Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Lightning 12.27.2009

  • Lessons from Lombardi:

Having just finished reading That First Season, by John Eisenberg detailing Vince Lombardi's inaugural year as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, I got to thinking how his strategies are still applicable today.

Even though times have changed drastically from the days of virtually non-existent salaries and the equivalent of indentured servitude that professional athletes endured in the 1950s and 60s, there is still much to be learned from the success of the greats from that era. One such great from that time was the Hall of Fame football coach Lombardi.

Lombardi took what had been a perennial doormat in the NFL----the Green Bay Packers----and molded them into the most dominant and successful team in the league winning five championships in nine years including the first two Super Bowls; but what was even more stunning was how he took what was basically the same team from 1958 and had gone 1-10-1 and turned them around to 7-5 in one year.

How did he do it and how are those lessons still applicable in any sport, including baseball? Let's take a look:


Lombardi wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't have full autonomy to do whatever he wanted with any and all players. If that meant cutting or trading what had been the most recognizable and best player, then so be it. He didn't want to deal with what was the equivalent of a College of Cardinals in the Packers' executive board which oversaw the publicly owned company that was the Packers. Once he was free of the interference of the know-it-alls on the board, he was able to dispatch players who he felt were either divisive forces or wouldn't be of much use once the team was ready to contend for a title.

The player that Lombardi used for those purposes was star wide receiver Billy Howton. Howton had been the leader on and off the field, such as a leader is for a team that in so horrific that they only won one game; but Howton was loud, arrogant and insolent----the perfect candidate to be thrown out the door at the first opportunity, and that's exactly what Lombardi did by trading Howton to the Browns.

Part of the idea behind the deal was to send the message that no one in the organization was safe; but Lombardi was smart enough to get something of use for Howton in defensive end Bill Quinlan. The player he got back was important, but not as important and the stamp he put on his club by sending a shock through the entire locker room that times were different; that Lombardi was running things. Period.

The days of a manager/coach having that kind of power to run off a player unilaterally are over in every sport. One only has to look back to Jimmy Johnson's failed tenure as Dolphins coach to understand that. Johnson's main regret from that time was that he wanted to get rid of Dan Marino and didn't; it was the right thing to do for the club and for himself----but for whatever reason, he tried to scotch tape a team together as quickly as possible with Marino and it didn't work.

Was it fear? Was it resistance from ownership or the fans? Or was it that he didn't have the guts to do what was right? We'll never know, but he should've coldly pulled the plug on Marino and moved on.

With players being so well-compensated and, in baseball, having no-trade clauses in their contracts, there's no way for a manager to exert his will over the players in the same manner as Lombardi did; but the manager must have the backing of ownership if he's going to maintain respect in the clubhouse. You need only look at the managers who've been successful for the longest time and get the most out of their clubs to understand how important the respect/fear factor is.

Joe Torre rules by force of reputation and personality; the players know who's in charge.

Tony La Russa has heavy say-so over his roster and if he decides that a player isn't going to play for whatever reason, then the player isn't going to play.

Ron Gardenhire has that hammer in Minnesota with the Twins----if you don't play and behave the Twins way, not only are you not going to play, at the first opportunity, you're going to be gone.

One of the biggest issues I had with Moneyball was the relegation of the imperative job of field manager to little more than a conduit for upper management to dictate what happens on the field. I don't care how strong the personality of the front office boss is, he can't be with the players 24/7 running the club in the trenches. If the players know that the manager is adisposable entity who can be overridden at any time by the GM, why should any star player buy into what he says? Why listen to him? Why respect him?

The manager must have some power or it can't work.


If the players aren't in shape, they can't perform up to their capabilities. And I'm not talking about some new age workout regimen that will get the players hurt.

See Brian Cashman's hiring and almost immediate firing of Marty Miller as Director of Performance Enhancement----whatever that is----in 2007 and relenting to Torre's and the players' concerns that Miller's techniques weren't applicable to baseball. Numerous players got hurt under Miller, specifically to their hamstrings and backs. Cashman has always been susceptible to anyone who walked up to him with a chart or graph that looked good on paper, so his hiring of a baseball neophyte like Miller should come as no surprise.

Players being in shape during Lombardi's era meant that they were able to execute their assignments with as much precision in the fourth quarter as they could in the first. That had nothing to do with planning; that had to do with being in shape; and Lombardi's players were in shape or they were gone.

It takes very little effort to run hard to first base; to be in the proper defensive position. I'm convinced that most pitchers injuries occur not due to mechanical flaws, but due to physical exhaustion. Once a pitcher is tired, he loses his proper mechanics; once he loses his proper mechanics (not using his legs and hips as much as he did earlier in the game) more stress is placed on his arm and injuries occur. That's not due to throwing too many pitches; that's due to not being in shape to complete his motion correctly.

Lombardi ran his players into the ground like they were in the Marines in that first year for several reasons. One was to get the players ready; the other was to find out who was committed to the cause; and if they weren't, they were dispatched.

Flexibility with rules:

Everyone knows the dirty little secret that Albert Pujols could walk up to Tony La Russa and punch him in the face and the main concern of the club (and La Russa) would be whether Pujols hurt his wrist or broke his hand; and that if David Freese did the same thing, Freese would be playing in Taiwan.

The old saying of "remember the golden rule----he who has the gold makes the rules" was in effect during Lombardi's day in a different way. The players weren't making big money, but if it was a star player without whom the team couldn't win, they were allowed certain liberties in the interest of the greater good. Of course that was kept quiet.

