The Nationals, players’ only meetings and automaton managers

MLB

Martinez RizzoWith the Washington Nationals reeling and desperately trying to turn out of their accelerating death spiral, the club held a players’ only meeting after yet another loss. As manager Dave Martinez faces scrutiny for the underachieving club whose championship window is not just closing but is about to be blown out of its frame, he seems at a loss for words with the following comment:

“We were a pretty good team in May. Not very good in June, but we’ll get better.”

“I know we’re going to get better. We’re going to continue, and we’re going to win a lot of games.”

This while the inevitable and perfectly reasonable question is being asked as to whether the Nationals would be in this position right now had they not decided to move on from Dusty Baker for the younger, more pliable and cheaper Martinez.

This is a repeat of the Nationals’ previous attempt to hire the cookie-cutter manager who did what he was told, Matt Williams, to replace the veteran and somewhat headstrong Davey Johnson. To compound the growing sense of “what might have been?”, Johnson came out in his book saying that he was basically an unwilling accomplice to “Incident X” in the Nationals downfall from would-be dynasty to historic underachiever: the 2012 shutdown of Stephen Strasburg.

Even more troubling is Jim Riggleman, the manager who Johnson replaced because he was a veteran caretaker manager whose role was to oversee the rebuild and keep the young players in line, is enjoying a renaissance as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, having turned the club from 110-loss oblivion to playing around .500 ball under his stewardship following their atrocious 3-15 start under Bryan Price.

Martinez epitomizes the preferred manager in today’s game where collaboration takes precedence over competence and experience; where following orders is at or near the top of the job description when it wasn’t even included in the list of requirements before front offices took center stage as the hub around which entire organizations orbit.

To blame Martinez, Mickey Callaway or Paul Molitor for the poor seasons of their clubs and to credit Dave Roberts, Aaron Boone or Gabe Kapler for a club’s success misses the point of how managers are handled – not hired – handled today.

Martinez merely serves as the latest case study of why these new-age managers are largely interchangeable. His statement above is indicative of not knowing what to do while knowing what he’s allowed to do. He’s a figurehead and the players know it. The team meeting is a signal that they’re taking matters into their own hands to stack sandbags and prevent the flood from worsening because, judging by their history with Williams, they’ve seen this natural disaster before and are acting before it’s too late.

This is a grand distance from a Billy Martin explosion with the food table being flung across the room; a Lee Elia expletive-laced rant; or even Jim Leyland screaming at the players and telling the GM – his “boss” – to get the hell out of his office and stop telling him how to do his job and getting away with it.

Don Zimmer once started a team meeting by screaming at his players before coming to a dead stop and telling them that it wasn’t their fault that they stunk and couldn’t play, so there was no reason to yell at them for it.

None of this happens in today’s game even with the remaining veteran managers like Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and Ron Gardenhire who have a certain amount of leeway in dealing with the players.

Disposable managers with entry-level contracts know their place. Martinez appears devoid of passion not due to natural stoicism, but through borderline catatonia that was drilled in as a prerequisite for the job. That’s essentially the logical conclusion of hiring a manager whose role is to take orders and who, should he deviate from that, will be replaced by another manager who takes orders. When the Nationals caved and hired Baker, it was because they could not afford to hire another Williams and Baker was willing to take short money for the opportunity. After two years, two division titles, and two close-call Game 5 losses in the NLDS, the Nationals felt sufficiently emboldened in their arrogance that they were talented enough to win on cruise control and could hire another manager like Williams. The results are eerily similar not just on the field but with the players’ action and reaction.

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