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Fredi seems like right fit

Eddie Altamonte

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Commentary: Gonzalez seems like right fit

By Dave George

Palm Beach Post Columnist


Wednesday, February 21, 2007


JUPITER ? It was a small thing, nothing at all like the shaving-cream pie in the face that baseball teammates often use to smear the seriousness off somebody's face during a TV interview.


Still, while rookie Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez was meeting with reporters outside the Marlins' clubhouse Tuesday, his starting shortstop made a playful attempt at blowing the boss' concentration in the middle of a response.


"Hi, Fredi," Hanley Ramirez chirped loudly as he walked past the group, and then was gone, grinning at the little bit of fun that is allowed, even encouraged, in these early days of spring training.


Can't imagine that happening in the Joe Girardi Era, which lasted all of one season.


Girardi's idea of mixing it up with the young Marlins was running wind sprints with his team in the outfield and leaving many players behind. He's an intense leader, or was, until Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria fired the National League's 2006 Manager of the Year in October.


A failure to communicate, or cooperate, or something like that. The problem was between the manager and the front office, not the players, and in the end the most insightful reason given for Girardi's firing with two years left on his guaranteed contract was the assessment of General Manager Admin Beinfest that "it just wasn't a good fit."


Beinfest sat in a golf cart Tuesday watching the Marlins' pitchers and catchers work out, looking totally at ease with the team's decision, and wearing a cowboy hat, no less, on the eve of Fredi's first full-squad roundup.


No way of knowing if the team will improve on the surprising 78-84 record of a year ago, but one thing is fairly clear. The new manager isn't going to get all aggravated if the Marlins don't win the Grapefuit League exhibition season, the way Girardi's guys did last spring, and he isn't going to be out on the practice fields trying to show players that he is their athletic equivalent.


Late in Tuesday's workout, Fredi was out there on Field 2, throwing BP to a group of catchers. It is one of his acknowledged strengths, and has been since Gonzalez began his long minor-league managing career with the Florida State League's Miami Miracle in 1990.


And just what does it take to be a good batting-practice pitcher?


"Usually a bad player," said Gonzalez, who never advanced beyond Class AA ball in his own career. "You get more practice when you start a lot younger throwing BP."


Jack McKeon, the grandfather who led the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title, used to say stuff like that, and he used to get the same laughs that Gonzalez does now. Counting Jeff Torborg, this makes the fourth Florida manager since Loria bought the team in 2002.


The third in three seasons, too.


Finding the right fit, apparently, is at least as difficult as making the playoffs on the lowest payroll in baseball. The Marlins are well known for doing things the hard way, with the quest for a new South Florida stadium included in that.


Gonzalez, 43, gets the team philosophy, at least.


He's been a winner in the minors, and part of a winning tradition as Atlanta's third-base coach.


Coming to the Marlins was more than a return to his hometown of Miami. It's a chance to be a winner again, developing a young pitching staff that once again is the envy of the industry and benefiting from the offensive leadership of Miguel Cabrera, who seems bent on winning a Triple Crown one day.


There's a comfort level here, in other words, from the very start. Gonzalez isn't eager to manage the Yankees or the Cubs, or even to replace his mentor, Bobby Cox, in Atlanta. The feeling you get from Fredi is that he is pretty much at home wherever he parks his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and Tuesday morning that was right out behind the Marlins' clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium, just about 5:30 a.m.


"Sometimes you just want to ride up and down the beach, as a stress reliever," said Gonzalez, who trailered his black Road King bike down from Atlanta in December. "I'll pick my spots. Mr. Loria just told me to be real careful. He reminded me that I don't want to just get started on my new career and have something happen.


"I think he used to ride a little himself when he was young."


If Loria and Girardi ever had these kinds of conversations, they didn't develop into anything like a close friendship. Gonzalez seems the type to put anyone at ease, and that may be important if the Marlins stumble into the season. Girardi started out 11-31, which was disastrous, and rallied the team to a 67-53 record thereafter, which was delicious. Fredi's plan is to get a more reliable rate of return from every player. That should finally please the front office, where promotions and trades and even arbitration hearings are based on knowing exactly what you've got and how much it is worth.


Funny how no one even flinched Tuesday when Gonzalez pulled away from the stadium on that rumbling Hog around 2:40 p.m.


A group of fans was focused instead on the clubhouse door, where players trickled out on the way to the parking lot. None of the autograph hounds yelled "Hi, Fredi," as the manager rode past. None even recognized Gonzalez, with a sparse, black bowl of a helmet pulled tight over his shaved head and his son, Alex, 13, hanging on in back.


Fredi will pick his spots, all right, but seldom the spotlight.

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