Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 2, 2020

A Career, And A Life, About More Than One Inning

Journeyman. While the ancient term has a specific and positive meaning within the building trades, in sports the word is applied with a certain disdain. They may possess talent which we in the stands can only dream about, but we do not purchase tickets with our hard-earned dollars, or tune in to the broadcast of a game, to watch journeymen play. We do not buy their jerseys, and makers of consumer goods do not pay them to market products to us on stadium billboards or during the commercial breaks. Yet despite the sense of inadequacy that accompanies the label, without journeymen there would be no games, a fact dictated by numbers alone. No matter the sport, every starting lineup, and even more so every roster, has its fair share of players whose career statistics are unassuming and whose impact on the game is modest. They are the baseline above which the exploits of the stars shine.

The term also applies to non-playing roles. There are scores of front office executives and coaches and managers who do a good if not spectacular job. Their work, though not distinguished, is solid and reliable. Because of the relative obscurity that is their usual haunt, the career of a journeyman is often remembered not in its totality, but for a single moment, a tiny slice of time when the spotlight suddenly turned its unblinking wattage on one not used to performing at center stage. When that happens the glory or the agony of that moment is too often treated as if it were the complete story of a career. We fans know better, but still we succumb to the easy generalization.

It was thus no surprise that the accounts of long-time baseball manager John McNamara’s life that appeared after he died last Tuesday at the age of 88 focused on Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. McNamara was in his second season at the helm of the Boston nine that year, having replaced Ralph Houk upon the latter’s retirement following the 1984 campaign. He had been a big league manager for a decade and a half by the time he arrived in Boston, starting in Oakland, with stops in San Diego, Cincinnati, and Anaheim. After Boston, McNamara would also manage in Cleveland and, on a brief interim basis again in Anaheim, before ending his career as a skipper after 2,395 regular season games, plus 17 more in the playoffs. Add in nine years managing in the Athletics’ farm system, and McNamara guided a team from a dugout for more than 33,000 innings. But most fans know of just one.

That of course was the 10th inning of that Game 6, played at long since demolished Shea Stadium. Boston’s championship drought, which would eventually end after 86 years in 2004, was already nearly seven decades long. But that night the Fenway faithful dared believe that the long years in the wilderness were finally at an end. The Red Sox began the game just one win away from the title, and behind a stalwart performance by ace Roger Clemens Boston led the Mets 3-2 through seven frames.

What is certain is that when Clemens came off the mound at the end of the 7th, he had a small cut on one of the fingers of his right hand. Whether that led him to ask to be taken out of the game depends on whose memory, as reflected in later telling’s of the story, one chooses to believe. The reason may be in dispute, but McNamara went to his bullpen, and the Mets promptly rallied to tie the game in the 8th. Still, when the Sox plated two in the top of the 10th, the Commissioner’s Trophy was moved into the Boston clubhouse, and NBC began setting up for the postgame presentation.

Down through the years, accounts of the bottom of the 10th always focus on the ending, on Mookie Wilson at the plate and Bill Buckner guarding the line at first base. But as the chronicles of McNamara’s life reminded us, first came his decision to send reliever Calvin Schiraldi out to pitch for a third inning, and his decision to call for Bob Stanley when Schiraldi faltered, and his decision to leave Buckner in the game rather than opt for a defensive replacement as McNamara so often had done during the regular season. All choices such as managers make every game, and all subject to decades of second guessing after the Mets rallied against both Red Sox hurlers and Wilson’s roller down the first base line bounced between Buckner’s legs to complete the improbable comeback. It is true of course that McNamara was not between the foul lines pitching or fielding, just as it’s true that the only sure result of the outcome of Game 6 was that there was a Game 7. True, but in a world that rewards simple narratives, complex and inconvenient.

Yet even journeymen deserve a fuller telling of their story. And to be sure, McNamara was a journeyman manager. He lost more than he won, and his 1986 trip to the World Series with the Red Sox was one of just two postseason appearances by teams he led. The other, by the Reds in 1979, was painfully brief, with the Pirates dismissing Cincinnati from the NLCS in three straight. But the job of managing in the Great Game involves more than in-game decisions. Equally important is shepherding young men through and sometimes even into early adulthood, something that is especially important at the minor league level, where McNamara began his career when he was just 27 years old himself.

As he worked his way up the rungs of the A’s farm system, McNamara helped put numerous future stars on the path to success in the Great Game, including Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, and Reggie Jackson. His last stop was Birmingham, were he managed the big team’s AA affiliate. It was 1967, and while fans in the south were happy to cheer black ballplayers on the field, local enforcement of recently passed civil rights laws was, to be charitable, inconsistent. Jackson, then a raw 21-year-old power hitter, remembers that McNamara was resolute.

“When we’d be on a road trip and we’d stop at a diner for hamburgers or something to eat, McNamara wouldn’t compromise,” Jackson said in an interview, adding “It was simple for him: if they wouldn’t serve me they weren’t going to serve anybody. He’d just take the whole team out of the restaurant; we’d get into the bus and we’d keep driving.” Jackson’s account of McNamara’s quiet but firm heroism in a now distant time is a reminder that in sports, as in life, all stories, even those of journeymen, have more than one chapter.

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