Passionless Managing, Numbers Crunching and Outsiders

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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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Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part I—A Cranky Fanbase Grows Crankier

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To gauge the short-term, “what have you done for me lately,” nature of sports fandom, you need only look at the absurd demands of fans of the New York Giants football team calling for the firing of coach Tom Coughlin and replacing quarterback Eli Manning less than eleven months after they won their second Super Bowl with Coughlin and Manning. Not only have they won two Super Bowls, but in both games they beat the Patriots with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, supposedly the best quarterback/coach combination since the 49ers had Joe Montana and Bill Walsh.

But the Giants are 8-7 and suffering through a second half slump that has left them on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, needing a win on Sunday against the Eagles and significant help from other teams to squeak into the playoffs. It has also put Coughlin and Manning in the crosshairs of angry fans’ venting.

Of course they’re greedy, but what’s happening now with the Giants pales in comparison to what’s going to happen with the Yankees in 2013 if their ancient veterans aren’t able to conjure one last run and make the playoffs with a legitimate chance at a World Series win. The same fanbase that booed Derek Jeter and referred to him as “Captain Double Play” among other, worse epithets, now reacts like a mother bear when one of her cubs is in danger should anyone say one negative word about Jeter, even if it’s true. His performance since he notched his 3000th hit has been a renaissance to the player he was a decade ago; that’s why he’s back to “untouchable” status.

It’s a fleeting loyalty especially with the nouveau Yankees fan who began rooting for the team at some point between their 1996 World Series win and their 1998 114 win claim to being one of the best teams in history. Like the newly rich, there’s a gaucheness combined with a lack of comprehension as to the reality of how difficult it is to win and maintain as the Yankees have. They want the team to just “buy stuff” and fill the house with gaudy showpieces and expect to find themselves admired and respected for their taste. But it’s not taste to buy a Picasso just because it’s a Picasso. It helps to understand the significance of the piece and it doesn’t have to be expensive to be of value. The same holds true with players. Fans wanted the Yankees to buy the most expensive pieces on the market and since 2000, that’s what they’ve done to maintain this level of play. Their cohesiveness and home built charm has suffered as they transformed into little more than a band of mercenaries without the on-field camaraderie that was a subtle and imperative portion of the four championships between 1996 and 2000. The pieces that once fit together no longer do.

What happened with the Yankees and Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Joe Torre and the other foundational members of the dynasty is an extreme rarity. A club showing the ability to make it through three rounds of short-series playoffs and win a championship is far more difficult to accomplish than it was when the Yankees were seemingly in the World Series every year from the 1920s to the 1960s.

That dynasty came undone as the stars got old and weren’t replaced. The draft had been implemented and the Yankees were unfamiliar with having to wait their turn and battle with other clubs for the right to get players—no longer could they offer the most money in a bonus for a kid who wanted to join them because of Mickey Mantle and that they won every year.

They were a dilapidated afterthought from 1966 through 1976 when they made it back to the Fall Classic and that was three years after George Steinbrenner purchased the team and set about doing what it was the Yankees always did—spend money and demand results now. Sometimes it worked and sometimes Steinbrenner’s immediate success of returning the club to its prior glory within 5 years after buying it set them on the path they took in the 1980s with dysfunction, rampant managerial and front office changes, money spent on trash and an eventual decline to last place. It was when Steinbrenner was suspended that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter were able to rebuild, develop, keep their youngsters and do something novel in Yankeeland: let the young players play for the Yankees.

It worked.

Success demanded more success, however, and any thought of stepping back and shunning the biggest free agent names/trade targets was dismissed out of hand. Money spent can’t guarantee a championship and the Yankees have won one since 2000. It’s the way the game is played now. It takes a certain amount of good fortune to win multiple titles in a short timeframe. The San Francisco Giants are considered something of a dynasty now with two titles in three years, but that too was circumstantial rather than the result of a new template or dominance.

The Yankees’ situation is different. Faced with the demands of a fanbase that doesn’t accept anything short of a World Series forces decisions that wouldn’t normally be made. When they tried to scale back on paying ludicrous amounts of money for other team’s stars by building their own pitchers Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, they were rewarded with a missed playoff spot in 2008 and their strange and paranoid restrictions on the above pitchers resulted in all being disappointments.

