04/03/06 — Narron baseball feature

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Narron baseball feature

By Steve Roush
Published in Sports on April 3, 2006 1:56 PM

Jerry Narron eats, sleeps and breathes baseball, and has for a very long time.

You see, in the Narron family, a love of the game could be considered a right of passage.

His older brother, Johnny, played minor league baseball for the Yankees and White Sox organizations in 1974-75 and is currently a hitting coach in the Brewers organization. His uncle Sam was a catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals (1935, 1942-43). Another uncle, Milton, was a minor league catcher and outfielder. Another Sam, grandson of the St. Louis Sam, pitched briefly with the Rangers and is currently in the Brewers organization, and Sam's dad, "Rooster," was a minor league catcher and a standout at East Carolina.

Jerry Narron willingly embraced the family tradition, which turned into a love affair that has lasted for more than three decades. He played eight years in the big leagues as a catcher with the Yankees, Mariners and Angels and has coached or managed since his retirement in the Orioles, Rangers, Red Sox and Reds organizations.

Today, Narron begins his first full regular season as manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

"God, family and baseball, that's what I am," the 50-year-old Narron says. "God blessed me, I'm in my 23rd year at the Major League Baseball level as either a player, coach or manager. When I was young, if they said I'd be at the Major League level for 23 days, I'd have taken it.

"For me, the biggest thrill has been just putting on a big league uniform for 23 years. It's difficult to stay at that level that long."

Narron played baseball for the love of the game. He manages the same way.

"Jerry seems like an old-school baseball guy," opening day pitcher Aaron Harang told the media during spring training. "He likes the hard-nosed, go get 'em attitude."

"Jerry has the respect of everybody on this team," Cincinnati second baseman and outfielder Ryan Freel said during a spring training interview. "I don't think I've ever heard a bad thing said about Jerry by my teammates. He's a very personable guy and a manager that talks to you and lets you know if you ever need anything, it doesn't have to be just baseball -- that shows a lot about a manager. It makes a player feel more relaxed..."

The road to the top

Jerry Narron's road to the big leagues started right here in Wayne County.

An all-state catcher at Goldsboro High, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Narron was drafted by the New York Yankees in the sixth round of the June 5, 1974 amateur draft. He had signed to play ball at Clemson, but simply couldn't turn down the Yankees.

Narron's next stop landed him in Johnson City, Tenn.

His name was penciled in the lineup just ahead of his big brother Johnny.

"I signed with the Yankees and played rookie ball with my brother," Narron recalls. "He's four years older than I am, so we never got a chance to play together before that. That year, I hit third and he hit fourth. He had a good year, I think he hit 17 homers."

In 1976, the Yankees invited the then 20-year-old Narron to spring training. Just two years removed from playing Legion baseball up the road at Snow Hill, the left-handed swinging catcher was wide-eyed as he entered the clubhouse nearly 30 years ago.

"The first person I met at spring training was Mickey Mantle," he said, pausing a moment as the memories of years past came rushing back. "I got to play with Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson, and I was fortunate enough to have two of those Yankees, Chris Chambliss and Bucky Dent, on my coaching staff here in Cincinnati."

A little more than two years later, Narron got a September call-up from the Yanks. He didn't get to see the field, sitting behind Munson, a seven-time All-Star, but did get to see Dent blast a ball over the Green Monster at Fenway that sent the Red Sox home and New York toward a World Series title in '78.

The following season, however, Narron made the Yankees out of spring training as a backup to Munson. Narron's first Major League hit came on April 19 against Baltimore's Jim Palmer, and his first home run came off Boston's Dennis Eckersley on July 1. Little did he know at the time, but the rookie would inherit the starting job less than a month later.

Munson was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 2, 1979 at the age of 32.

Jerry Narron was behind the plate following night when the Yankees took the field. He remembers the moment of silence for Munson that turned into an emotional, nine-minute standing ovation at Yankee Stadium.

"When someone dies on your team, it's like losing someone in your family," Narron says. "You quickly realize there's more important things in life than the game. Losing Thurman, that's real life. He was the leader of the team and one of the best catchers ever -- I consider him a Hall of Famer, and I'm sure he would have been had he played a full career. I was fortunate to come up and learn a great deal from him."

