Expos Boss Rodgers Just Plays It Like He Sees It

On last Christmas Eve, a group of Bob Rodgers' friends and neighbors gave him a monograph in a picture frame saluting him as baseball's 1987 National League manager of the year. They figured he should have something and it's still the only tangible evidence he has of his award.

The real statue, presented by the Baseball Writers of America, was broken in packing and never arrived at the Montreal Expos manager's Yorba Linda home--and still hasn't been replaced. A similar award from the Sporting News languishes in Rodgers' office in Canada.

"It's too heavy to ship," Rodgers said, "and besides, it would cost me $80 to get it through customs."

So much for being appointed as the National League's best manager for taking the Expos, a team that was dismissed in spring training as not being of major league caliber, to within four games of the National League eastern division championship.

Rodgers takes all this in stride. He has been around the course a few times, and not too much surprises him anymore. He is pleased but not ecstatic. He knows that a few sore-armed pitchers and flaky outfielders could turn his managing genius into goat horns very quickly. He has been there, too. So, just in case, he spent a good deal of time during this off-season helping one of his 22-year-old twin daughters find a site for a floral-arrangement store she plans to open in March.

"We're partners," Rodgers said laconically.

On this day, he was wearing a red sweater, slacks, loafers and a toothpick. He looks like a catcher, which he was for almost two decades in the major leagues--including a long stretch with the Angels. Big shoulders. Formidable girth that has been allowed to expand a mite since he started managing. Bemused eyes. The long view that only catchers--who command the whole field--can have. A philosophical, sometimes whimsical approach to the game--and business--of baseball in which he makes his living.

Rodgers might very well be the most low-key manager ever to be recognized as the best in his league. He is about as far from Tommy Lasorda in temperament as the Grateful Dead from Lawrence Welk.

"Every manager has his own style, " Rodgers said. "I see my job as setting the tempo and attitude of the team--and I see that as happening behind the scenes. I delegate a lot of authority. I guess my style is based on the conviction that people come to ball games to see the players, not the manager. So I like to see my players in the headlines."

Rodgers pays a price for that. Considering the fact that major league baseball players, and especially managers, are in constant demand as speakers, that Rodgers is a accomplished raconteur with a dry and acerbic wit, and that his recent award is not exactly chopped liver, it is mildly astonishing that he has lived in the same house in Orange County since 1965 in almost public anonymity. Rodgers shrugs it off. "Being manager of the year in Montreal and living in California limits the demand for me in both places," he says. "Besides, I'm not around here all that much."

His relative lack of visibility is compounded by some very special problems that go along with managing in Canada.

"The good fans up there know the game as well as American fans," he said, "but the big difference is that there just aren't as many of them. Their big game is hockey, and during the hockey season, the first four or five pages of the sports sections are devoted entirely to hockey. You have to realize that when you manage a baseball team up there."

Since 80% of Montreal's Quebec Province is French, Rodgers has no shot at the kinds of TV perks most managers enjoy. "The only people who could understand me are whatever part of the English-speaking 20% is interested in baseball--and that doesn't excite TV or radio sponsors very much."

He admitted that he might be able to change that by learning to speak French, but so far he hasn't made much headway. "I took a couple of shots at learning," he said, "but that's all. I've been there three years now, and I should have done better."

Given the normal longevity of baseball managers, Rodgers' reluctance to invest too much time in French lessons is understandable. But he doesn't offer that as an excuse, even though he knows what it is like to be fired. It only happened to him once, but the scars are deep.

After more than a decade of coaching in the major leagues and managing successfully in the minors, Rodgers was named manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. He won a division title for Milwaukee in the strike-shortened 1981 season and had his team playing at .500 and within striking distance of the lead two months into the 1982 season.

The Brewers were playing in Seattle on June 2, 1982, when Rodgers was summoned to the general manager's hotel room. "Certain dates," Rodgers said, "stick in your mind. Like Pearl Harbor and John Kennedy's assassination--and the first time you got fired.

"They thought I was a young manager who was making too many mistakes. They were partly right. I did make mistakes. I was too visible. I didn't delegate enough authority. I wasn't tolerant enough. But I also had some veteran players on the club who couldn't cope with their own failures and laid them off on me."

