334px-Ryne_Sandberg

Sandberg would have been better off staying with the Cubs

MLB

In retrospect, perhaps Ryne Sandberg would have been better off having fought harder for the job managing the Chicago Cubs a year after he’d left the organization. To dispel the notion that Sandberg left the Cubs after Theo Epstein took over as team president, the fact is that Sandberg had departed the previous year when he was passed over for the job as manager in favor of Mike Quade. Quade had replaced Lou Piniella when Piniella resigned in August of 2010.

Having paid his dues as a minor league manager, learning his craft and the organization’s prospects rather than stepping off the field and using his Hall of Fame career and credentials as a Cubs hero to force his way onto the big league staff and, eventually, as manager, Sandberg did it organically and was still bypassed based on a misinterpreted strong finish by the Cubs under Quade. In his first year after leaving the Cubs, as he was managing the Philadelphia Phillies Triple A club in Lehigh Valley, the 2011 Cubs – like the 2015 Phillies – were in the midst of the last throes of a relatively successful run they had under Piniella and general manager Jim Hendry. They had come apart and needed the radical overhaul that Epstein was prepared to undertake.

It’s not often that a former star player like Sandberg will shun the airs that accompany such lofty status and show the willingness to go down to the low minor leagues, ride buses great distances, essentially do everything in running the club and do so in the interests of making the same primordial climb as a manager that he did as a player to get to the big leagues. Sandberg could have avoided that. He could have launched a public relations blitz, coerced friendly reporters with an agenda into supporting him, and subtly planted the seed within the fan base that the former Cubs superstar was the man to resurrect the declining franchise while there was still time to do so.

He didn’t. Since he started his professional career and had his first cup of coffee in the Majors with the Phillies, there was a linear aspect to him joining that organization. Again, he did not shoehorn his way onto then-manager Charlie Manuel’s staff as an interloping manager-in-waiting. That came later and had little to do with Sandberg. At the time, the Phillies, like the Cubs of 2009 to 2011, were plummeting from a star-laden contender into an ancient and crumbling structure that had to be detonated.

After he joined the Phillies coaching staff as the third base coach in 2013, it was no secret that he would eventually be the next manager when and if Manuel was dismissed or pushed into retirement. With the team floundering, Manuel still showed no interest in walking away by his own volition and he was fired so Sandberg could watch the club from the manager’s chair for the remainder of the season and get a gauge on what he wanted to do.

What he saw was a team of insolent, declining veterans who had grown complacent and too accustomed to the mostly hands-off approach of Manuel. Sandberg focused on the fundamentals, tried to discipline the likes of Jimmy Rollins, and tamp down on the country club atmosphere and eye rolls of “we’ve won here and we know what we’re doing” even if the team was no longer winning and the “knowing what they’re doing” included being lax and arrogant.

Getting the job managing the Cubs when Epstein took over as team president would have put forth the impression that team ownership was heavily influencing the new baseball czar in a way that was reminiscent of the situation Epstein had just escaped in Boston as the GM of the Red Sox and even if Sandberg had pushed for it, it probably was not going to happen. But, in retrospect, Sandberg’s focus on fundamentals and knowledge of the Cubs farm system at the time – particularly Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, among others – could have benefited the Cubs in the first two seasons under Epstein as Epstein’s hand-picked manager, Dale Sveum, was fired largely because of the lack of adherence to the basics and failures in development of those particular young players.

Given how he was willing to work his way up the ladder as a minor league manager, Sandberg would likely have adapted as necessary and followed the organizational plan when it came to on-field strategies of the new front office. And how much worse could he have done than Sveum, who took the job expecting to be allowed to deal with the inevitable 95-to-100-loss seasons as the Cubs tanked to accrue high draft picks and was still fired?

