Saturday, July 3, 2010

We Are All Made Of Stars

  • Pragmatism:

Tim Kurkjian writes about the how managing has become a more difficult job in today's game in this ESPN piece.

Echoing the growing sentiment that the chasm between the way GMs and owners are trying to run baseball teams as a pure business is causing disharmony between the experienced managers and their feel for the game. It's more blowback to the way things have changed in baseball----with pitch counts; dictates from the front office; and non-stop interference.

Managers have to juggle many more things today than they did even 20 years ago. With the accessibility to stats; the prevalence of outsiders being put in charge of baseball operations; how every move is scrutinized as it happens via social media and commentary; and the way the golden rule* is exercised by stars, they're walking a fine line in maintaining respect and being able to do their jobs.

*Are you unaware of the "golden rule"? It's simple. He who has the gold makes the rules.

Because of the nature of managing today, it's evolved from the days in which Earl Weaver ran his ship with an iron fist and did whatever he wanted knowing that if one of his players challenged him openly, it would be the player who would be gone, not the manager. Now, if a player with a $20 million annual salary and performance that guarantees an extra 5000 fans in the seats takes on the manager making $1 million a year and whose contribution is more easily replaceable, who's going to win?

Kurkjian quotes some old-school managers who are on their way out for one reason or another. One, Bobby Cox, sends a none-too-subtle message (if you read between the lines) as to why he's really retiring at the end of the season:

"We have the new style general manager and maverick owners," said Cox, speaking in general terms, not about the Braves. "What you're getting from upstairs [the GM] is, 'Here's how I would have done that.' Or, 'Here's the lineup.' And … the computers don't lie."

Obviously Cox is referring to his fractured relationship with Braves GM Frank Wren. Do you think Bobby Cox truly wants to retire? In theory, he'd probably enjoy having a few days or even a week off in the summer to relax and not have to worry about what boneheaded play Yunel Escobar is going to pull on that particular day to make Cox want to jump off the nearest bridge with Escobar tethered to him so they could die together; but I guarantee you by late March of 2011 (at the earliest) after he's had enough of fishing, sleeping late and mowing the lawn, he's going to start banging his head into walls.

This new template in baseball is not such an easy adjustment. Some of today's veteran managers who, as players, functioned under the likes of Earl Weaver and managers of the "my way or the highway" ilk have adjusted to it (Joe Torre for example); others like Cox have had trouble with the new breed GM telling them what to do. Tony La Russa won his power struggle with the Cardinals front office based only on his history of success and that he was palatable to the star of the team, Albert Pujols. Rest assured if Pujols wanted La Russa gone as a precondition to remaining with the Cardinals, La Russa would be gone.

This brings up an important point.

Kurkjian mentions the dustup between Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez and the recently fired manager Fredi Gonzalez and how Gonzalez is perceived to have won the "battle" between the two while Ramirez won the "war".

If the Ramirez scrap was a factor in Gonzalez's firing, I don't believe it was anything more than a tiny fraction of the real reason that Gonzalez was dismissed. The Marlins front office never thought much of Gonzalez's contribution to the club; he was in trouble going back to last season and probably before then; the Ramirez incident was public, but if anything, it enhanced Gonzalez's standing throughout baseball because of the fearlessness and necessary nature of disciplining a player who'd pushed and pushed until his star status could shield him no longer. The mere fact that the Marlins front office saw fit to send Andre Dawson and Tony Perez to basically threaten Ramirez into toeing the line indicates that they knew there was a problem that extended further than a simple manager-player disagreement.

It all depends on the way a particular organization is run. Certain clubs----mentioned by Kurkjian----put faith in their manager and leave him in charge. The Angels and Mike Scioscia are a prime example of this----issues are handled in-house; Scioscia is in charge and there's no debate as to how things are going to be.

The case cited of Orioles center fielder Adam Jones responding to a suggestion that he play deeper to prevent balls from going over his head by saying, "I'll think about it" had multiple meanings. One, Jones felt he was safe enough with the Orioles hierarchy to be so blatantly selfish and arrogant that he said it in the first place; two, there wasn't a chain-of-command in place for the club to tell Jone straight out that he's going to do what he's told or he's not going to play. Such an occurrence would never happen with the Angels because not only would Scioscia have handled it accordingly, but the club veterans would've seen to it that Jones was put in his place as to respect for authority----star status, salary or self-importance aside.

The implication that stars are only now running the show is ignoring history.