Narron played in 61 games as a rookie and hit .171 with four home runs and 18 RBIs as the Yankees finished in fourth place at 89-71.

Less than a month after the regular season ended, New York traded for catcher Rick Cerone on Nov. 1. The very same day, the Yanks shipped Narron to Seattle.

After six seasons in the Yankees organization, Narron was switching coasts.

"I was one of few guys who was drafted by the Yankees, got through the farm system and stayed a whole year," he says with a hint of pride.

Though he went from a perennial contender to a regular cellar-dweller, Narron saw the trade as an opportunity.

It was his chance to start. It was a shot to have his name on a lineup card every day.

It just didn't quite work out that way.

Narron started having knee troubles.

"Probably the biggest disappointment was in Seattle," he says. "I knew I was going to get a chance to be an everyday starter, but I had knee surgery both years and could never get going. I was never 100 percent there, and that was my biggest chance to be an everyday player. But if you're not healthy, you can't perform at the highest level."

In his two seasons in Seattle, Narron had just 310 at-bats and hit .196 in 1980 and .222 in '81. He was part of a dreadful 59-103 Mariners team of '80 and a 44-65 team in a strike-shortened '81.

Narron was released at the end of spring training the following year. He was picked up by the California Angels two days later, but didn't get back to the big leagues until 1983.

By then, he was a 27-year-old catcher with a history of knee problems, a .201 lifetime batting average and 11 career home runs.

He's an Angel

In 1983, Jerry Narron's dreams of being an everyday catcher in the big leagues were fading, but he found a niche with the Angels.

Reunited with former Yankees Reggie Jackson and Tommy John and a backup to veteran All-Star catcher Bob Boone, Narron played four seasons in Anaheim.

"In California, I was a spot starter and a pinch hitter," he said. "The great thing about the Angels was all the talent they had -- Rod Carew, Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Freddy Lynn, Reggie Jackson. It was truly a great team."

In 1986, the Angels won the AL West and faced the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Narron's leadoff single to right and run in the 11th inning at Anaheim Stadium in Game 4 off Calvin Schiraldi gave the Angels a 4-3 win.

It put California one win away from the World Series.

"It's definitely a highlight to get a hit and score a run in the postseason," Narron says. "It was very special."

The following day, the Angels stood just one out away from the World Series, leading 5-4 with two away in the top of the ninth. Manager Gene Mauch yanked ace Mike Whitt in favor of Gary Lucas. Lucas plunked Rich Gedman, and was pulled for closer Donnie Moore.

The rest is history, slugger Dave Henderson homered to give Boston the lead, and the Red Sox went on to win 7-6 in 11 innings. Narron entered the game in the 10th and walked in his only at-bat of the day. He was behind the plate when Henderson scored the game-winning run in the 11th.

The Red Sox went on to win Games 6 and 7 at Fenway.

"It's funny, I've been on two clubs where the manager made a pitching decision that ended up keeping us out of a World Series," Narron laughs, referring also to when he was the bench coach at Boston in 2003 when Pedro Martinez blew a late lead against the Yankees in the ALCS. "It's pretty unusual, really ... I was part of both sides of a huge pitching decision. One chose to take their best pitcher out, the other chose to leave their best pitcher in.

"It didn't work out either time."

On April 6, 1987, the Angels released Narron. At 31, he signed with the Mariners 11 days later, but his days as a professional catcher were almost finished. He played just four games with Seattle in '87, had no hits in eight at-bats, and was released on Nov. 20.

He spent 1988 with Triple-A Rochester, then put the catching equipment away.

More than a decade after Narron signed his first pro contract with the Yankees, his playing days were over. He finished with a .211 batting average in the majors, hit 21 home runs, played in 392 games with three big league ballclubs and logged a total of 840 at-bats.


the skipper

During his final year in the minors, Jerry Narron played for another former Yankee catcher at Rochester -- the late Johnny Oates.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

After Narron retired, Oates helped get him a managing job with the Frederick Keys, a Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.

After a year in the Carolina League, Narron moved up to Double-A Hagerstown in 1990-91 and managed Rochester -- the team he played for less than five years earlier -- in 1992.

Narron then got his call back to the bigs.

He served as Orioles dugout coach and third base coach under Oates in 1993 and '94, then followed Oates to Texas in 1995.