For managers, the situation has to be right, the front office has to be agreeable, and the players have to be willing to listen. The key is to get the players to do what the manager wants them to do without the players acting as if they’re doing the manager a favor by doing it. The manager who gets his way is seen as a keeper while the manager who doesn’t is on the way out. Looking at Sandberg’s time as Phillies manager, is there really a giant difference between his perceived cluelessness and that of current Cubs manager Joe Maddon in his first two seasons as manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? Maddon has become the embodiment of pretentiousness, believing and furthering the media hype of being the “best” manager in baseball when he was, in reality, along for a great ride with a smart and lucky front office in Tampa as they starting winning with him running the club. The Cubs hired him as they too are on the precipice of title contention and he will get credit for it whether he deserves it or not. His career could easily have gone the way of Sveum and Sandberg had Tampa not been as patient and understanding of the circumstances.

Sandberg did not do a good job as Phillies manager, but he did do a good job as a minor league manager with the Cubs. He was overmatched in the big leagues, but did well with the youngsters in the minors. Taking someone who was good at one thing and putting him in an entirely different circumstance without a commitment is dooming him to failure. After trying to discipline the players, there was a sense of “what do you want me to do?” from Sandberg when the players didn’t follow his instructions and openly challenged his authority. When the front office didn’t make the decision to get rid of those players who were defying the manager and, in fact, enabled the insubordination, they extinguished any chance Sandberg had at success.

The situation he inherited was terrible with an organization that mortgaged the future for the present and whose present was burning down to its embers and cooling like a dying star. It is eerily reminiscent to the fading players he had to deal with in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Rollins, Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Papelbon. He got caught up in that mudslide in the same way he got swallowed up when the Cubs were in transition. Now, as the Phillies are also on the verge of sweeping changes with Andy MacPhail widely reported as the next baseball boss, Sandberg walked off the cliff before they could push him. He was in a no-win situation and, unsurprisingly, he didn’t. With the Cubs, it might have been different had he chosen to stay with an organization that, while ruthless, has a more logical tack than the bottomed out Phillies.

640px-4TH_Pablo_Sandoval

Fung_Ku_Panda likes your photograph and probably doesn’t like Boston

MLB

Pablo Sandoval is lucky that the situation didn’t degenerate further with the Instagram woman in question saying that he was cyber-stalking her, leading not just to embarrassment but to this:

Sandoval’s first season as a member of the Boston Red Sox has grown tabloidish with the revelation that when he allegedly went to the clubhouse to use the bathroom, he grabbed his phone, checked it and decided to like the images posted by the buxom woman. Or, as he claims, he accidentally hit “like” when he checked his phone.

Whatever.

Self-proclaimed baseball “purists” who have fantasy-fueled notions of players who are thinking about baseball 24/7 and working, working, working to hone their craft will react with apoplectic dismay at Sandoval’s supposed breach of etiquette and lack of dedication to his job. In truth, many players will check their phones and tablets during the course of a game for one reason or another. It’s easy to forget that these larger-than-life characters that appear to be superhuman are, in truth, just like everyone else. Sandoval’s story combines this reality with the revelation that he, like everyone else, goes to the bathroom; he, like everyone else, checks his smartphone regularly; and he, like everyone else, is looking for action off the field.

Counting spring training, the season is at least eight months long and nine if the club is a playoff team. No one can maintain concentration and focus on the game for that amount of time without rapid burnout. And what are starting pitchers and backup players whose roles are specified supposed to do in the third inning of a game in June? Sitting and watching the game with rapt attention loses its luster not long after a player has established himself. In fact, it’s quite boring. Most managers don’t care what the players are doing as long as they do their jobs and don’t get caught doing other stuff. The idea that this was a show of disrespect to manager John Farrell is silly. This happens everywhere on every team. The unspoken rule is not to embarrass the manager and organization. Sandoval got caught and embarrassed his already embattled manager and panicking organization. That’s why it’s an issue. If the team was 39-29 instead of 29-39, this elicits a wink and a shrug.

