A virtual unknown outside of his own organization, John Boles was named to the helm of the Marlins for the second time in the team’s short history when Jim Leyland left to manage the Colorado Rockies after Florida’s disastrous 54-108 season in 1998. Two years earlier, Leyland had been lured away from Pittsburgh to replace Boles and immediately led the Marlins to the franchise’s first World Series championship. But when an offseason purge left the team gutted, Leyland walked away and Boles — ever the company man — was asked to take over the moribund Marlins squad.
Boles’ first managerial job in the pros came with the White Sox Rookie League club in 1981 and within five years the former White Sox fan had worked his way up to Triple-A.
Working for the White Sox was a homecoming of sorts for Boles, who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago. In September 1959, he had accompanied his father to Midway Airport to welcome home the pennant-winning “Go-Go Sox,” led by Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox.
But Boles never reached the majors with his hometown team. Ironically, Tony LaRussa had wanted him to replace Jim Leyland as the Sox’ third-base coach when Leyland was hired to manage the Pirates in 1985, but LaRussa was overruled by Ken Harrelson, then the team’s director of baseball operations. Harrelson hired Doug Rader, and Boles left the White Sox to become the Royals’ Director of Player Development under John Schuerholz. In 1989 he moved to Montreal, accepting an administrative position under Expos’ GM Dave Dombrowski.
When Dombrowski moved to the expansion Marlins in 1991, Boles followed as the club’s first Vice President of Player Development. In 1996, he got his first chance to manage at the major-league level when skipper Rene Lachemann was canned in mid-season. Boles made the most of his opportunity — his 40-35 record with the Marlins made him the club’s first manager with a winning record.
A stickler for rules, Boles banned earrings and facial hair in the minors but still earned the respect of many of his players — including the temperamental Gary Sheffield, who didn’t complain when Boles once benched him for showing up 50 minutes late for a game. In 1998, an awed Mark Kotsay called him “the most intimidating person I’ve ever met in my life.” (“I’m not Attila the Hun,” insisted Boles, who that spring allowed prospect A.J. Burnett to wear his trademark nipple rings in spring training.) Said first-base coach Rusty Kuntz, who played for the White Sox when Boles was managing in their minor-league system: “I’ve been around four great managers in my life. They are Tony LaRussa, Tom Kelly, Sparky Anderson, and John Boles.”
Despite his short-term success, Boles lacked the pedigree to lead H. Wayne Huizenga’s band of mercenary All-Stars into battle for the 1997 season. That honor went to Leyland, who responded with a wild-card berth and a World Series win as Boles watched from the front office. But under pressure from Huizenga — who wanted to sell the team — the club was quickly dismantled. After what Boles would later call an “excruciating” season Leyland resigned, leaving Boles with the thankless task of bringing what had become one of the worst teams in baseball back to respectability.
Boles’ Marlins showed flashes of talent, but were too inexperienced to contend in the competitive NL East. As the team struggled, Boles lost the respect of his players. Just days after reliever Dan Miceli ripped the Florida field staff in May 2001 for their lack of playing experience, Boles was replaced by Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who had been serving as a special assistant in the Marlins’ front office. “I wish I had been a better player, because this wouldn’t be happening,” said Boles.