OAKLAND — Even during his playing days, Bob Melvin knew a good matchup when he saw one. So he privately fumed upon arriving at the ballpark one day in 1989 to see Manager Frank Robinson had left out him of the lineup against a pitcher he hit well.
Melvin resolved to march into Robinson’s office. But it took him a while to summon the courage. Melvin paced outside Robinson’s office for so long that the famously fearsome Baltimore Orioles manager finally snapped.
“Hey, do have something to say to me?” Robinson said.
“I do, as a matter of fact … sir,” Melvin replied.
Melvin recounted this pivotal moment from his own office at the Oakland Coliseum last week. Now in his seventh season with the A’s, the two-time manager of the year is closing in on a pair of milestones. Melvin needs four more wins for 500 as A’s manager and 11 wins more for 1,000 in his career.
In advance, Melvin took a moment to reflect on the former managers who shape his strategy to this day. As a backup catcher from 1985-94, Melvin played for men who have a combined seven manager of the year awards.
Melvin says now that moments like his clash with Robinson left a lasting impact — and as it turned out, that was by design.
Once he finally stepped inside the manager’s office that day, Melvin confronted his Robinson with all the empirical reasons he ought to be in the lineup. He wrapped up his argument with: “I think I can help the team win today.”
With that, Robinson reached into his desk drawer and pulled out another lineup card. He’d been planning on playing Melvin all along. He just wanted to see if the catcher had the inner fire to stick up for himself.
“I went back to my locker and had to process that,” Melvin said. “It’s easy to process now: What he was trying to do was get me to the next level, to where I had enough respect to say something to the manager if it was the right thing to do.
“He was waiting for me.”
Here’s at look at other key moments from a sampling of Melvin’s mentors:
Career record: 2,194-1,843
Melvin’s season: 1985
Melvin was a new big leaguer when he got a lesson from the old school. Anderson, fresh off the third career World Series title, came from the generation where rookies were seen, not heard.
Melvin learned that when he attempted to join the veteran players lounging around the hotel pool one day.
“Within 5 minutes, I was told to back up to my room,” he said. “That’s just kind of how younger guys were treated, especially with a veteran club like that. … And I understood that right away.”
Melvin’s understanding then gives him an extra appreciation now about much different things are. As a matter of necessity, the A’s welcome fresh faces almost daily and Melvin looks back at how he was shunned as a rookie — and does the opposite.
“We try to embrace them. We try to empower them,” Melvin said. “Certainly there’s a respect that they need to gain and we, as a staff, make sure they know that. But younger guys now come to the big leagues and are spotlight guys from minute they get here.”
Career record: 1,065-1,176
Melvin’s seasons: 1989-91
The lineup card incident was just one of the many times Robinson tried to Melvin’s inner leader. He recognized his potential.
Before this stop, for example, Melvin had always looked toward the bench for guidance while working behind the plate. Previous managers (Anderson and Roger Craig) signaled when to throw over, when to pitch out and even which pitches to call in big situations.
But when Melvin asked Robinson what the signs were from manager to catcher, Robinson told him he was on his own.
“Look, there’s nobody who has a better understanding of the pitcher-catcher-batter relationship,”’ Robinson told Melvin. “You know how you’re going to pitch a guy, what your pitcher has a on a particular day, the adjustments hitters are making at the plate. I’m relying on you to identify that.”
In an instant, Melvin was a changed man.
“That was a big moment for me,” he said. “From that minute on, it was like, ‘OK, I’m the quarterback now.”’
Career record: 797-746
Melvin’s season: 1991
Oates, a former backup catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers, took over for Robinson early in the Orioles’ 1991 season. Like his predecessor, Oates recognized Melvin as a future leader.
“He was the first guy during my playing career that said to me, ‘You’re going to have a future as a manager,”’ Melvin said.
That might have been because how often Melvin quizzed talked about strategy. He recalled approaching Oates after being shocked that an opposing manager squandered a pitching change when he had a chance to manipulate a favorable righty-righty matchup against a pinch-hitter.
Oates smiled and said: “I’m going to tell you the same thing Walter Alston told me: You watch the game the right way.”
Managerial record: 1,464-1,353
Melvin’s season: 1994
Melvin played only nine games for Showalter, but that was long enough to leave an imprint. Showalter, who remains famously hyper-organized, would often tell his bench players days in advance when they would start and why. There were no lineup card surprises with Showalter.
He once told Melvin three days ahead of time to gear up for a start against Orioles starter Arthur Rhodes. Melvin spent three days preparing for the hard-throwing left-hander. And in the first inning on May 21, 1994, the backup catcher showed he was ready by belting a three-run homer to spark a 5-4 victory.
It was the 35th and final home run of Melvin’s career.
“So what I do now is communicate ahead of time,” he said. “I want my players, especially the bench players, to know when they’re going to play. And I try to get them up there in favorable matchups.”
Career record: 985-1,054
Melvin’s seasons: 1999-2000 as bench coach
Strange as it sounds, Garner remains the most influential figure from Melvin’s playing days with the Giants from 1986-88. “Phil Garner is actually the guy when it comes to my managerial chops,” he said.
Garner played only a handful of games with the Giants as he finished off an otherwise distinguished career. Back then he was just one of the many strong-willed, charismatic veterans who played for Craig. (Melvin calls Craig the “godfather” for other future managers, like Dusty Baker and Bob Brenly.)
Melvin and “Scrap Iron” bonded, both in terms of strategy and overall temperament.
“He was a player’s guy but wasn’t afraid to keep guys accountable,” Melvin. “He was a tough guy, but he had a soft spot — and guys knew it.”
Melvin spent two seasons as Garner’s bench coach with the Milwaukee Brewers and remembers him being ahead of his time when it came to analytics.
He once wondered why Garner didn’t use the fantastically fast Chuck Carr as his leadoff hitter. It seems obvious now, but it was borderline radical at the time when Garner used Jeff Cirillo and Mark Loretta atop the order to emphasize on-base percentage over speed
“What good does speed do if he doesn’t get on base?” Garner told him. “That really resonated with me. He would always explain things to me during the game. And he kept telling me from day one, ‘Hey, you’re going to do this.”’
Managerial record: 303-262
Melvin’s seasons: 2001-02 (as bench coach)
Brenly was another connection from the Giants days. They started out as rivals competing for playing time but wound up lifelong friends. Melvin remains forever in awe of the time Brenly made four errors in a game but rebounded to hit a walk-off homer.
“What I learned from Bob Brenly was: It is all about winning,” Melvin said. “And Bob is a winner.”
When Brenly got his first managing job, with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, he summoned Melvin to work as his bench coach. More than that, Brenly empowered Melvin with far more authority than a typical bench coach, and together they pressed the right buttons en route to a World Series title.
Now, as Melvin sits on the precipice of 1,000 career victories, he recalls the painful losses, too. It was Garner who told him that no one agonizes more after a defeat than a manager.
“And the first loss I ever took as a manager, I could hear him saying that,” Melvin said. “Everything is different. You feel responsible for everything. If a guy doesn’t run down the line. If a guy makes a bad play. If somebody doesn’t hit a cutoff man — there is nothing you don’t feel in your gut.”
A’S MANAGERS WITH 300+ WINS
Connie Mack 3,582-3,814 (.484)
Tony La Russa 798-673 (.542)
Art Howe 600-533 (.530)
Bob Melvin 496-489 (.503)
Ken Macha 368-280 (.568)
Bob Geren 334-376 (.470)
Alvin Dark 314-291 (.519)