A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
White Wants To Be Taken Seriously: Ex-Royal Can Manage In Class AA, But He Still Wants To Go Somewhere
Frank White WICHITA
WICHITA— There’s a joke Frank White likes to tell at banquets. It’s not a very funny joke. People tend to smile politely when he tells it. Then, laughs are not the point.
A rabbit is hopping through the woods when he comes across a squirrel lounging in a tree. The squirrel is doing absolutely nothing.
“Hey,” the rabbit says. “I want to do nothing, too.”
“OK,” the squirrel says. “Lie down next to the tree, and we’ll do nothing together.”
The rabbit lies down. They chat for a while about how great it is to do nothing. They both fall asleep. Then, a fox comes along and eats the rabbit.
That’s it. That’s the whole joke.
The punch line is this: If you want to do nothing, you better be pretty high up.
Frank White will have his infield practice. A rumor swirls around that infield practice has been canceled. It is about 108 degrees on the turf infield in Wichita, and ominous dark clouds roll in over the Metropolitan Baptist Church behind the left-field wall, and this is Class AA baseball. They are expecting only about 1,000 people to show up for tonight’s Wichita-Arkansas game even though it is apparently alcoholics night at the ballpark — $2 jack and cokes before the game, $1 Rolling Rocks all game long.
So, everybody seems pretty eager to believe the whole infield-practice-is-canceled rumor. A guy in a turf Zamboni machine drives out to clean up the infield.
Frank White flags down the driver and barks, “We’re having infield.”
He then slits his finger across his neck in case the message didn’t cut through the roar and static of the turf sweeper. The driver quickly rides off.
Nobody — not even his closest friends — fully understands what Frank White is doing here. This is his second year as manager of the Wichita Wranglers. He came here, he has told everybody, because he wants to manage in the big leagues. He hopes this experience will help him get that chance. That seems pretty straightforward.
But there’s something more going on here. Frank White lives in a two-bedroom apartment close to ancient Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. He gets to the ballpark at 11:30 every morning, leaves the ballpark at 12:30 every night. He spends his time in between writing reports, listening to a hundred voice mails, writing more reports, dealing with a nervous trainer, leaving a hundred voice mails, getting into the red uniform, throwing batting practice, talking to talk-radio hosts, sweating, working with his coaches, getting out of the red uniform, writing more reports and, oh yeah, managing 23 timid, brash, naïve, weary, hopeful, baseball players who want only one thing: to get the heck out of Wichita.
“Hey Dude,” pitcher J.P. Howell said to Frank White on his first day in Wichita.
“It’s Frank,” White said with a sharp edge to his voice. “Or Skipper. Or Skip. You don’t call your manager ‘Dude.’ If you want to make it to the major leagues, you need to act like a major-leaguer.”
We haven’t even mentioned the long, long bus rides yet.
No, you don’t leave your wife and kids and hometown when you’re 54 years old just to get noticed. Everybody already knows Frank White anyway. The man played 18 years in the big leagues, he won eight Gold Gloves, he played in five All-Star Games, he batted cleanup in the World Series. He also coached for the Royals and the Boston Red Sox, worked in the Royals’ front office; he was a manager for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. His uniform No. 20 is one of three retired by the Royals.
“Look, here’s the obvious point,” Royals general manager Allard Baird says. “A person who has done everything in the game like Frank White does not need to be managing in Double-A.”
And yet, in a strange way, he does need to be here.
“I just want to be taken seriously,” Frank says.
You see, Frank White is no rabbit.
A Wichita pitcher named Brian Bass is getting rocked, and the few hundred people in the stands are yelling at Frank White. He hears them, of course. Frank has had good hearing around baseball stadiums ever since he first came up to play for the Royals. He was a Kansas City kid, of course. He went to Lincoln High, right behind Municipal Stadium. He used to sit high in the football stands and watch Kansas City A’s games while eating Arthur Bryant’s French fries and sipping Vess Cola.
Then, he worked at the Metal Protection Plating Company, he tried out for the Royals, he went to the Baseball Academy, he fielded a million ground balls in the Florida dust, he worked through the minor leagues, he made it all the way to the big leagues, all the way back to Kansas City. And, first thing, he heard boos. The fans were booing White because he was a replacing an aging darling, Cookie Rojas. Fans can’t let go of their old heroes. In his heart, White understood that.
Still, he never forgot the sound of those boos.
That’s not to say he’s bitter, because that’s not right at all. Frank will tell you how great his life has been, how great his life is right now. No, let’s just say he’s leery. He often says he only expected one thing his whole life — and that was a Gold Glove in 1988. It would have been his ninth Gold Glove, which would have set a record for second basemen. He made just four errors that year. He set a place on his mantel for the award.
They gave the Gold Glove to Harold Reynolds who made 18 errors.
“I said to myself, ‘You are so stupid — you should never expect anything,’ ” White says. “You can’t always count on people to do you right. I’ve never expected anything since then.”
The Rolling Rocks are kicking in as the sky darkens and Brian Bass keeps giving up hits. The fans shout at White, “Do you know anything about baseball?” and “Are you ever going to get someone to warm up?” They do not understand. Frank White wants to win, but his job is first to develop these players, and Brian Bass is a prospect. Bass has to get in his innings. He has to learn how to work through these kinds of jams.
Then someone yells, “No wonder you didn’t get the Royals job.”
Frank’s face remains passive. Maybe he didn’t hear that. Maybe he did.