Put it this way, if Sandoval were hitting .330 as he did in 2009 for the San Francisco Giants and the Red Sox weren’t mired in last place and going nowhere in the American League East, no one would have said a word. Similar to him showing up in camp with his belly hanging precipitously over his belt, it only matters if things aren’t going well. In truth, looking at Sandoval’s numbers, he’s doing precisely what he’s done since 2012 and his year-end numbers will reflect that. They’ll be identical to what they’ve been with a batting average in the .270s, a mediocre on-base percentage approximating .320 to .335, 15 home runs, and the questioning glances of those who had no clue what the Red Sox were getting when he was signed. Sandoval’s star status has been built on his post-season performances when he’s made himself into a Reggie Jackson-style spotlight hound.

The overreaction to this is multiplied by the perceived disappointment that Sandoval has been, that the Red Sox are terrible, and that the lack of “character” and focus has been an issue for the club in the not-too-distant past. What Sandoval and the Red Sox might be learning too late is that there are players who are simply not cut out for Boston and its inherent pressures and non-stop scrutiny.

The wild nights of Mike Napoli were only charming because he was productive and helped the team win the 2013 World Series. The Instagram activities of Sandoval are not viewed as fondly because the team is, right now, a bigger underachiever than the 2011 bunch and are dangerous close to being a repeat of the 2012 disaster for which Bobby Valentine got the blame when there were far greater problems with that team than Valentine.

Fans and media members were speculating about the possibility of getting rid of Sandoval before the Instagram incident. Now? They’ll want the club to eat a significant portion of his contract to expedite his departure.

Like players who go to New York, it takes a certain type of personality to make it in Boston. There has to be a thick skin and tough mentality (or complete obliviousness as was the case with Manny Ramirez) to function and thrive there. Some have it, some don’t. Worse is if a player thinks he has it, management thinks he has it, and then they discover three months into a six-year, $100 million contract that he doesn’t.

The idea that the Red Sox will be able to repeat the lightning strikes from August of 2012 to October of 2013, clear out players like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez who did not belong in Boston, and go on a spending spree with every single one of the players signed contributing to a championship is ludicrous. The 2013 signees were probably doing the same things and worse as Sandoval checking his Instagram account during a game, but they won. So it’s okay. This only serves to explain why this regular occurrence of a player checking his cellphone during a game is being treated as a hangable offense and a symptom of what ails the 2015 Red Sox. They’re worrying about a hangnail when there’s a bone sticking out of the skin. Until they fix that bone, the hangnail is nothing.

548px-Budblack1

The agenda-driven myths about Bud Black

MLB

Bud Black was, at best, a mediocre manager whose main accomplishments were surviving through multiple ownership and general manager regimes; accruing respect from the media; and being the case study of how a manager’s perception trumps his won-lost record in today’s game.

The San Diego Padres’ decision to fire Black was treated as if it was a personal affront to those who are judging Black not on what his teams did on the field, but on the so-called “process” that has become more important in certain circles of thought. There’s an agenda in play and it supersedes how managers were once judged. If there’s a manager who’s adaptable, willing to listen to front office “suggestions,” and is able to play the role of manager regardless of whether or not he’s good at the actual job, then he’ll be treated as if he’s better than he is.

The media likes Black because he answered their questions without the trademark smugness and condescension that greets them with most managers. Front offices like Black because of the aforementioned attributes that might be useful if the roster is strong enough to account for his strategic gaffes. He’s good with the pitchers and especially at handling a bullpen. This is to be expected from a former pitching coach. As for running an offense, it was a vanilla, conservative, inside baseball-type blueprint that stemmed from him working as a longtime coach for Mike Scioscia and that he was a pitcher.

The facts regarding Black are as follows:

  • He accrued a record of 649-713 in eight-plus seasons.
  • He oversaw two teams that essentially had playoff spots sewn up and they blew them both on the last weekend of the season.
  • He finished over .500 twice – in the those two seasons in which they blew their playoff spots.
  • He was in the last season of his contract, was not hired by new Padres GM A.J. Preller, and Preller has the right to bring in the manager he wants.

His defenders say that he was functioning with an unstable ownership and front office; his teams were never particularly good; and he was dealing with payroll constraints. So he gets credit for the two teams with winning records, but is absolved of blame for every other season including one in which he lost 99 games? How’s that work?

