s seats in the future.

The game itself was just as exciting. The Royals were an ascending team. They came into this game at 34-19 and Steve Busby was pitching. We didn’t know at the time, but Busby’s days were numbered. He would only make four more starts in 1976 before arm troubles derailed his promising career. He tried rehabbing, but only made 23 more starts over the next four seasons before retiring at the age of 30.

If you didn’t see Buzz pitch, it’s hard to describe how brilliant he was. He threw no-hitters in each of his first two seasons. He won 56 games between 1973 and 1975. He was the George Brett of the Royals pitching staff. On this day, a beautiful Saturday afternoon against the Orioles, he went five innings, scattering six hits and three runs. Tony Muser started for Baltimore at first, going oh for three with two strikeouts against Busby. In the bottom of the 7th, with two outs, John Mayberry ripped a drive down the first base line that took a bad hop and hit Muser in the cup. We were sitting about 30 rows behind first base, and you could clearly hear the clank! where we were sitting. Every male fan in Section 122 involuntarily grimaced and readjusted. Muser went down like he’d been hit with a deer slug, but somehow managed to corral the ball and belly crawl to first to retire Mayberry. Muser, testicularly impaired, stayed on the turf for a good five minutes before limping to the dugout, done for the day. Mayberry was one of those hitters that made first basemen very nervous. In his prime, he could smash.

Due to Muser’s bad luck, the Orioles moved Doug DeCinces to first and brought Brooks Robinson, at the tail end of his 23-year career, in to play third. I’d always wanted to see Brooks, so thank you, Tony Muser. The Royals held a comfortable 7-3 lead going into the 9th, but Steve Mingori seemed intent on coughing it up. Mark Belanger hit a single. Ken Singleton drew a walk. After getting the dangerous Bobby Grich on a fielder’s choice, Reggie Jackson smoked a long home run to deep center field to make it 7-6. Whitey brought in Marty Pattin to cool the fires. Pattin immediately put one off the batting helmet of Lee May, who went down like he’d been shot. They brought out a stretcher and somehow managed to get May’s sizeable body off the turf. Pattin got Paul Blair on a long fly ball to left and the 19,693 in attendance exhaled a sign of relief.

I tell you this story because it’s probably more interesting than telling the story of Tony Muser’s managerial career. After retiring, Muser got into coaching with the Brewers. He started with their A League team in 1980 and within four years, he was skipper of the Brewer’s AAA team. By 1985, he was in Milwaukee, serving as the Brewers third base coach. The Brewers were grooming Muser to eventually take over for George Bamberger until fate intervened. In spring training 1986, a worker was bleeding a gas line in the Brewer’s coach’s office when something sparked. The resulting fireball rolled through the Brewers clubhouse, burning several players and coaches. Nine went to the hospital, including Muser who took the brunt of the explosion. He was burned so badly, over 50% of his body, that he had to be airlifted to a burn center in California and nearly died. Muser missed the entire 1986 season while recovering from his injuries. Milwaukee brought him back as their hitting coach in 1987 and by 1991, he was back to managing their AAA team in Denver. Muser moved onto the Chicago Cubs, where he was their hitting coach from 1993 to 1997.

The Royals, meanwhile, were in the early stages of their slide into obscurity. There are a couple of generations of younger Royal fans, who aside from the brief 2014-15 window, have known nothing but losing. It almost seems hard to believe that from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the Royals were one of baseball’s model franchises and the fan base became accustomed to cheering for a winning team. After Ewing Kauffman’s death, the organization lost their way.

It was in this environment that on July 9th, 1997, Tony Muser was named the 13th manager of the Kansas City Royals. Herk Robinson, a longtime Royal foot soldier, was in over his head as the GM. The team had some talented pieces: Jose Offerman, Jay Bell, Chili Davis, Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney, and Dean Palmer. The pitching staff was aging and a little thin. Kevin Appier, Tim Belcher and Jose Rosado were still there, but there wasn’t much else. The Royals went 31-48 after Muser took over for Bob Boone. 1998 wasn’t any better at 72-89.

