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Originally published October 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 23, 2007 at 4:37 PM

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Former M's manager not scratching baseball's itch

The famous red pickup truck, Mike Hargrove's retirement present to himself, sits in the driveway. The souped-up Harley is in the garage...

Seattle Times staff reporter

RICHFIELD, Ohio -- The famous red pickup truck, Mike Hargrove's retirement present to himself, sits in the driveway. The souped-up Harley is in the garage.

Inside the Hargroves' sprawling suburban Cleveland home, Mike and his wife, Sharon, are monuments to relaxation, while everyone else around them freaks out over the sudden demise of the Indians.

Sharon notes that Mike looks like he's 10 years younger since he stepped down as Mariners manager July 1. Mike can't argue, having found out that a life free of second-guessers and agonizing defeats has an undeniable rejuvenating power.

Mind you, life isn't all clambakes (they had one last week on their newly remodeled deck) and family get-togethers (all their children and grandchildren gather each Sunday for dinner and hugs).

Hargrove said he agonized right along with his successor, John McLaren, when the Mariners' season that had started so promisingly under his watch disintegrated in August and September.

"I was sick to my stomach. I really was," Hargrove said Monday. "I knew what they were going through. I knew how much they cared. All of them."

But as he checked the scores nightly on his cellphone -- Hargrove says he never once went to sleep without finding out the Mariners' score, which with the time difference could bring him into the wee hours -- he had the solace of knowing the buck didn't stop with him.

"I was real glad I didn't have to feel the way they were feeling, but I came real close to feeling that way for them," he said.

The Hargroves are finding out there is indeed a good life after baseball -- one that for the first time in nearly 40 years is not guided by the strictures of the major-league calendar.

When he and Sharon jumped into the pickup -- Retirement Red, they dubbed it -- after stunning the baseball world with word he was walking away from the Mariners, they were thrilled to meander at their pace. If that meant checking out of one hotel on the Oregon Coast, driving for two hours, and checking into another hotel, so be it.

"I told Sharon, this is the first time I've ever taken a trip that I didn't have to be somewhere at a certain time," Hargrove related. "I said, it's kind of neat."

There has been no second-guessing by either Hargrove of Mike's decision to walk away from a Mariners team he had unexpectedly guided into contention.

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And certainly, there is no wavering from Hargrove's day-one insistence that there was no ulterior motive, no conspiracy theory, no health issues, no Ichiro feud, nothing sinister at all, that fueled him to walk away.

It was, he says for the umpteenth time, what it was -- a man weary of being away from his family and unable to muster the commitment he demanded from players.

"To be in the game 35 years and have it end so fast, but to still be able to watch it, enjoy it, not feel sad about it, not feel scared about it, just feel at peace about it, is wonderful," Sharon observed of Mike, who turns 58 Sunday. "To leave without bitter feelings, or frustrated feelings about being kicked out -- there's nothing like that."

On Sunday, however, Sharon felt the familiar pangs of anxiety creeping into her psyche for the first time since they arrived back home July 27.

It had been a cleansing trip, with stops in Southern California to watch their son, Andy, play minor-league ball; in New Mexico to check out a cabin they purchased 30 years ago but rarely got to visit; in Perryton, Texas, where Mike and Sharon became high-school sweethearts; and in Liberal, Kan., where the seeds were sown that resulted in Hargrove accepting the job to manage the semipro Liberal BeeJays next summer.

The ensuing two months had included a relaxing regimen of golf, family, household renovation, travel and, for Mike, a dabbling into broadcasting as a playoff analyst on a local TV station.

But Sunday, a knot started to reveal itself in Sharon's stomach -- inexplicable until she had time to reflect while driving alone to church.

She realized that part of the stress was because of the impending Game 7 facing the Indians, a team to which the Hargroves had devoted so much of their lives while Mike served them as player, manager and executive.

"I could just feel how all the players were feeling, and how Eric Wedge was feeling today," she said. "I was feeling anxious about the Tribe."

But more telling was the fact friends had begun to nudge the Hargroves with inquiries about the recent Yankees' managerial opening.

"It came to me that my anxiousness was from people calling Mike and saying, 'Hey, what if the Yankees call you? What are you going to do?' I was just thinking, I haven't felt that way since July 1," Sharon said.

For all the enjoyment Hargrove is getting in being away from the dugout, he admits managing isn't out of his blood. The Reds' job across the state, recently filled by Dusty Baker, mildly piqued his curiosity. The Yankees' job intrigues him even more.

"I don't think they will call, but if they did, I'd have to listen," he said. "The Yankee job is the pinnacle of the profession. I have the itch to do it again. I really do. But it would really have to be the right thing."

Hargrove knows he can't guarantee the same feelings that led him to walk away once wouldn't reappear in a new situation. But he also can't help but wonder, like so many other Northwest athletes and coaches, if sheer geographic isolation wasn't a factor in his feelings.

"I'm certainly not waiting by the phone with bated breath," he said.

One of the phone calls that meant the most to him after he walked away came from former Yankees manager Joe Torre, who wanted to make sure all was well with the Hargroves.

"We got tons and tons of phone calls, and you could tell the people that really cared about you," Hargrove said. "The first thing out of their mouths was, I don't care that you've done it, I just want to know you and Sharon and the kids are OK, no one's sick. Which meant a lot to me."

The Hargroves eventually discovered that among those befuddled over their decision was their five children, ranging in age from Kim, 33, to Shelly, who graduated from high school last June.

During one family gathering, the entire younger generation sat on the couch, and for the first time delved into their parents' life change.

"We realized that none of our kids had any closure on what happened," Sharon said. "All their information was from ESPN, or whatever they happened to read in the paper. You don't have the energy when you're going through that to call five kids and explain everything.

"It was really neat. We spent about two hours, with Mike telling them how he felt, why he decided to do it, and answering questions."

Hargrove's baseball life is chronicled here in a trophy room overflowing with memorabilia from his playing and managerial career. The latest artifact arrived recently, courtesy of the Mariners -- the lineup card from his final game, signed by the entire team.

The Hargroves sometimes ponder if Mike would have been offered a long-term extension, in light of how the team was thriving. They also wonder if he would have been fired if the season had ended how it did with him in charge.

While the severity of the team's plummet surprised him, Hargrove admits he feared rough times might be coming.

"I really didn't think the team overachieved at all," he said. "But I felt it was inevitable they would be streaky, because of the starting pitching. I also felt like the chances of them closing it out were slim because of how much the bullpen had to be used. I'm not excluding myself from that."

Hargrove is still coping with the various signposts of the season that go on without him -- like the organizational meetings that follow every season, and the upcoming winter meetings.

"I'm really curious about how I'm going to feel come the middle of February," he said about the start of spring training. "You might see me in Peoria. I told Bill [Bavasi] when I left, I may show up in spring training. He said, 'We want you to. Any time you want to come.' "

No question, Hargrove still has the baseball itch. But it's hard to complain about the anxiety-free life of a civilian, either.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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