Passionless Managing, Numbers Crunching and Outsiders

The new managerial template of eschewing experienced minor league managers or veteran big league managers and bringing in the likes of Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura has developed into a two-way street. Teams are making the hires and the managers aren’t fully invested in doing the job, putting forth an almost blasé sense of, “Oh, I’ll manage the team if that’s what your really want me to do until something better comes along.”

According to Matheny’s own account during the revelation of his financial issues, he had no intention of returning to the dugout if he didn’t have to find work. Intentional or not, Matheny saying that he wouldn’t be managing had he not lost all his money in real estate came across as arrogant and condescending. Considering that everything the Cardinals accomplished last season had more to do with the foundation left by Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan than with Matheny, it’s not the right attitude to have.

In a similar vein, Ventura turned down a contract extension because he wasn’t sure how long he wanted to manage. For a lifer such as Jim Leyland and Terry Francona, this would be totally foreign tack for a relatively young man such as the 45-year-old Ventura. Lifers manage, of course, for the money. They also love the competition and, in spite of the success they’ve had, there’s a certain amount of insecurity that comes from the journeyman way they were reared in baseball. Leyland rode minor league buses forever as a player and manager, got his chance as a coach with LaRussa, then began his long ride between Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. He spent several years as a semi-retired adviser/observer insisting he was done managing, then returned to take over the Tigers in 2006 and has been there ever since. With all he’s accomplished and his resume, there’s still regular talk that his job is on the line.

Francona is fending off the perception that his two championships managing the Red Sox were a byproduct of the organization and he was an on-field functionary. As was detailed in his new book (my review is here), the reputation-bashing he endured when he left Boston was such that it could have festered into him becoming toxic to other clubs. I believe he took the Indians job in large part to put that talk to rest.

Both Matheny and Ventura were old-school as players, but this new school of managing is something that front office people have to decide is worth it.

The tree of coaches and managers has branches that sometimes grow in strange ways. In football, Bill Parcells was known as much for his brilliance as his constant vacillation, threats of retirement and resignations only to rise again in a different location. Two of his most successful assistants—Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin—have been on the sidelines constantly without needing a break due to burnout, failing health or exhaustion. Some clubs prefer short-term contracts with their managers and coaches and can live with not knowing one day to the next whether they’re going to stay or go. Others want a full commitment. I believe it helps the organization to have a coach/manager who wants to be there and has a passion for doing the job.

Passion. It must be there for long-term success. The job isn’t a hobby or a pleasant and brief diversion like going to the park and having a picnic. As Bill James said in his guest appearance on The Simpsons, “I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes.” It’s the truth. With the new age people like Jeff Luhnow running the Astros like an ambitious startup, is there a love for the game or is it something they enjoy and see as a challenge, but don’t have a deep wellspring of passion for?

I don’t get the sense of passion from Matheny or Ventura. With Ventura, he’s so laid back that there are times that he looks like he needs to have a mirror placed under his nose to see if he’s still breathing. The White Sox functioned for so long under the volcanic Ozzie Guillen, that they sought someone who wasn’t going to create a crisis every time he opened his mouth. That’s exactly what they—from GM Ken Williams on through the coaches and players—needed. By 2014, Ventura might not have a choice in staying or going if the team looks disinterested and needs a spark.

Some veteran managers use their growing reputations and success to exact some revenge for years of subservience. Joe Torre and Francona took short money contracts to get their opportunities with the Yankees and Red Sox and when the time came to get paid and accumulate say-so as to the construction of their clubs—no rebuilding projects for them anymore—they took them.

We can debate the baseball qualifications and merits of hiring outsiders to work in front offices or run a baseball team. Many of these individuals are people with degrees from impressive universities who never picked up a ball themselves and haven’t the faintest idea about the social hierarchy and nuance necessary to handle a big league clubhouse or put a cohesive club together not just on the field, but off it as well.

Crunching numbers isn’t analysis and is decidedly not all there is to running a baseball team, nor the final word in determining the future. This is how we end up with the Pirates’ assistant Kyle Stark living out his tough guy fantasies by entreating his minor league players to follow Navy SEALs training techniques and telling them to think like a Hell’s Angel without understanding what that truly entails. It’s how insecure “analysts” such as Keith Law continually try to find excuses for the Orioles’ success in 2012 and why he and other “experts” were “right” in spirit about them having a prototypically terrible Orioles year, but the Orioles made up for their lack of talent with luck. Rather than simply enjoying an unexpected rise for a historic franchise as a baseball fan would, it turns into an egocentric treatise to bolster one’s own credentials and dissect why it’s not “real.” Is it necessary to find a “why” to justify the Orioles being lucky complete with turning one’s nose up in a pompous, snobby, sighing and eye-rolling dismissiveness?

Matheny and Ventura are running toward the mistaken path that other coaches and managers have taken in assuming that because they did what can be perceived as a good job, that they’ll always have another opportunity to manage if they need it. It’s not the case. The attitude of “I’m doing you a favor by being here” only lasts for so long. Perhaps Ventura doesn’t need to manage or to have the job, but with Matheny’s financial plight now known, he does need the job, making that attitude worse.

As Parcells repeatedly showed, it’s a tradeoff to take his ambiguity from one year to the next to have his coaching expertise. With Ventura and Matheny, it can be seen as an advantage to have a replaceable overseer rather than a difficult and well-compensated manager with a track record like LaRussa. Whether they realize that it won’t cost much to fire them is the question. Maybe Matheny will think about that if the transition from the veterans that performed under LaRussa and maintained that performance under Matheny evolves into youngsters who must to be nurtured and guided with strategies a legitimate manager must impart. His strategic work was wanting in 2012 even though the Cardinals made it to game 7 of the NLCS. If it becomes clear that the Cardinals don’t need him, that flippancy will dissolve, but it might be too late. Front offices will tolerate it while it’s working. When it’s not, they won’t. It could come back to haunt them. When they realize the job wasn’t such a bad deal after all, it will no longer be theirs to keep at their discretion.

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