ORLANDO, Fla. -- Lloyd McClendon seems to have a sense of humor, which should come in handy. The 54-year-old former outfielder and first baseman had his first gig as a manager with the then-emblem-of-futility Pittsburgh Pirates between 2001 and 2005, so he likely wouldn't have made it this far without one.
After his Pirates tenure ended (via a September firing, after a cumulative record of 336-446), McClendon went to work for Jim Leyland in Detroit, first as a bullpen coach, then hitting coach and de facto (if unofficial) bench coach. He spent eight years with Leyland and the Tigers, waiting to get another shot at managing.
At Tuesday's winter meetings media availability, asked what he might have done differently with those Pirates teams if he managed now, he replied, "Get better players. Get a guy like Robinson Cano. Makes you real smart real quick, you know."
Asked what he'd learned from Leyland over the years, he said, "how to smoke cigars in my underwear."
McClendon was kidding, of course, and went on to praise Leyland as a mentor. The two share a dry sense of humor, but Leyland tends to present himself as a gruff, simple, small-town fella, while McClendon answers questions in a more businesslike, polished manner. Both try to balance diplomacy and honesty.
"You can have all the managerial skills in the world, but if you don't have talent, it really doesn't make a difference," said McClendon, a truth that, for obvious reasons, not all managers like to advertise. "The players make the manager, the manager doesn't make the players."
McClendon pulled off the tricky balancing act of being open about the Mariners' holes, particularly on offense, yet optimistic and supportive of the players already in place without cloying insincerity. All in all, he seemed like a promising choice of leader for a team that feels, rightly or wrongly, it's ready to turn the corner.
So let's just hope that Seattle Times expose of the Mariners' front-office dysfunction that dropped over the weekend makes things seem bleaker than they really are.
The story, by Geoff Baker, paints a deeply unflattering portrait of Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, CEO Howard Lincoln, and general manager Jack Zduriencik. The top brass come off as verbally abusive, impatient micromanagers, Zduriencik as unqualified and flailing. Those inclined to be skeptical of its claims point out that the story is built on quotes and information from ex-employees of varying degrees of disgruntledness. On the other hand, though, those ex-employees -- including former manager Eric Wedge, who turned down a contract extension and resigned in September -- put their their names on the story, quite a rare practice in baseball, where jobs are hard enough to come by without teams fearing that you'll air their dirty laundry on the way out. Though of course, if the story is accurate, most teams don't have as much dirty laundry to air.
Even if the Seattle Times story is one-sided, it appears that McClendon has been hired into an (at best) unstable situation. He spent eight years waiting and honing his craft with Leyland, only to walk into this? And if it took eight years to get another managing chance after having a truly hopeless Pirates team to work with, what happens if he becomes a scapegoat in Seattle for problems in both the front office and the roster?
McClendon, of course, is not complaining. He spoke warmly and often of Zduriencik, and offered no indication of any uneasiness. He said that he has already spoken to most of his players, including Felix Hernandez -- who "pulled a Jim Leyland" and forgot about the time difference, called him late, and talked with him for an hour about the Mariners' direction and hopes -- and Cano, who McClendon has talked to several times since they first met last week.
Several New York reporters, as they were required by city ordinance to do, asked whether there was any question of whether Cano could be a strong leader.
"I hope he leads on the field," said McClendon. "I'll do the cheerleading and leading in the clubhouse. But I want guys on the field that can hit three run homers. Drive in a run from second base with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning. Those to me are the guys that lead by example on the field. I don't need guys to lead in the clubhouse. I'll do that. I need the guys to do it on the field."
This is another refreshing thing to hear from a major league manager. Of course, as McClendon himself pointed out earlier, if not in so many words, all the cheerleading -- or just leading -- in the world will only go so far if the Mariners don't shore up that offense. Whether they can do that effectively is not up to McClendon, either, but to the front office portrayed so alarmingly in that Seattle Times piece.
Managing positions are exceedingly hard to get, sometimes impossible to succeed at, and very easy to lose.
McClendon knows the drill, and presumably, he knew what he was getting into. Chances come rarely and they have to be seized. He was asked Tuesday if he'd changed since his days in Pittsburgh.
"I believe that your past prepares you for your future," McClendon said. "I'd be foolish if I said, no, I'm no different. I would hope that I'm better. I know I'm older, I'm a little grayer, but hopefully smarter."
Here's hoping McClendon gets a chance to demonstrate that. In any case, this team, and this situation, is very likely to speed up the graying.