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Out with the old, in with the new as metrics supplant managers

New York Yankees' Aaron Boone homers in the bottom of the 11th inning to win Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2003. Despite never having managed a team at any level, Boone was hired this week as the new manager of the Yankees.

BARTON SILVERMAN/NYT

The most renowned of many great Yankees managers, Casey Stengel, was nearly 60 when he got the job.

He wasn't a popular choice. Widely regarded as a buffoon whose signal talent was distracting reporters and fans from the general wretchedness of his teams, Stengel had spent a quarter century being hired and fired, often in the minor leagues.

But what Stengel lacked in accomplishments, he compensated for in practical knowledge and longevity. He'd spent a full working life observing the game from the inside before getting his big shot. His seven World Series titles in New York, including five in a row, rather repaid the gamble.

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That's what managers and coaches used to be – older men who'd come up hard, slowly accruing their bona fides over decades. It wasn't necessarily the right or the wrong way, but it was the done way.

Sports in general, and baseball in particular, have begun a hard turn in the other direction. The new manager (or executive) must be young, vibrant, have no settled ideas, or any public ideas at all.

Given the choice between innocence and experience, a blank slate is becoming preferred.

The most extreme example yet of this trend is Aaron Boone. This past week, the Yankees chose the 44-year-old as their new manager.

Boone played the game well, but has never coached at any level. Since retiring as a player, he's worked as a TV analyst. Given the Yankees' profile, it is not unlike being appointed president of Google shortly after getting your computer-engineering degree.

The choice is so unlikely even Boone didn't think it possible.

He had applied in the past for jobs in New York's front office and on its coaching staff, and didn't get them. When the manager's job came open, it was New York GM Brian Cashman who reached out, rather than the other way around.

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The only managerial credential Boone could come up with shortly after his interview was that he'd "been preparing for this job my entire life. I've been going to the ballpark since I was three or four years old."

If that's the measure, thousands of people (once we count particularly avid spectators, hundreds of thousands) have the same claim on the job.

Putting knowledge and skill aside, there are two barriers that separate all of us from the Yankees job – who we know and how we talk.

That's a hard line. Only a few people are eligible in the first case (those who played baseball professionally). Having ticked off the first box automatically assumes you have taken care of the second.

The most important thing about a baseball manager is that he looks and sounds like a baseball manager. That's how John Farrell keeps getting gigs.

These two qualifications are less important for executives, since the public does not see much of them and never in uniform.

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Actually, the more a VP of baseball operations seem likes a Silicon Valley geek, the more serious and thoughtful people now believe him to be.

That's why the outsider/youth movement swept through those ranks first. Thirty years ago, most of the men now held up as the best executives in baseball – Chicago's Theo Epstein (never played), L.A.'s Farhan Zaidi (did a PhD in economics) or Alex Anthopoulos (raised to assume control of his family's heating business) – might've got a job in the accounting department. But run the team? Not likely.

Metrics changed that calculation. The onus moved from learning the game's codes and secret handshakes to understanding spreadsheets and numbers.

(An extreme example of this is an Azerbaijani soccer team, FC Baku. Five years ago, it hired a 21-year-old to run its player-acquisition set-up. His chief competency? Being very good at the video game Football Manager.)

The effect of metrics on hiring has been slowly (and now rapidly) trickling down. A manager is no longer a teacher. He doesn't need an intimate knowledge of the cutting-edge thinking in the field (that's what the GM and his army of wonks are for). When he wants to know what to do late in a game, he has a binder that tells him what to do.

If he insists on going with his gut, he will either be held up as a savant or fired. Possibly both.

The modern manager is there to represent the brand (i.e. look and talk right) and act as a clubhouse therapist.

He settles disputes, keeps the course even and provides an instructive example of comportment to the herd. Other, less-well-recompensed people do the teaching.

Boone's Yankee predecessor, Joe Girardi, lost track of those responsibilities. Then he lost his job. As odd as it sounds, Girardi concentrated too much on baseball while doing his baseball job.

The proof of whether this new fashion is any better or worse will be reckoned in terms of results. St. Louis's Mike Matheny had no experience when he took the Cardinals' job, and he's done well. Robin Ventura is another example in Chicago with the White Sox.

On the one hand it may demonstrate that callower equals hungrier. But it might also be the case that the manager just doesn't matter all that much.

As long as he isn't actively screwing things up, the team trundles on regardless of who hits fifth or pitches the seventh inning.

People in and outside the game will still try to cover the job in veils of mysticism.

That's how they justify paying someone millions of dollars to sit around in his sweatpants chewing sunflower seeds four hours a night.

But in the end, it's probably more about being good with people than having some magical insight.

Many of us have always believed that, with some smarts, the proper application and a bit of luck, we could do that, too. That anybody could, really.

Now, finally, the people who run professional sports outfits are starting to believe it as well.

Had he lived long enough, Casey Stengel, a man who spent a lifetime losing before someone gave him the chance to win, might've been one of them.

Video: Toronto Blind Jays explain how beep baseball works (The Canadian Press)
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