They responded by reversion to what was with big free agent signings of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. That worked in 2009 as they won the World Series, but the contracts were expensive and long-term. Burnett in particular was dumped after he pitched as he has in his entire career with customary mediocrity sprinkled in with flashes of teasing brilliance. The Yankees were somehow surprised by this. The belief that by sheer act of a player putting on a Yankees uniform, he’ll somehow evolve into something different than what he is has doomed the club before.

Teixeira is declining; Sabathia has a lot of wear on his tires at age 32 and is signed through 2016. That’s before getting to the other contracts such as that of Alex Rodriguez along with this new austerity that has culminated in a strange and unusual off-season for the 21st Century Yankees.

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Tejada Should’ve Been In Camp Early

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One would think that the intensity and disciplined approach by Mets’ manager Terry Collins would be en vogue after Tom Coughlin was validated by the specious reason that his team won the Super Bowl for the Giants.

It’s more glaring that Coughlin’s team won under his system while their stadium/city mates, the Jets, came apart because of the overwhelming expectations created by their coach Rex Ryan with his foolish bluster and inmates running the asylum lockerroom dynamic.

In reality, Coughlin’s system has always been smarter than making outrageous statements designed for headlines. It weeds out the frontrunners that don’t want to play while Ryan’s way attracts wilder personalities and leads to the infighting that permeated their team as the season came apart.

Collins wanted Jose Reyes’s heir apparent shortstop Ruben Tejada in camp early to get a head start on his new, pressure-packed job.

Was Tejada “late”?

No. Not according to the collective bargaining agreement.

But should he have shown up early?

It would’ve behooved him to be in camp early.

In reality, a few days probably aren’t going to make much of a difference in the long-term—either Tejada’s going to handle the job or he won’t.

I happen to think he will.

But Collins’s statements implying that he was disappointed in Tejada for not taking the initiative and making sure he was able to arrive early at camp are sure to resonate with the young player. They don’t suggest that punishment is warranted or that Collins is flouting the rules. Tejada is under intense scrutiny because of the man he’s replacing. Complacency is a factor when he’s not fighting for a job and the early call into the manager’s office is a signal that even though he’s walking into camp as the starting shortstop, it’s not set in stone that the job is his if he doesn’t work and perform.

Collins can’t discipline Tejada for showing up when he was contractually obligated to do so, but he certainly can send him to the minors if he doesn’t play well in the spring.

That, more than any arcane rule of “be here five minutes early or you’re late”, is the message that the manager wanted to send.

It’s better to be strict with him than let him do what he wants and possibly fail because of it.

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These Are Your Jets; This Is Your Coach

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Rex Ryan was brimming with confidence when he took over as Jets coach, but it wasn’t blustery for the sake of noise, it was real. Bringing along the 46 defense and a reputation for speaking his mind, Ryan swaggered into the Tri-State area trying to change the Jets culture from one expecting to be the second class citizen in area football and a punching bag that folded or found some clever way to lose when they were on the cusp of something special.

It’s no wonder the Jets and Mets have long been associated as brothers in innovative failure.

Ryan’s personality and looseness are designed to attract players. Whether that attraction is due to the fine line of letting the players be themselves or having zero discipline is an important question. His father, Buddy, was known for building great defenses; feistiness; the close relationships he forged with his players; fighting with management, fellow and opposing coaches; and losing in the playoffs.

Up until now, Rex Ryan’s mouth has mostly been backed up by consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game. They lost both games because the Jets, based on ability, had no right to be there to begin with. They were lucky; they were opportunistic; they were pretty good; and they were playing with house money.

House money is an interesting analogy considering Ryan’s penchant for his mouth being the equivalent of the purple suited, high-rolling pimp riding up in an Escalade and emerging in all his gaudiness, resplendent rings (one being of the Super Bowl variety won as a Ravens assistant) decorating both hands, and a booming voice designed to have the masses turn and look at him as he struts into the casino flashing wads of cash, ready for action.

The attention is the key and it’s meaningless to him whether it’s because they’re irritated by him or impressed with his brashness.

The problem with that for one who’s operating on the wrong side of societal propriety is that the attention can cause unwanted legal entanglements.

