Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.

Santo vs Rice and the Hall of Fame in Full Context

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This is a reply to the numerous comments on my prior posting about Jim Rice and Ron Santo.

Brooks Robinson, if he had the same defensive history as Santo, would not be in the Hall of Fame.

Ozzie Smith, without his glove, would not be in the Hall of Fame.

There is a place in the Hall of Fame for those who are the best at their position defensively and aren’t mediocre offensively. Smith became a good hitter; Robinson was a useful power hitter. Had Keith Hernandez hung on for a few more years and put up reasonable offensive stats, he would’ve been a Hall of Famer. Bill Mazeroski made it because he was brilliant defensively and had the “big moment” with his World Series winning homer.

The mistake you’re making is comparing transformative defensive figures with players who aren’t in based on their defense alone—they’re in based on other aspects of their games.

There’s not a bottom line rule for a player making or not making the Hall of Fame.

When you reference the “top 10” third basemen assertion for Santo, it’s not unimportant, but to say that’s why he should be in the Hall of Fame and Rice shouldn’t be because he’s not among the “top 25” left fielders it’s ignoring how hard it is to find a good third baseman. Third base is the most underrepresented position in the entire Hall of Fame, for whatever reason.

Santo’s defensive metrics are good (career Rtot—Total Zone Total Runs Above Fielding Average of +27), but not on a level with Robinson (a ridiculous +293); Graig Nettles (+134); Mike Schmidt (+129); or Adrian Beltre (+114). If you’d like some of Santo’s contemporaries, look at Ken Boyer (+70); Clete Boyer (+162); and Eddie Mathews (+40).

Then there are the players from latter eras who, based on Santo’s election, could say “what about me then?”

Ron Cey was putting up similar if not better offensive numbers while playing his home games at Dodger Stadium and was +21 at third base; Tim Wallach was a +61 for his career.

When you mention the number of left fielders to whom Rice is compared, there are greater—historic—ones to say Rice wasn’t on their level, but this is unfair.

If you look at Rice next to Barry Bonds or Rickey Henderson, he has no chance. Bonds could be called one of the best players ever and probably the best defensive left fielder we’ll ever see. Henderson was terrific out there too.

But Bonds and Henderson are first ballot Hall of Famers; Bonds probably won’t get in on the first ballot because of the off-field controversies, writer hatred and PED allegations.

Rice had to wait 15 years to gain election.

There’s a difference between the “just passing” player and the “oh, he’s in” player.

If you’d like to say that it’s the “Hall of Fame and not the Hall of Very Good”, then you’ll have to start kicking players out and make the criteria and process more stringent—you can do that—but under the current circumstances, Rice and Santo both belong in the Hall for different reasons with offensive stats that are nearly identical.

If Rice were actively seeking Hall of Fame induction, what was to stop him from looking forward to that end and asking to be shifted to third base and becoming an adequate or slightly below adequate third baseman—would that alter the discussion because of the position he played?

The position is irrelevant unless the player is the aforementioned transformative defensive figure who changed the way the position was played. Rice was dealing with a quirky wall and short field; Santo was a good, but not great, defensive player.

It’s a wash in one hand; an apples and oranges debate in the other.

I look at a player who played his position without concern as to his future Hall of Fame chances as an act in unselfishness. Knowing the writers’ feelings about voting DHs into the Hall based on them only being a DH, what was to stop Edgar Martinez or Frank Thomas—qualified candidates both—from demanding to play the field so they look like they’re playing the full game and aren’t a placekicker-style specialist?

They could’ve done that and gotten away with it.

So it’s better to have a player who’s thinking of his own status and hurting the team by playing the field when there are better defenders and he’s incapable of doing it serviceably? Or is it a team-centric decision to be the DH, know his limitations and do his job?

You can absolutely make the case that there are a great many players who should not be in the Hall of Fame for whatever reason; you can say “if this guy, why not that guy?”; or you can exclude anyone who isn’t an automatic mental click to the yes; but to say that because Santo was a pretty good third baseman defensively, is comparable to his contemporaries and was a good guy, he should be in; and that Rice was awful defensively (he wasn’t), wasn’t among the top left fielders in history, or was a jerk to reporters, is not a convincing argument.

I’m for a reasonably inclusive Hall of Fame with plenty of wiggle room for many reasons; you may not be. But to say, “oh he’s out because of <BLANK>” and digging for a reason is shifting the goal posts to suit yourselves. You can’t have it all ways when one blocking attempt fails. It’s either all-in or all-out.

Both should be in with the way the Hall is currently structured. And now, both of them are. Rightfully.

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Showalter For Manager/GM?

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It has been whispered that the Orioles should do something decidedly old-school and name manager Buck Showalter GM as well.

There hasn’t been a manager/GM since Bobby Cox went back on the field to replace Russ Nixon as Braves manager in 1990 and that didn’t last long as John Schuerholz was hired as GM after that season and Cox stayed on the field for…well, forever.

Jack McKeon was the GM/manager for the Padres in the late-1980s; Whitey Herzog did it for the Cardinals in the early 1980s.

It’s all but impossible to do both jobs correctly in today’s game of GM-rock stardom. There’s really no way Showalter could do it and maintain his sanity and/or health.

That said, there’s a way to go about it if the Orioles want to give Showalter final say in the direction of the franchise.

Herzog joined the Cardinals as manager in 1980; late in the season they fired GM John Clairborne and named Herzog GM as well. Completely out of contention, Herzog handed the managerial reins to Red Schoendienst for the rest of 1980. Herzog didn’t do both jobs simultaneously. That’s a good thing given Herzog’s penchant for saying whatever popped into his head without concern as to how it was framed or perceived (think J.P. Ricciardi to the tenth power); it would be a PR disaster in today’s game.

But he was able to find players and he’d do the same thing today.

Showalter can do it in a similar fashion if he steps off the field because he’s more tight-lipped and manipulative of the media than Herzog was. Herzog was a gruff, intimidating type; Showalter is more nuanced and calculating.

Herzog built the Cardinals for the spacious dimensions of Busch Stadium with improved speed by getting Lonnie Smith, and installing Tommy Herr at 2nd base; he shored up the defense and attitude by trading Garry Templeton for Ozzie Smith; traded for a defensive minded catcher, Darrell Porter; brought in pitchers who threw strikes like Joaquin Andujar; and got the game’s best closer in Bruce Sutter.

By 1982, the Cardinals were World Series champions and won two more pennants under Herzog in the next five years.

Could Showalter do that as GM?

The Orioles can hit, but their top-to-bottom pitching is so awful that they’re going to have to consider trading some of their young bats Nick Markakis or Adam Jones to find some arms. Those arms would have to strike people out or coax ground balls to mitigate the bandbox of Camden Yards; he needs to improve the bullpen and the infield defense.

Trading talented bats like Jones, Markakis and Matt Wieters are not easy decisions to make.

If someone is going to make that call, it has to be the man who’s entrusted with the future of the organization and is completely responsible for what happens, good or bad.

Showalter would have to stop managing for a time to do the GM job properly; he’d have to be given an autonomy that owner Peter Angelos might balk at providing, but if the Orioles are going to have Showalter give his approval to whom is hired as the new GM, it’s probably easier to let Showalter do it while the Orioles are rebuilding and then have him go back on the field when he has the players he wants.

That’s the only way it could work.

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