Do you really think that in his heyday, even when he was being chastised for a wild off-field lifestyle, that Babe Ruth couldn't have gone to Yankees ownership and said, "enough with this guy already" and gotten the manager fired? That Joe DiMaggio couldn't have done something similar? That all the way through baseball history the stars weren't exerting some power over who was in "charge"?

Some star players push the manager simply to see how far they can go and need to be checked. Others----like Ramirez----don't get it and it wouldn't matter if he was playing for Scioscia; La Russa; Torre, or Gonzalez.

The key for a manager----young or old----is to come to an agreement with the star player that the star won't embarrass the manager and will put a public face of harmony even if one doesn't exist. I doubt Mike Piazza was in love with Bobby Valentine when the two were the faces of the Mets in the late 90s, but there were never any public disputes between the two and the relationship co-existed until Valentine was fired as the other veterans----Al Leiter, John Franco and Mo Vaughn----undermined Valentine.

Joe Girardi's rocky initiation from teammate to coach to manager could have gone in the opposite direction if the Yankees' slow start in 2009 had continued. The season ended with a World Series win, but it was dicey for awhile as everyone adjusted to the young Girardi after having gotten used to Torre. With veteran star players who are club icons like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte remaining from Girardi's days as a player, the transition was bound to have its ups-and-downs.

For players who'd known little other than the Torre-style of management to come to grips with the new manager----someone with whom they'd played----there was always the potential of a blowout. With Girardi's frequent strategic gaffes, is it that far-fetched that had the club been staggering along into late July with another missed post-season a genuine possibility, for Jeter to go to GM Brian Cashman or even the Steinbrenners and say, "this isn't working" and for a change to be made? It's happened before and it'll happen again and it's not always wrong for a star player to exert his authority in such a way.

Players----especially the younger, pampered, bonus-babies who are too young and/or ignorant to realize that the world doesn't revolve around them and they can't win by themselves----need to be disciplined and, in some cases, are hungry for that discipline. Of course there are cases in which their callowness leads them to do something stupid; that was a legitimate possibility with Ramirez when Dawson essentially told him he was going to knock him out if he said the wrong thing; some younger players would have come back and Dawson with impudence and gotten their teeth knocked out. Perhaps then they would've understood----but perhaps not.

Part of being a long-term, successful manager lies in flexibility. Those who are able to adjust stick around through the eras; others find themselves clinging to their principles and----like Valentine----have trouble finding another job not because of their abilities, but because of their reputations. If a Valentine rumor begins floating around a club and the star player, knowing what's been said about Valentine in the past----true or not----he can nix the idea relatively quickly with a off-hand and pointed public statement of: "I dunno about this guy..." while in private saying they don't want to play for him.

In short, there are managers who've been around long enough and have the support of upper management to do what must be done----benching Ramirez for example----in order to maintain order. Others have to accept the way things are and push on out of pragmatism, just to keep their jobs.

It's a decision that have to make consciously due to reality, not because of the changing culture since the stars always have and always will run things in their own way.

It's the way it is.

  • Jeterian:

Yeah, I'm using a Michael Kay term. Sue me.

In the Mets 5-3 win over the Nationals, rookie shortstop Ruben Tejada made a play that shows exactly why he should not be traded. It's not the way the 20-year-old has comported himself in seamlessly shifting from shortstop to second base (and now back to shortstop in place of the banged up Jose Reyes); it hasn't been the way he's played competently and fundamentally well; it's his physical presence and presence of mind that are most striking as he's burst onto the scene.

With 2-outs in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Nationals rallying against Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, Tejada made a play that wins games; the type of play that Derek Jeter has made his whole career.

The tying runs were on base as Tejada noticed that the runner at second, Roger Bernadina, had strayed to far and wasn't paying attention; K-Rod spun and fired to Tejada, picking off Bernadina to end the game.

As if it wasn't enough that Tejada was conscious enough to realize that they'd be able to make the play, he was also able to cunningly signal to his veteran closer without the Nationals catching on in time to warn Bernadina. The maturity necessary to pull that off is, yes, Jeterian.

The Mets should not trade this kid.

Tejada is the type of player who games and championships----just by the way he carries himself and keeps his head in the game.

He's a winner.

Like Jeter.2010BaseballGuideCover.gif

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She-Fan said...

Star players and managers/coaches will always vie for control. Look at Kobe and Phil Jackson on the Lakers. For awhile it seemed like Kobe would push Jackson out, but Phil is still around and the two made peace. It takes a smart, strong manager to handle these situations. Ownership has to be smart about it too.

Jeff said...

I love it when the Prince brings the funny, and the line about Cox & Escobar tethering to their deaths... made me LOL.

And the Tejada play? Bad ass. I like when games end with unconventional drama.