He has some positives, but they’re not enough for him to retain his job given all the negatives. There was an argument for him to keep his job, but this firing is not on a level of idiocy of Ken Harrelson firing Tony La Russa as manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1986.

When looking at the situation as a whole, what is the justification for saying his firing was unfair? Even if the reasons provided in his defense are accurate, the fact remains that he had been with the club for an extended period of time and won absolutely nothing while the man he replaced, Bruce Bochy, has won three titles in San Francisco with the Giants.

This is all linked to the new job description of managers. In the past, teams hired managers because they thought they were superior strategists, because they sold tickets, or because they’d worked their way up to the opportunity. Off-field issues such as excessive drinking, womanizing, a terrible attitude toward the media, and rampant insubordination were glossed over with that one end in mind: winning. In today’s game, it’s naïve to think that teams would get away with hiring a Billy Martin-type for whom it was a matter of when rather than if he got into trouble off the field, but jumping to the diametrically opposed position and hiring a manager with his on-field tactics seen as essentially meaningless is probably worse.

As reluctant as front offices are to hire a manager whose off-field behaviors are likely to make a firing necessary, the new age front offices are also reluctant to hire a manager who will demand some level of say-so in the construction of the roster and will have the lucrative contract as well as the support of the old-school media, fans and ownership to pull an end-around on the GM and get what he wants.

With Black, none of this was a problem with the Padres, nor will it be a problem in his next job.

This ties in with the manner in which baseball people are judged. It’s how we see published posts on reputable sites listing the “best” GMs to the “worst.” I suppose if you want to have Billy Beane as number one, there’s an argument to do it. But to have him at number one with Brian Sabean – he of the three World Series wins in five years and fielding a consistent contender rife with homegrown talent – is clearly based on a selfish attempt to push one’s own belief systems as “right.” How is new Los Angels Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi – on the job for six months and whose big free agent signing was giving $50 million to Brandon McCarthy who promptly needed Tommy John surgery – the sixth “best” GM in baseball? Based on what? How is Matt Silverman – on the job for a shorter time than Zaidi – ahead of veteran Dan Duquette?

Why?

It’s for the same reason as the assertion that Black is a good manager and the Padres are stupid for having fired him: an agenda.

This is not to say that working with front offices, handling the media and being well-liked as Black was are without import, but in the end it comes down to what happens on the field and on the field, Black was found wanting. He had a poor record. He oversaw two inexplicable collapses. The new GM gave him a better team and more than enough rope at one-third of the season before pulling the trigger. And the one thing that Black was supposed to be “expert” in – the pitching – had been awful. In spite of floating concepts to the contrary, he got fired and deserved to get fired. The Padres may not be better without him, but they certainly won’t be worse.

Terry_Collins_2011

Terry Collins sounds like he’s had enough

MLB

Before he was fired as the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Paul DePodesta was preparing to hire Terry Collins as the new Dodgers manager to replace Jim Tracy. Tracy and DePodesta were never on the same page either philosophically or personally and the veteran manager Collins was DePodesta’s first choice as Tracy’s replacement. That plan was upended when DePodesta was also fired. So it was no surprise that when Sandy Alderson took over as the GM of the New York Mets after the 2010 season and brought DePodesta in as his assistant that Collins – already working for the Mets as their minor league coordinator – was at the top of the list to become the team’s new manager.

Collins would be able to stand a drawn out rebuild, keep the team in line off the field, and work in tandem with the front office without having to be treated as the functionary that the people in the Mets front office want their manager to be. Resistance to the plan is the bane to the existence of front offices that think like the Mets. It’s been evident with the Chicago Cubs as Theo Epstein is now on his third manager since taking over as team president. It was clear with Alderson himself when he pushed Bruce Bochy out the door as the San Diego Padres manager in favor of the cheaper and more pliable Bud Black. Bochy is on his way to the Hall of Fame with three World Series wins in the last five years as manager of the San Francisco Giants. Black, the epitome of mediocrity as a manager and a holdover with the Padres who’s somehow survived four regimes, may be on the verge of finally losing his job.