"I've been very fortunate to play for outstanding baseball people like Billy Martin, Gene Mauch, Dick Williams and John McNamara during my playing days, and being around Cal Ripken Sr., he was one of the best teachers ever," Narron said. "Johnny Oates was a big influence, both in the baseball part and the life part. Johnny was a committed Christian. At one time, there was a stereotype that if you were a Christian and lived a Christian life, they'd say you're not tough enough or strong enough to be a professional athlete. That's starting to die away now."

When Oates was fired by Texas in 2001, Narron took the helm. After spending the rest of the 2001 season as interim manager, going 62-72 over that span, the Rangers rewarded Narron with a two-year contract extension and removed the interim tag.

The Rangers, however, went just 72-90 in 2002. After just one full season as manager, Texas replaced Narron with Buck Showalter.

"Pro sports can be a make-believe world at times," Narron says. "Sometimes, you can be the greatest person on Earth, then the next day you can be the worst person on Earth. You need to keep an even keel, I keep my eyes on Jesus, and whatever I do, I do it to please the Lord, not other people. As far as a managing style, I've just been around so many people in baseball, after 20-plus years I know what works and what doesn't work on the field."

Off the field, Narron seems to know what works, too.

"You have to be open, honest and very positive," he says. "I learned from my parents at a very young age that you treat everyone with respect, no matter what role they fill, and be completely honest. That's what I try to do as a manager, and that's what I try to do in life."

Narron became Grady Little's bench coach with the Red Sox in 2003. Little was shown the door after Boston's heartbreaking ALCS loss to the Yankees, and Narron was in limbo.

When it looked like he was out of a job, Narron agreed to become the Cincinnati Reds bench coach.

"I had a chance to go back to Boston for 2004," Narron recalls. "I had already taken the job with Cincinnati, and then the Red Sox called and said I could come back. But I had given my word to the Reds and didn't want to back out."

Of course, Boston went on to win the World Series in 2004. For a fourth time in his career, Narron missed out on a World Series.

He could let that bother him, but he doesn't

"I'm happy with all the success Boston had in 2004, finally winning the World Series," Narron says. "It's awesome they won it ... but I believe I did the right thing (by sticking with the Reds). All the World Series rings in the world are not worth losing your integrity."

On June 21, 2005, the slumping Reds fired manager Dave Miley and turned to their bench coach.

The hunt for

Reds October

Jerry Narron was a big league manager again.

During July and August, the Reds played as well as any team in the majors. Key injuries slowed the team the rest of the way, but the team showed enough promise under Narron for the Reds to remove the interim tag and give him a one-year extension with a mutual option for 2007.

The skipper isn't looking that far ahead.

"In professional sports, there is not a lot of job security," he says. "When I came in, most people expected the Reds would have another manager for this year. But the players responded and we played well -- in July and August, we were playing about as well as anybody. Then we lost Griff and (Sean) Casey for most of September. We didn't win as much, but I was still proud of the way they played."

Going into this year, Narron knows where his team needs to improve.

"Yogi (Berra) would say half the game is 90 percent pitching," he laughs. "We've got to make sure in Cincinnati the pitching improves. The ability is there, we just have got to get the most out of it.

"The thing when I was in Texas and now in Cincinnati is they are offensive-oriented teams," he continues. "They scored a lot of runs, but gave up a lot of runs. It's kind of funny because I believe in pitching. You need to have a balance of offense and pitching, but look at Houston. They had three outstanding starters and perhaps the best closer in baseball, but were last in offense. Last year, we were first in offense and last in pitching. How did it end up? They were in the World Series and we went home in October."

He thinks his Reds can compete, but realizes it won't be easy.

"We play in one of the most competitive divisions in Major League Baseball," he says. "The Cardinals are outstanding. The Cubs are talented, have good pitching and are expecting to contend. The Astros made the World Series this past year with three No. 1 starters and one of the best closers in baseball, and the Brewers and Pirates have made improvements -- the Pirates have probably made the most improvements over the winter.

"We need to get the most out of everyone. July and August showed we can compete, but we need to do it for six months."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Quotes from Reds players Aaron Harang and Ryan Freel and some biographical information were provided courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds.