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The Poor Luck and Very Unfortunate Excommunication of James Bradley Mills

by Andy

Brad Mills got fired on Saturday.

But you already knew that.

I always feel bad when someone gets fired – it’s not fun, and it’s pretty humiliating. Put yourself in their shoes – all parties involved: it’s not fun to get fired, and it’s definitely not fun to fire someone. It’s difficult for both sides. But, in the business world, absolutely, it is a necessary evil. Business is a series of trials and errors… and when there’s an error, you have to acknowledge it and fix it.

When you fire someone for non-disciplinary reasons, it’s almost like breaking up with a girl (or guy) that you don’t want to hurt. “Brad, it’s not you, it’s me.” You look the person in the eye, let the person know that they took on a very difficult undertaking and tell them you’re aware that there wasn’t any issue with effort or motivation – and, then you drop the bomb: you say, “I think a change of scenery is best… for the both of us. We need to shake things up so we can succeed, and we know that you’ll ultimately benefit in a different situation.”

…then you discreetly call security and have him escorted out of the building.

…and then you change the locks.

I’m not sure how the Brad Mills firing went down – I’ve been fired before, but each firing has its own individual nuances. Perhaps Jeff Luhnow called Brad Mills, Mike Barnett and Bobby Meacham into his office, threw a chair in their direction and screamed, “YOU! YOU! AND YOU! YOU’RE ALL FIRED! PACK YOUR (expletive)! GET THE (expletive) OUT OF MY OFFICE!”

Maybe Luhnow called all three firees into his office where they found Luhnow wearing a purple genie hat and holding a plain white envelope to his forehead a la The Great Carsoni. “Brad Mills,” Luhnow began in his best Johnny Carson voice, “Mike Barnett, Bobby Meacham and Lindsay Lohan after the bartender announces last call,” Luhnow’s Ed McMahon, George Postolos, may have boisterously repeated Carsoni word for word, obviously to Carsoni’s annoyance. Maybe the three coaches looked at one another and shrugged as Luhnow slowly opened the envelope. And then the punchline, “Who are four people that need to turn in their keys?”

Or maybe Jeff Luhnow went the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air route and employed the “Will Doesn’t Meet Oprah” firing method. Maybe Luhnow had all of the coaches lined up and said, “Okay, everyone who is coaching tomorrow, step forward.” As each coach took a step in unison, Jeff may have said, “Not so fast, Brad, Mike and Bobby.”

Either way, firing people isn’t fun. While there might be fun ways of doing it, we all (including Mills) know that Jeff Luhnow handled it in a professional and respectful manner. Even though some might have issue with the timing, there’s never really an appropriate time to tell someone that you’re better off without them. Bad news is bad news regardless of the time of day. Luhnow could have waited until the end of the season, but, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter either way.

Mills isn’t embarrassed.

Firing Mills is like firing your mechanic because your 1983 Honda Accord won’t start.

Mills isn’t embarrassed because everyone knew what he was up against. Mills knew that this situation was going to be a constant uphill battle. The Astros had severe organizational deficiencies and had a meddling owner who espoused the “slash-and-burn” method of farm system building and development. The 2011 Astros, which was the worst team the franchise had ever fielded, wasn’t a year or two in the making – the 2011 Houston Astros’ collapse, death, burial and decomposition was a direct result of intentional neglect and an irresponsible series of critical errors over a significant period of time. Brad Mills knew this and Ed Wade likely explained it during the interview process. “You know what you’re getting yourself into, right?” The Astros were severely flawed way before Brad Mills was hired. (…as the bench coach for the Red Sox in 2004.)  

Basically, the Astros ownership and baseball operations pooped in a mixing bowl, presented it to Brad Mills and kindly asked him to bake a cake.

It wasn’t going to happen.

“This cake tastes like crap, Brad. You’re fired!”

He was hired in 2010 and, truth be told, the organization had some major league talent, but, truth be told, they definitely weren’t good enough to compete for a playoff spot. In July of that year, Roy Oswalt was unceremoniously traded to Philadelphia and that move started a series of big league defections that would eventually deteriorate the roster and transform the Astros into a collection of underperforming journeymen and uprooted, unproven minor leaguers.

Simply put, Brad Mills never had a chance because he was never given the tools to succeed.

The Wallace Fallacy

I haven’t completely bought into the notion that Mills was fired for how he handled the line-up – namely, Brett Wallace’s constant absence from the line-up. The reason why I don’t think this theory holds water is because I am quite certain that Brad Mills understood and was well aware of Jeff Luhnow’s expectations. Furthermore, I’m also fairly certain that Luhnow and Mills had a reasonably healthy line of communication and Luhnow had no reservation, and likely felt obligated, to communicate any concerns that he had over the line-up or pitching match-ups, defensive alignments or any other strategic aspect of the game.

When Jeff Luhnow was hired, he brought in many of his own guys. These are guys who espouse a specific statistical analysis method and Brad Mills knew this – because he reads The Chronicle and various Astros blogs. Whether Brad Mills was already a sabermetrics guy is peripheral, he likely hit the books and picked the brains of those who Luhnow hired to surround him. Perhaps Mills wasn’t the statistical savant that Luhnow will eventually hire – but Mills was likely no slouch and worked at this philosophy as if his job depended on it.

The only way this theory could make sense is if Brad Mills intentionally defied Luhnow’s wishes. If Luhnow said, “hey, you need to play Brett Wallace” and Mills responded with a “Go (bleep) yourself, I do what I want,” then that would have been an issue. But had that have happened, Mills would have been fired long ago.

After all, Luhnow was the one who kept Brett Wallace in Oklahoma City when every Astros blogger and fan was begging for his promotion. Jeff Luhnow is also guilty of not playing Brett Wallace.

Had Luhnow wanted Wallace to play, he would have been playing.

The reason behind the firing

In the business world, whether you’re a big league manager or a fry-cook at a Popeyes, when the person who hired you is no longer with the company – you need to update your resumé because there is a realistic possibility that the your job isn’t secure. There’s a reason behind this, too – it’s because when a manager (or in this case, a general manager) starts a new job, he understands that his job is being critiqued from the word “go”, and he’s under pressure to yield the results that were set forth by his boss. Although he hasn’t been on the job for a full year, Jeff Luhnow’s job is on the line. It is imperative that Jeff Luhnow surrounds himself with his guys because if he succeeds or fails, he must do it on his terms and not compromise or customize his strategy for a staff he hasn’t hired.

If you’re going to go down in flames, it’s best to do it on your own terms.

If Luhnow’s plan is going to be success and if he’s going to meet Jim Crane’s expectations, he needs to implement his own resources, his own philosophy and his own people – otherwise, it’s not his plan. Jeff Luhnow needed to take ownership of this organization. And removing the remnants of the last regime was essential for Luhnow’s plan.  

When Luhnow interviewed for the general manager position, he presented Jim Crane and George Postolos with a 37 page outline centered on his plan for the Houston Astros – you gotta imagine that “Fire Brad Mills and hire my own guy” was mixed in somewhere in the first few pages. Luhnow needs the organization and fans to buy into his plan – it’s hard to buy into a plan that has all of the old parts from the old plan.

Brad Mills wasn’t Luhnow’s guy.     

At the beginning of the season, Mills and Luhnow likely had a discussion where Luhnow asked Mills what he thought he could do with the club. “A winning season?” Luhnow likely asked. “Possibly.” Knowing that he wasn’t Luhnow’s guy, Mills knew that he’d be held to a higher standard, and he’d likely need a miracle to retain his job. A winning season would have been that miracle. Maybe Mills’ ego convinced him that he could do it.

Without a doubt, had the Astros been able to finish the season at or above .500, Brad Mills would have kept his job. In the end, he wasn’t even close. He was fired after the 82nd loss of the season, a loss that clinched another losing season for the Houston Astros.     