There was one such player named Bobby Dillon. Dillon was a defensive back who had retired after the 1958 season, but it didn't take long for Lombardi to realize that he needed Dillon to come back. Dillon initially refused until training camp was nearly over when he gave in and returned. Lombardi tried to exert his will and maintain the rules for Dillion by informing the player that he'd have to be fined for every day he missed camp. Dillon, stunned and enraged, told Lombardi said he wasn't paying a fine because he hadn't been holding out; not only that, if that was Lombardi's attitude, he wasn't coming back. Lombardi gave in for expediency, but not before getting it straight with Dillon that if anyone asked, he'd been fined just like everyone else.

Was it ethical?

Was it living up to some spartan code of "everyone treated the same"?

No, but it was smart because he needed Dillon and needed to maintain the veneer that he'd worked so hard to erect with the other players ofan incorruptible force who treated player one just as he treated player 36.

One would've thought that a devout Catholic like Lombardi would've run off the wild partiers before he'd even taken off his camel-hair coat and fedora; but those players----Paul Hornung and Max McGee especially----were imperative to the team. Hornung's after-hours partying was legendary for the time (it mostly consisted of drinking and chasing women), but on Sunday, he was always ready to do anything and everything to win, from running to throwing to catching to blocking and kicking field goals. His off-hours activities didn't matter to Lombardi as long as he didn't do anything to make the team look bad.

As long as the players didn't embarrass the club, were on time, paid attention and played like hell when it was time, he couldn't have cared less what they were doing off the field.

If I was a manager or coach today, my two main rules for after-hours activities would be: A) be ready to play on time; and B) stay out of jail.


Lombardi was a teacher as well as a coach and part of teaching is knowing how to reach every individual pupil. Some need gentility; some need a good swift kick in the ass. Lombardi was a master psychologist. When the players had everyone jumping on them, Lombardi patted them on the back. When everyone was telling them how great they were, he unloaded on them.

Individually, he would berate them and drill in what they'd done wrong; he'd push them to their physical limits and beyond; then, just as they were ready to attack him en masse and tear him to shreds, he'd pat them on the head and tell them they were doing a great job. No one knew what to make of him and the dichotomy quelled any dissension before it took root and sabotaged the team from the inside.


There was no secret to what the Packers were going to do. They were going to run the ball down the opponents throat with a fairly small number of plays in which the players had the flexibility to adjust based on what the defense was doing. It was structured, but had options to maximize what was available.

There's no need----in any sport----for a complicated series of ways to trick the opponents. If a team has the talent and executes their gameplan, there's little for an opponent to do to stop them. If you look at the way the aforementioned Twins have been able to maintain their consistency and contend while losing one star after another due to payroll constraints, it's because they play the game the right way. Their pitchers throw strikes; their baserunners take the extra base; they move runners along; and defensively, they're always in the right place.

When a team has talent and is well-schooled in fundamentals so they're second nature, you'd be stunned to see how many more games they'll win with the same talent that couldn't do anything right previously. And again, if they can't get with the program, they're gone. It's not hard. A team basically telling their opponent what's coming while knowing they can't be stopped is a dominance that has little to do with talent; it has to do with a team effort and teaching. Such a combination is unbeatable.

These lessons last through the decades not because they came written on some tablet delivered from the heavens, but because they're logical, pragmatic and most importantly, they worked.

  • Viewer Mail 12.27.2009:

Jeff (Acting Boss) at Red State Blue State writes RE the Orioles:

Not to get all sentimental or anything, but I sorta miss the days where the Orioles were the class of the Major Leagues. Still have a long way to go to match those high standards.

People forget that those Orioles teams, led by Earl Weaver, were immersed in numbers and was enamored of players who walked and hit the ball out of the park. They also built their clubs on deep pitching staffs that gobbled innings and threw strikes.

Weaver was a tyrant and a genius. He would find each player's unique abilities and maximize what they could do rather than whine about what they couldn't. Combined, John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke and Benny Ayala were the most productive left field in baseball. Weaver couldn't care less about a player's feelings; if you produced, you played; if not, you sat. Simple. His pitchers listened to what they were told, or they didn't pitch. Easy.

He also made do with what he had in his strategies. Weaver was an advocate of pitching and three-run homers, but when he didn't have the power to play that way, he ran all over the place. He didn't like it, but he didn't complain and did it for the sake of the team.

Had Weaver's teams won just one more World Series than they did, they'd be right up there with the Big Red Machine and the late 70s Yankees in terms of recognition. Weaver won only one World Series in 1970, but they could easily have won five more. In 1969, they were overrun by the Miracle Mets; in 1971 and 1979, they lost game sevens to the Pirates; in 1980, they won 100 games and missed the playoffs because the Yankees won 103; and in 1982, they came storming back from a seven game, late-August deficit in the AL East to tie the Brewers in the next-to-last day of the season before losing on the final day of the season.

I still feel that Weaver's never gotten his due even though he's in the Hall of Fame. The guy was a master.

  • Is that bigfoot?

I found this footage hidden in the woods. Dunno who it could be...alright, it's me. I went sledding in the snow like an eight-year-old yesterday. And I was shrieking like a girl. Sue me.


Joe said...

Numbers play the game, not humans :)

RicNunez said...

Fun videos Paul, the only snow here is fake one