Despite a young and solid lineup now featuring Carlos Beltran, Joe Randa, Sweeney, Damon and Dye, the team was getting worse. Their pitching was unbelievably bad and there was no way to pretty up that pig. The Royals went 64-97 in 1999. Nearly all their pitching draft picks of the previous five years had flamed out. Ownership had been either unwilling or unable to sign any decent free agent arms. The result was a waste of some of the most exciting young hitters the club has ever seen. The team improved to 77-85 in 2000, as the young hitters led the American League in hits and batting average and finished in the top five in runs and stolen bases. Unfortunately, the pitching staff finished at or near the bottom of the league in nearly every major statistical category.

The hitters slipped a bit in 2001, which spelled disaster as the pitching staff remained near the bottom of the league. Billy Martin, generally viewed as one of the greatest managers ever at squeezing a winning season out of a bunch of nobodies, probably couldn’t have won with that staff. Muser certainly couldn’t. The 2001 squad closed at 65-97 and it was obvious that Muser was living on borrowed time.

Everyone was frustrated by the losing. Once asked about his team, Muser replied with this pearl, “I’d like to see them go out and pound tequila rather than cookies and milk, because nobody’s going to get us out of this but us.” Many viewed it as a dig towards Mike Sweeney, the team’s best player and a man who had a reputation for clean living.

Rob Neyer, who has spent his adult life around the game, including a stint working for Bill James, had this to say about Muser: “Unfortunately, Tony Muser shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a pitching staff. If I had a son who pitched in Little League, I wouldn’t let him play for a team managed by Tony Muser. If Tony Muser and I co-managed a Rotisserie team, I would send him out for cold beverages when it came time to bid on pitchers. If I were a pitcher, and Tony Muser and I were stranded on a desert island...well, you get the idea.”

Believe me, I understand. Changeup, changeup, changeup, changeup.

Good managers might not win a lot of extra games for a team, but I’m 100% convinced that a bad manager can lose many potentially winnable games.

After an 8-15 start in 2002, General Manager Allard Baird fired Muser. After a 13-game stint with John Mizerock, Baird hired Tony Peña. Peña was viewed by many as an up-and-coming managerial star and was welcomed to KC with open arms.

I’ve never met Tony Muser, nor have I ever spoken to him. At the time of his dismissal, he was circumspect about it and said all the right things. ”They need a change, “ he said. “It’s just a part of this business. Managers are hired to be fired. I understand it and life goes on. The most important thing is the success of the organization. It was very, very emotional. It was very difficult for Allard. I respect Allard Baird as much as I respect any man I’ve ever met in baseball.”

Muser was not a popular figure in Kansas City baseball circles. Some of that was personality. Some of it was an organization that could not or would not spend money on the players needed to field a winning team. Add in the fact that the Royals front office basically blew a decade of drafts before and during Muser’s time and you have a recipe for disaster. From 1992 to 1998, the team drafted and signed two impact players: Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran. The next best player they drafted was Jacque Jones in 1993 and in true Royal fashion of the time, didn’t sign him. He ended up with division rival Minnesota where he enjoyed a solid career. I’m not sure anyone could have won under those circumstances.

In four full seasons and parts of two others, Muser went 317 and 431, good for a .424-win percentage.

After being shown the door by Baird, Muser hooked on with the San Diego Padres as their bench coach. He held that job for four seasons before spending another four seasons as the Padres roving minor league hitting coordinator. When the Padres had a regime change, Muser was out of a job and decided after 43 years in the game, to retire. Given baseball’s history of recycling managers, I’m a little surprised that Muser never got another chance to lead a big-league club. Even Bob Boone got a second chance.

In retirement, Muser has spent a lot of time with his grandchildren, which ultimately is a whole lot more important than the game of baseball.