Collins has a superior resume to Black, but he too may be rattling his cage to the degree that Alderson finally pulls the lever and opens the trap door. It’s even possible that Alderson has his eye on the Padres situation with an idea that it will be Black replacing Collins.

The reasoning behind Alderson wanting to get rid of Bochy was in line with his belief system of what the manager should be. Bochy was resistant to the stat-based tactics that Alderson’s front office prefers and he understandably chafed at the interference and audacious interlopers who had never been in uniform or picked up a baseball, but felt they were qualified to make suggestions to someone who’s been in baseball for his entire working life as a player, coach and manager. In addition, Alderson didn’t want to pay Bochy what he was making at the time. Rather than fire him, he simply let him interview for other jobs. It was a mutual parting of the ways with everyone getting what they wanted.

Most managers have a survivalist instinct. In today’s game, part of that is following orders from GMs and their assistants when, in years past, they could tell their “bosses” to get the hell out of their office and get away with it. That won’t fly today.

Collins, while an old-school baseball man whose roots and sensibilities are similar to those of his former boss with the Pittsburgh Pirates Jim Leyland and Leyland’s longtime buddy (and Alderson’s former manager with the Oakland Athletics) Tony La Russa, was willing to implement the new metrics into his strategies. Whether he did this because he knew he had to to get the job or because he really believes in them is in dispute. Regardless, the cage rattling is something that bears watching as the Mets move forward into the summer with an injury-plagued roster and a clear shot to steal a division title with the reeling Washington Nationals betraying no resemblance to the prohibitive favorites they were prior to the season.

Collins was faced with a choice and for a long time he bowed to expediency. Knowing that this is more than likely his last chance to manage a big league team, he took the meddling with a shrug and did as he was told. He accepted that he was going to be saddled with relatively short-term contracts and, in 2015, the status as a lame duck. He tolerated the open statement on the part of his GM that he was on the verge of being fired in 2014.

But now, as the team is half on the verge of being quite good and half on the verge of suffering another second half spiral because of a lack of hitting, injuries and a failure to secure competent reinforcements, Collins is showing the “enough of this” attitude having reached his breaking point and no longer cares about the consequences. His attitude is that of knowing he’s probably going to get fired unless there’s a deep playoff run and he’s letting that seep out in his statements to the media and a clear disconnect between what he says and what the front office does.

Whereas he was once accommodating with the media and tamped down on the intensity that got him ousted as the manager of the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the feistiness is returning with Collins openly telling the media that they don’t know what they’re talking about and that he’s been doing this job longer than they’ve been alive. Collins made his displeasure with the current state of his roster known in a telling chat with John Smoltz that Collins himself related. The latest is that Collins stated that the Mets brief foray into using a six-man rotation was over after one turn and one poor start from Dillon Gee, only to see his proclamation undone by Alderson with Gee slated to start against the Braves on Sunday.

This situation is such that the manager took the job with a promised payoff years down the road. He would have an opportunity – one that he was not going to get anywhere else – to redeem himself. But like most “just wait” scenarios, the promises or allusions to promises do not appear to be written in ink on the blueprint. How much castration is he supposed to take? At what point does he say that he’s not going to go out as a baseball man with the entire world thinking that he was a faceless puppet or, worse, an incompetent?

The Mets front office is making their manager look like a fool by undermining him at every opportunity. With the new way in which baseball managers are treated, the majority of teams will never allow a manager to have the power that a Joe Torre, LaRussa, Whitey Herzog or Lou Piniella demanded and received. If that is unsaid and there’s still a façade of importance in the manager’s office, then it’s possible to get away with the front office dictating the on-field decisions. If, however, there’s so open a disdain for the manager that something he said a week before is suddenly undone with a total disregard for his perception in and out of the clubhouse, then what’s the point of keeping him?

Collins has been a good soldier hoping for that last shot. Now it’s becoming abundantly clear that there is a yawning chasm between himself and his bosses and it’s incrementally coming out in public undertones of displeasure. By mid-summer, if this continues, Collins might just dare Alderson to fire him. And Alderson will. Professionally, it won’t benefit Collins to do this, but at the very least he’ll salvage a portion of his baseball man self-respect because he’d reached his limit and did what he had to do to retain some sense of dignity.

