The Jose Guillen decision was a defining moment in Mike Scioscia’s tenure with the Angels.
When Mike Scioscia was a player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, I was a teenager and a young twenty-something. I wasn’t jealous of the Dodgers for having Scioscia because the Angels had Brian Downing, Bob Boone, and Lance Parrish catching during that stretch of time, and those three were no joke, but I did admire Scioscia’s play on the field.
He was always a decent hitter, for a catcher. He hit two key home runs for the Dodgers in the post-season against the Expos in 1981 and the Mets in 1988. What made him stand out, though, was his defense. When he strapped on the face mask, chest protector, and shin guards, he was a force to be reckoned with. Calling a game, knocking down wild pitches, standing up and shouting instructions to infielders at key points of the game, he was the epitome of what a field general should be. He was regularly in the top five in the National League in catcher assists, double plays turned by a catcher, and runners caught stealing. And blocking the plate? Forget about it. A base runner might as well have been trying to collide with the Empire State Building.
After his playing days, he served as a coach for Dodgers manager Bill Russell in 1997 and 1998. When Russell was fired, the Dodgers went against most people’s expectations and snubbed Scioscia for the newly vacant manager’s seat, hiring Davey Johnson instead. Scioscia was put on the back-burner in the Dodgers’ organization in 1999 and was sent to manage the Triple-A Albuquerque Dukes.
In 2000, the Angels came calling, and Scioscia jumped at the opportunity. And what he brought to the team was exactly what it needed to enter the most successful era in franchise history.
The prevalent philosophy in the American League at the time of Scioscia’s hire was to win by getting two runners on base and then hitting a three-run homer. Scioscia’s teams always had sluggers, but he added small ball to the mix. “Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in” became the mantra for the Angels’ offense. Productive outs, taking the extra base, bunting, and stealing all became part of the Angels’ repertoire. It made for exciting baseball to watch.
I quickly became a fan of Mike Scioscia, the manager.
And then a couple of years later the World Series happened.
But what really finalized my standing as a Mike Scioscia fan is what happened at the end of the 2004 season. The Angels were pushing the Oakland A’s for the division lead and a spot in the playoffs, and on September 25 the two teams were playing each other. The score was tied 3-3 when Angels left fielder Jose Guillen was hit by a pitch in the eighth inning. Scioscia replaced him with a pinch runner, Alfredo Amezaga, and Guillen was not happy. He threw a tantrum when he entered the dugout, throwing his arms up into the air in a why-the-hell-did-you-do-that gesture, throwing his batting helmet across the dugout to where Scioscia was standing, slamming his glove against the wall.
Scioscia couldn’t sleep that night. This wasn’t the first incident Guillen had had during his time with the Angels, but he was the second best hitter on the team that year (to Vladimir Guerrero). Guillen was hitting .294 with 27 home runs and 104 RBI. The Angels were just two games behind division-leading Oakland and a couple weeks away from the playoffs, but Guillen was undermining Scioscia’s authority and dissolving the cohesion a team needs to win baseball games.
Scioscia talked to general manager Bill Stoneman, and they decided to suspend Guillen not just for the rest of the season, but for the playoffs as well. I admired Scioscia for having the courage to bench his second best player while standing at the gates of the playoffs. Not many men would have done that.
Angels starting pitcher Jarrod Washburn had this to say at the time:
As players, we support the decision 100 percent. I was surprised, but I wasn’t shocked. Are we happy? No, because he did contribute. Was it necessary? Probably.
But now the Angels are in a rut, experiencing a three-year playoff drought. Fans’ expectations are high (as they should be) and the fans are demanding a change. But I don’t blame Scioscia. Even Jimmie Johnson would come in last place in a NASCAR race if the car he’s driving has a 140-horsepower Honda Civic engine in it. Over the last two years, this team needed pitching, but during those offseasons the Angels spent the bulk of their budget signing hitting instead. The Angels need smarter decision making in the front office. Maybe Jerry Dipoto needs to go. (If he does, former Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng could be available. Imagine the Angels hiring the first female general manager in baseball.)
But if Arte Moreno truly is considering firing Mike Scioscia, I hope he thinks about this final tidbit. Mike Scioscia is one of the best managers in the game. He speaks Spanish, he’s funny, and he keeps his players well-prepared. Baseball players want to play for Scioscia, and because of this, he is one of the deciding factors in persuading free agents and players who have control over their trades to come to the Angels. And if the Angels are ever going to retool their roster and become a championship team again, a manager like Scioscia is what they need.