So Rodgers went home to Yorba Linda and his wife, Judi, and his four daughters and did a lot of thinking. "When you get fired the first time," he mused, "it's a devastating thing. You tend to lose your confidence. I'd trained all my life for this work, and I had to ask myself: Have I wasted my time? Then you re-evaluate you whole life up ahead."

As a result, Rodgers sat out the entire 1983 season to have a try at a business career. ("I've always been a frustrated businessman.") It didn't work. The wholesale business he chose flopped, and so he looked back to baseball.

"I turned down coaching jobs. I'd already done that. What I had to do was prove myself as a manager--to major league owners and to myself."

He did it in spades, winning the American Association pennant for Indianapolis and being named minor league manager of the year in 1984. The following year, Montreal brought him back to the big time as a manager.

In the off-season of 1986-87, Rodgers was dealt a triple-whammy that apparently took his team out of contention and even respectability. He lost three of the best players in baseball when relief pitcher Jeff Reardon was traded to Minnesota and outfielders Andre Dawson and Tim Raines were allowed to slip away as free agents. When the Expos went to spring training last year, they were unanimously consigned to last place.

"What that did," Rodgers said, "was unite us. When you have people telling you all winter that you're lousy, you want to prove them wrong. They got our dander up."

Somehow Montreal stayed afloat through its first 50 games, in spite of injuries to two key players in addition to the loss of their superstars. Then Tim Raines--unclaimed by any other team and now Exhibit A in the players' union lawsuit for conspiracy against the owners--returned to the Expos, along with the injured players. The Expos took a chance on two veteran pitchers who had been banished to the minors because of drug problems. They performed spectacularly ("we ran a kind of halfway house") and by season's end, Montreal was in the thick of the pennant race, losing finally by four games in the last week of the season.

Now Rodgers, full of hope, is getting ready to head for West Palm Beach, Fla., for a new season. "This year," he said, "we expect things of ourselves. We feel that, with a few breaks, we have a chance, even though we didn't make any big trades. We tried to get Ozzie Guillen from the White Sox, but it didn't work. We exhausted every resource to try and get an established shortstop, so now we've turned to our farm system. No use having one if you don't give your young players a chance, and we have some good ones coming up."

Rodgers realizes this kind of talk is dangerous. The managers who get fired are the ones with expectations. But he now knows who he is. "After you get fired the first time," he said, "you're better prepared if it happens again. The first time is the great disillusionment."

Meanwhile, he is helping his daughter to find a store, playing a little golf at the course adjacent to his house (he has an 18 handicap), and putting a wary toe back into business with some natural gas investments and an interest in an industrial adhesive firm.

Rodgers is a strong family man. He and Judi celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary Jan. 18 (a date he also remembers). In addition to the twins, the Rodgerses have two older daughters, both living in Orange County, and one grandchild. He and Judi also have a condominium in Palm Beach that they will move into several weeks before spring training starts.

Rodgers recalled a little wistfully that his top buck as a player was $28,000--well below the major league player minimum today. "In 1962," he said, "I played in 152 games for the Angels, led the club in times-at-bat, was runner-up for rookie of the year--and made $7,000."

Do ex-players of his vintage resent the wild sums being paid even mediocre players today?

"Sure there's resentment, but it's at the times, not the players. I'm for people making as much as they can. I was a union player rep for six years and was very active. Our concept then was to do the best we could for the rank-and-file players. Now the Players Assn. has bartered away protections for the rank and file on behalf of the 5% of the players at the very top."

Rodgers is called "Buck" by everyone but his own family. He came by the name naturally when Angels manager Bill Rigney wanted Rodgers to pinch-hit during his rookie season. Looking down the bench at him, Rigney couldn't remember his name, so he said, "Hey, you--Buck." The bench guffawed and the name stuck.

Last year the name seemed especially appropriate when Buck Rodgers pulled off a minor miracle. This year, he may be plain old Bob again. But at least by that time, he should have the statue in his den that proves that in 1987 he was National League manager of the year. No amount of bad luck, flaky ballplayers or impatient owners can ever take that away from him.

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