Column: Angels’ Mike Scioscia manages to impress with lasting power
The interview is interrupted when the smartphone in his pocket rings like a kitchen telephone from 1964.
“That’s the one it came with, I just never changed it,’’ Mike Scioscia said with a grin.
The interview is interrupted again when the standard phone on the desk that Scioscia is borrowing also rings.
Scioscia answers it — “Tim Mead’s office’’ — and asks if he can take a message. He takes the message. On a scrap of paper. With a pencil.
“OK, now where were we?’’ he said.
We’re trapped in a time machine, that’s where, sitting with the wonderfully old-school “Sosh’’ at Tempe Diablo Stadium on the first day of spring training as he enters his 19th season as Angels manager. He is the longest-tenured boss in baseball, the second-longest tenured manager or coach in the four major professional sports behind Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and he’s on the verge of reaching a milestone that will mean more than any of that.
Sometime in early summer, Scioscia will have more managerial victories than Tommy Lasorda.
“I don’t believe that!’’ Lasorda said Monday.
Believe it, Tommy. The Angels’ 30th victory will be Scioscia’s 1,600th, moving him past his mentor in one fewer season.
The irony is rich. The last word is his. Nearly two decades after being dumped by the Dodgers because they thought he couldn’t manage, Scioscia has slowly put himself in the same class as their iconic Hall of Fame manager in a quiet manner that even the bombastic Lasorda admires.
“Well, if somebody can beat me, I hope it’s him,’’ Lasorda said.
There’s another reason Scioscia is embarking on a landmark season. It could be his last. His 10-year contract expires next offseason and, typical of the old-style philosophy that everything must be earned, he hasn’t even talked with owner Arte Moreno about an extension.
”I’m not thinking that far ahead, it’s not relevant right now,’’ Scioscia said. “I was honored with an incredible commitment from Artie that people just don’t get, and my focus is entirely on 2018.’’
Actually, they have talked, at the end of last season, and the conversation was typically low-key Scioscia.
“He looks up at me and says, ‘So, you want me back next year?’ ’’ general manager Billy Eppler said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ He’s like, ‘OK, I want to come back, but just so you know, anything beyond that, let’s just focus on winning in 2018, the rest will take care of itself.’ ’’
Scioscia doesn’t like the focus on him. He never has. That’s part of the reason he has lasted so long. He listens. He trusts. He puts the players first. He never steals their spotlight. He never makes it about himself.
“The game is about playing it, not managing it,’’ he said. “This is their time, we had our time. Bottom line is, it’s their team, you have to keep that perspective.’’
He always honors the player. He says the highlight of his career was not as manager, but as a catcher on the last Dodgers World Series-winning team in 1988, a season that included his season-saving home run against the New York Mets’ Dwight Gooden in the National League Championship Series.
Many of his players have no idea about that homer. Some of his players don’t even remember he played. He laughs. He understands. He’ll probably be known in history as a manager, not a player, and what longtime Dodgers fan would have believed that?
“Baseball has given me so much,’’ he said. “I don’t really look at how people are going to remember me. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be here.’’
And although Scioscia has come to embrace the most complicated of analytics, he believes baseball’s beauty is still in the simplicity of its play.
“It’s like [coach] Alfredo Griffin says, until human beings grow a third arm or a third leg, they’re going to be fielding ground balls the same way for the next 200 years,’’ Scioscia said. “It’s baseball. Your cutoffs and relays are the same. It’s who executes better, not who designs better. The bottom line is playing the game. You’ve got to keep your finger on that pulse.’’
Many players, including baseball’s best, Mike Trout, have flourished under his steady touch.
“What he has done here, for so long, it’s insane,’’ pitcher Matt Shoemaker said. “He talks to guys. He communicates. He knows when to make it fun and relaxing. He manages.’’
And to think, back in the fall of 1999, Scioscia was deemed unworthy by the Dodgers to even manage their minor leaguers. After 13 years as a Dodgers catcher and six as an instructor or coach, he was basically shoved out of the organization by then-GM Kevin Malone after his one and only year as manager of triple-A Albuquerque.
Scioscia was too old-school for Malone’s crazy culture. Malone later admitted it was a huge mistake. Along with the trading of Mike Piazza and Pedro Martinez, it was one of the biggest personnel mistakes in Dodgers history.
Seemingly moments after leaving the Dodgers, Scioscia was scooped up by the Angels’ Bill Stoneman in a brilliant move that changed an entire franchise’s culture.
In Scioscia’s third season, the Angels won the World Series championship. In five of six seasons beginning in 2004, they won the American League West. In six of his first eight seasons, they reached the playoffs. Scioscia was twice selected AL manager of the year.
Plagued by a poor farm system and bad free-agent signings, they have made the playoffs only once in the last eight years, have not won a playoff game in nearly a decade and enter 2018 coming off Scioscia’s first two consecutive losing seasons.
That makes this season big for Scioscia, 59. It could be a six-month endorsement or a farewell tour.
The Angels seemed loaded with an offseason haul led by the signing of two-way Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. There were also the signings of outfielder Justin Upton and infielder Zack Cozart, and the acquisition of second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Expectations are huge. Scisocia, as usual, embraces them.
“I definitely do not take for granted the opportunity I’ve had here, it’s been a privilege,’’ he said. “Going into this season, I feel the same as I did my first season: I’m excited. I think we’re going in the right direction.’’
Right past Lasorda? Scioscia is friendly with his former manager. They saw each other three weeks ago and he’s not about to gloat about passing him. He thanks Lasorda for believing in him as a 17-year-old kid from Philly. He honors Lasorda for passing along his competitiveness and aggressiveness. He’s not even imagining accumulating more victories.
“I’m not sitting there counting wins or looking at where you stack up,’’ Scioscia said. “When it’s all said and done, I’ll probably have a better comment for you, but right now I’m not paying a lot of attention to it.’’
The interview ends, Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications returns to his office, and Scioscia points to a scribbled name on the scrap of white paper.
“Hey, this is important,’’ he said, already managing from the first moment of his 19th year. “Somebody called.’’
Go beyond the scoreboard
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