709px-Junior_Lake_02

The old-school way of dealing with the Junior Lakes of the world

MLB

The easy way to asses the milling session described as a “bench clearing incident” between the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs on Wednesday is to lambast Cubs utility player Junior Lake for his behavior. The video link is below.

We can get past the “Who the hell is Junior Lake?” bit as well as the argument as to whether a hitter or pitcher enthusiastically celebrating adheres to the game’s unwritten rules. This much is clear: Lake pimped a home run that cut a Marlins lead from 6-0 to 6-2 and the Cubs eventually lost 7-3. He celebrated a home run that meant absolutely nothing to anyone other than him. It’s a sign of selfishness and total lack of propriety that has become prevalent in the game today. Baseball is a naturally individualistic sport, but it’s increasingly forgotten that it’s an individual sport in a team concept. The latter half of that – “team concept” – is less and less important in the eyes of many and I don’t just mean the players.

While Lake is a non-entity as a player and an extra body for the Cubs, it’s the potential fallout from his act, the enabling from the organization and their new age manager Joe Maddon, and that the game has changed so drastically and negatively from its self-policing of yesteryear that has resulted in players feeling safe in doing exactly what Lake did. There hasn’t been a mention of any bad blood between the Cubs and Marlins that led to Lake’s leisurely trot around the bases, but judging from the clip, the Marlins bench was hollering at him for his showboating and he responded by “shushing” them with a finger to the lips.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto said something to both Anthony Rizzo and Lake and the benches subsequently emptied. No punches were thrown, but this incident won’t be forgotten by a Marlins team that has gotten beaten around this entire season, has veterans who know how to deal with acts such as that of Lake, and has clearly had enough.

The culture of today’s game has fomented the idea that it’s acceptable to be so overt when celebrating. In part that is due to the shrugging nature of what other teams think. In part it’s due to the tamping down on retaliatory strikes on the part of pitchers. Would Lake have dared to behave as he did if Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson were on the mound? The way the game was played during Drysdale’s and Gibson’s heyday was such that hitters knew they wouldn’t just get drilled, but they’d likely have to duck a fastball heading toward their heads. A contemporary copy of Drysdale and Gibson, Roger Clemens, would also have made certain that someone paid for Lake’s transgression and it wouldn’t have been a journeyman like Lake. The Cubs might not care one way or the other if Lake gets hit for his behavior, but they will certainly care if Kris Bryant or Rizzo take one between the shoulder blades for what Lake did. So too will the players in the Cubs clubhouse as the actions of one player caused other players to be targets simply because they’re more important to the team.

Baseball has tried to stop this in-the-trenches reality, but the fact is that hitting someone other than Lake is dealing with the problem in an effective way.

Umpires are mandated to issue warnings to stop beanball wars from occurring. In truth, like the Field of Dreams line when Moonlight Graham was knocked down as he asked the umpire to issue a warning to Eddie Cicotte and the ump replied by saying “Watch out you don’t get killed,” that was the way the umps of the past oversaw the game. Even they wouldn’t mind seeing a player like Lake being put in his place by the players.

Those who see nothing wrong with Lake flipping his bat and taking his stroll around the bases are speaking from a position of never having played a testosterone-fueled sport and are missing the point that he was drawing attention to himself in a situation that meant, basically, nothing. His home run was an individual achievement in a game that the Cubs were trailing and likely to lose – and they did. “I got mine” is not a team concept. The attention-starved Maddon, team president Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs staff are just as invested in the concept of the world knowing their names and crediting them as they are in winning, if not more. So they’re not exactly on the moral high ground when it comes to telling Lake to tone down the act.

But it can be handled in a variety of ways even if the Cubs don’t want to do it themselves. The key is ensuring there are legitimate consequences for one’s actions. The Cubs and Maddon might shrug off the behavior as the way the game is played today and it’s no big deal, but if they’re running the risk of losing one of their star bats because of Lake, they’ll care and it will stop.