Interim Manager Wathan to Do It Buck's Way

In case of breaking glass, the Angels had an emergency plan. Buck Rodgers delivered it from a hospital gurney early Thursday morning, through a fog of pain-killing sedation, just two hours after being pried out of a crushed bus seat.

"I want Wathan to manage," Rodgers groggily instructed Tim Mead, the Angels' publicity director. "And I wanna move Knooper over to third . . . and I wanna bring Macha in from the bullpen . . ."

Flat on his back, Rodgers was thinking on his feet. For him, the disabled list beckoned, for maybe a month, maybe longer. An interim coaching staff needed to be assembled.

Like that, John Wathan became a major league manager again. His next lineup card signing was scheduled for Friday--the one-year anniversary of his dismissal by the Kansas City Royals.

"May 22," Wathan remembers. How could he ever forget? After 21 years in the Royals' organization, after 3 1/2 seasons of managing at a .515 clip, after an entire adulthood spent good-soldiering in Omaha and Kansas City, Wathan was fired from the only company that ever tore him a paycheck, after the Royals began the 1991 season 15-22.

"Nick Leyva, Frank Robinson, Don Zimmer and me," Wathan says, reciting the managerial hit list that week. "Three Days in May. Once one manager goes, all the other GMs start thinking, 'Hmmm, not a bad idea.' They got all of us in the span of three days."

A premature evacuation, Wathan insists, speaking only for himself.

"It was relatively early," he says. "We were 15-22 and my second-, third- and fourth-place hitters were out of the lineup. (Kevin) Seitzer and (George) Brett were both on the DL and Bo Jackson was out for the season."

The manager was fairly banged up as well.

"I was hammered in the papers pretty good," Wathan says. "Two guys in particular--columnists--were all over me."

The charges?

"You name it," Wathan says. "I was too close to the team, I was too laid-back. The typical stuff."

It didn't take long for Royals management to cave in. After 37 games, Wathan was out and Hal McRae was in.

Wathan noticed that McRae was permitted to keep his office after the 1992 Royals opened 1-16.

"But it's not so much that," Wathan says, "as them saying I couldn't do the job and then as soon as I'm fired, they make wholesale changes.

"What does that tell you? They're saying the club wasn't good enough."

Wathan wasn't the one who stuffed millions of dollars into the pockets of deadbeat free agents Mark Davis, Storm Davis and Kirk Gibson. He was merely the first scapegoat, followed quickly out of town by Bret Saberhagen, Danny Tartabull, Kurt Stillwell and Kevin Seitzer.

It didn't take Wathan long to find work, although all of it was pro bono.

"I saw more baseball games than I had in my entire life," he says. "All three of my kids play and I was coaching an American Legion team, a Little League team and a Pony League team. My daughter, Dina, played Pony League. The only girl in the whole league. She was a second baseman--pony tail bobbing out of her cap."

In between the team pizza-and-root-beer bashes, Wathan briefly considered enlisting with the enemy.

Yes, the media.

"When I first thought about retirement when I was a player, I always wanted to be an announcer," he says. Wathan debuted on ESPN last summer, on a round-table discussion during the All-Star break. ("Being the front-runner I am, I picked the Angels to win it. The kiss of death.") He also made four demo tapes that received favorable reviews.

"From what (ESPN officials) said, I might have had a shot," he says. "But I wasn't ready to get out of the game yet. If I could, I wanted to get another coaching job."

Whitey Herzog, Wathan's manager during his catching days, was the ticket back in. A friend in a high place, Herzog was now in charge of player personnel for the Angels. He took Wathan's phone call and made a few of his own to Rodgers.

By November, Wathan had a new job, third base coach for the Angels, until bodies were jostled and assignments shuffled on the road to Baltimore.

Interim manager. Wathan emphasizes that it's a two-word title.

And to make sure the point is understood, Wathan plans to leave the manager's office vacant when the Angels return to Anaheim.

"I'll keep my old locker," Wathan says. "Out of respect for Buck. He's still the manager. I still feel I'm under him. 'First Lieutenant,' whatever you want to call it."

Further symbolism: Wathan has temporarily vetoed Rodgers' initial idea to move first-base coach Bobby Knoop to third base and bullpen coach Ken Macha to first. Friday and Saturday, Wathan managed the team from his customary station, inside the third-base coach's box.

"For the time being, I want to keep things as close to normal as possible," he explains.

And so, eerily, Rodgers' seat on the dugout bench remains unoccupied.

Expect no strategic surprises from Wathan. For one, he says he plans to consult Rodgers on the batting order every day. For two, what options does he have? This Angel roster lacks power, speed, .300 hitters--and, for the moment, Lance Parrish, Alvin Davis and Bobby Rose.

"I can't sit eight guys at the same time," Wathan says with a grin. "We have a lot of guys who are scuffling."

Quirks? Wathan confesses to one.

"It sounds crazy," he says, "but I sleep better after losses than wins. I'm really high after wins, but losses, I try to leave them at the park.

"I know that doesn't make much sense, but then, a lot of people said I didn't make much sense in Kansas City."

In Anaheim, the sleepless nights shouldn't be overwhelming, not with this patch-and-glue collection.

In the interim, the manager ought to be well-rested.

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