Relieved: Literally

Early Saturday night, I imagine Brad Mills sat in his lonely office, longing to go home to drown himself in a bottle of Rebel Yell and capping the night off by unloading his medicine cabinet down his throat and give way to cold black relief… then, something magical happened – a reason to live! Brad Mills was saved by the ringing phone and the subsequent, “Brad, can I see you in my office?” from the angelic voice of St. Jeffrey Luhnow. A coup de grâce! …and, for Mills, everything changed. The clouds parted, the sun came out, trumpets belted out a beautiful song, butterflies fluttered and unicorns… do whatever unicorns do. Maybe violated each other with that wacky horn?

Brad Mills probably loved his job but hated what it was doing to him. He probably had jumbo ulcers the size of Carlos Lee eating away at his stomach. He probably had night sweats and probably watched Brian’s Song to cheer himself up. Luhnow said that Mills expressed a sense of relief once he was dismissed – and, it’s not at all surprising. Mills had waited years, paid his dues and finally became a big league manager… and then, as quickly as things started, things went down the toilet. This was quite a letdown but probably not at all what he thought it’d be. 

When Luhnow was hired, Mills had to have known his goose was cooked.  He was given unrealistic expectations and was waiting impatiently for the inevitable – his dismissal and excommunication from the Houston Astros.

The Astros going Ol’ Yeller on Mills was talked about all year and it was expected. Whether the timing was right or not, Mills knew that something extraordinary would need to occur to keep his job. When Luhnow started selling pieces of the roster for prospects, Mills’ hopes, and his Astros career, circled the drain. Dashed!

The pressure. The stress. The waiting. More stress. More pressure. Trade. Trade. Trade. The losing. The losing. The losing. The losing. More losing. And even more losing. …it was all too much for Brad Mills.

And, to be fair, it would have been too much for anyone.

On Saturday, he was fired. Correction: he was relieved.

Starting anew… again.

Brad Mills is going to be fine. He’ll land on his feet. He’ll get another opportunity. A friend, a fan of the Red Sox, sent me a text message the morning after the firing and expressed his desire for Mills to replace Bobby Valentine… which really doesn’t mean a whole lot other than people understand that he’s a good baseball man.

His reputation isn’t ruined.

My guess is that Mills finds a spot as a bench coach somewhere and ends up getting another shot to manage a big league team sometime soon. I think the rest of the league is well aware of the dysfunction that is the Houston Astros and that they’re willing to look past the three years he spent in Houston. …a “Mill”agan, if you will.

As far as the vacant management position – it could be anyone. I’ve heard Tony LaRussa, Jose Oquendo, Joey Cora, Dave Martinez, Tony Pena and Brad Ausmus. I’d love to see Brad Ausmus hired, but I doubt that happens. History suggests that Luhnow will hire someone with ties to the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Ultimately, I think Luhnow hires someone young and maybe someone most folks haven’t heard too much about.

Jeff Luhnow is running out of excuses and the pressure is on. He has quickly surrounded himself with his guys and now has fully engrossed the organization within his plan. He’ll eventually hire his guy and now questions and criticisms will start to trickle his way unless the Astros are able to turn it around. While the honeymoon isn’t already over, Astros fans are now starting to wonder whether Luhnow can still fit into last year’s wedding dress. While fans realize that Luhnow is starting over, there will need to be some concrete examples of progress sometime in the near future, wins – we’re not going to be able to use the last regime as an excuse too much longer.

My guess is that Luhnow is up for the challenge. I like the direction of the organization, and I believe Luhnow’s plan will work. Truth be told, I’m not totally sure what his plan is – but I’ve met him, I’ve met some of the people he’s hired and I’m convinced that he’s going to do huge things for the Astros.

In order to cook a delicious Astros omelet, Luhnow is going to need to break a few eggs. And, from the moment he was hired, Luhnow had his eyes on Brad Mills’ eggs.  

Firing people isn’t fun – but, as has been the theme for the last year, this is a chance to start anew.

Starting anew.

Again. 

 

Posted at 2:08pm

 


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