There’s a reason few great players manage in the minor leagues. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt went to the minors to try managing for a year – he barely made it the full year. The grind never lets up. The bus ride to Corpus Christi is 13 hours. The roving hitting instructor is coming in next week. More reports are due. Some guy loaded up on jack and coke yells at you from behind the bench. A horse mascot named Wilbur trots by.
You know who is drawn to this kind of job? Minor-league lifers. Major-league journeymen. Mostly these are men who still have the itch, still have that burning ambition they never quenched as players. Put it this way: Frank White played 2,324 major-league games. The seven other managers in the Texas League played 2,440 games combined. Midland’s Von Hayes, a one-time All-Star who was once traded for five players, is probably the only one you would know.
“The thing about me is I have no ego,” White says. “I’ve seen guys who have had great careers, they don’t listen, they don’t work. They feel like they have nothing left to prove. I’m not like that. I’m not going to go around and say, ‘I’m Frank White.’ ”
You see, Frank White is no squirrel either.
A cute little girl is getting an autograph from Wichita third baseman Brennan King, which does not sound unusual except she is getting it on the field during the game. This is the “Get an autograph from a third baseman” promotion which, so far anyway, has not swept the nation.
In truth, the promotions and gimmicks are fairly tame in Wichita. There’s the occasional shattered glass sound effect on foul balls. But it’s not like other Texas League parks where they still have fans play that spinny-bat game; they spin around a bat several times and then stumble around as if they were hit on the head with rolling pins.
Anyway, Frank says he doesn’t even notice that stuff anymore.
Still, there’s never a moment when he forgets he’s in the minor leagues.
“The first time I meet with the players,” he says, “I tell them, ‘If you want to be here at the end of the year, you’re in the wrong place.”
White feels that way, too. He likes his players. He likes teaching. He says the Royals treat him well.
“I don’t want it to sound like I’m not happy,” he says. “I am happy. I’m grateful to the Royals. I’m in charge. I’m making a difference in this organization. … But obviously, if I had my choice, I’d be a manager or bench coach in the major leagues.”
Which leads to the obvious: He wanted an interview for the Royals job. Shortly after Tony Peña resigned, White heard that Royals ownership wanted a manager with major-league experience. He understood that.
“I think anyone who has been around baseball can appreciate that you would like a manager who has been there before,” he says. “And I think Buddy Bell’s good. I think if everyone stays with the plan, he will be very good.”
Still, White really wanted an interview. He did not get one. That did hurt.
“If I would have just gotten an interview, I would have been happy because that would have shown they take me seriously,” White says. “But now, the Royals job has come open twice, and I didn’t get an interview either time. I think that sends a pretty clear message.”
Baird says that he didn’t interview White because it would have been all show.
“We were going to hire someone with big-league experience,” he says. “To me, it would have been disrespectful to Frank to bring him in for an interview when he was not going to be a serious candidate for the job. I have too much respect for him to do that.
“I believe Frank will be a big-league manager. I think tactically, he can do it. He’s great working with people. He has experience in all parts of the game, and he has a presence. I have called around baseball about Frank — everybody knows how much we think of him.”
“I’ve been with the Royals for so long,” he says. “What is it that people say? You always hurt the ones closest to you. Maybe I’m too close. I don’t know.”
The thing that bothered White the most, though, was when some people – some of them former teammates – said that he could hurt his legacy if he became Royals manager.
That infuriated him. Here he is in Wichita, away from his wife, Teresa, away from his kids, away from his town. He is, as one Royals executive put it, “working his butt off.” And people are out there spouting about his legacy?
“That killed me,” he says. “What do people want me to do, stop living? I’m alive now. I’m working. Look, I could get fired as easily down here as I could up there. It’s the same players. The same organization.
“I’m not living in the past, not living off what I did as a player. I don’t think I’m as big as some other people must think. George (Brett) is the Royals player people consider an icon. I’m not an icon. I was just a good player who grew up in Kansas City. It’s like people really don’t know what I’m doing down here. It’s like they don’t know me at all.”
There are days, every so often, when everything backs up on Frank White, and he has to drive home, see Teresa, sleep in his own bed, remind himself why he’s doing all this. He always wakes up ready to go again, though. He has given himself five years.
“Maybe when I was a player, people didn’t see my competitive side,” White says. “Maybe people just didn’t know how much I wanted to win.”
White still wants to win games. His Wranglers were 33-35 going into the weekend, and he desperately wanted a couple of wins to get back to .500 for the first half. Still, he knows the job. Just this year, he has worked with Ambiorix Burgos, Leo Nuñez, Shane Costa and J.P. Howell — and all four are in the big leagues helping the Royals.
“The best part of this job is telling someone they’re going to the big leagues,” he says. “They don’t believe you at first. But then their eyes get real big. Sometimes, I’ve seen them cry. It’s good to be able to say, ‘Big guy, you’re going up. Make us proud.’ It’s good to be able to tell someone that his dream is coming true.
And what about Frank White’s dream? Well, there are still 3 1/2 years left to make them happen. He doesn’t expect it will be with Kansas City. But he still has his hopes to become a big-league manager. He still believes he can be successful in this game. See, in Frank White’s joke, the hero is not the squirrel that does nothing high in the tree. And it’s obviously not the rabbit that falls asleep and gets eaten by the fox.
No, the hero is the fox. He’s the one willing to work for what he deserves.