For a football coach, it makes the rest of the league, fans and media want that gauche figure to be put in his place—especially in the insular and mostly conservative world of football.

This season, the Jets were supposed to take the next step from back-to-back second place finishers in the AFC to the elite in the game.

I’m not going to start delving out of my realm and try to find reasons why the Jets ended up 8-8 and didn’t follow through on Ryan’s guarantee of a Super Bowl, but I can discuss what I know about people and the influence his pronouncements of greatness and superiority have had on his team’s results; that he’s rapidly gone from moderately entertaining to tiresome to borderline delusional.

Comparisons of the Jets to teams that maintained the perception of lax discipline or were the preferred destinations for ne’er-do-wells and malcontents fall flat when they’re examined in depth.

The Raiders were known as a halfway house for players whom no other team could control or whose talent couldn’t be unlocked under conventional football-style disciplines; the truth was that in their heyday, John Madden and Tom Flores were in charge of their teams and Al Davis was always hovering around as a powerful figure who could not only keep the players from crossing that fine line between being edgy but worthwhile and more trouble than they were worth. Push Davis too far and there was a great chance a player would never find another job in football—not just as a player, but period.

The Cowboys of the 1990s had a similar aura of chaos, but Jimmy Johnson was able to play ringleader to Jerry Jones’s circus and keep the Michael Irvins of his team off the police blotter. When Barry Switzer took over, it was a free-for-all; there was no one to slam down the hammer because the head coach and the owner were acting just as self-indulgently as the players were and the requisite hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do” didn’t exist under Switzer because he didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

But it’s the coach’s job to be a hypocrite.

Those Cowboys managed to win another championship under Switzer, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter in part because of that cannibalistic hubris.

If a coach or player is going to open each press conference with continuous proclamations of his own greatness, then he’d better come through.

Mark Messier, Jimmy Rollins and Joe Namath made their guarantees and performed in their games to make the guarantees come to pass. Realistically, what would’ve happened had the Rangers lost in 1994? Had the 2007 Phillies not come back to catch and pass the Mets? Had the Jets of 1968-1969 not won the Super Bowl? Nothing. But because these men said they were going to win and did, they became legends. That it was circumstantial is irrelevant.

No one remembers those who said they were going to win and didn’t, but they’re going to remember Ryan because he says the same things over and over and refuses to back down; the more something is said, the less meaning it has.

Even if the Jets do win at some point following another Ryan decree, what good did it do if, on the 50th, he happened to be right? It’s as if he’s playing darts with a blindfold and saying he’ll hit the bullseye. Eventually, he’ll hit it. So?

The Jets are a rogue outfit under the stewardship of a coach who doesn’t have the first concept of taking the toys away from his spoiled brats.

Compromising principles for expediency will eventually come full circle and haunt the transgressor; he may still achieve the initial goal because of that concession, but a price needs to be paid.

The problem the Jets have is that Ryan doesn’t seem to have principles to compromise. It’s all full speed ahead; double, triple and quadruple down on the high-rolling bet he made at the beginning.

Interestingly Tom Coughlin, the coach that beat Ryan last week and is the polar opposite in terms of personality and the way he handles his lockerroom, was considered the fascist that no one wanted to play for when he had endless rules and regulations for the expansion Jaguars. In this Sports Illustrated article, Coughlin summed it up perfectly in the following clip:

“Let me say this,” he said, pointing an index finger at a camp visitor. “You only get one time to make a first impression. You can’t start easy and then get strict on players.”

Ryan can’t maintain this roster, come storming into camp in 2012 and say, “That’s it, I’m pulling in the reins!” First, no one would buy into it because that’s not his style—he can’t be someone he’s not and remain authentic; second, if the Jets are going to purge the problem people on the team, they’re looking at a significant alteration in their personnel from the one that Ryan guaranteed was winning the Super Bowl this season. If he’s allowed to do it, he’d better win because few if any coaches get a third rebuild.

In this Wall Street Journal report of today’s elimination loss to the Dolphins, Ryan somewhat adjusted his over-the-top persona:

“I’m always going to chase the Super Bowl,” Ryan said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be a loser. You have to have the guts to go for that.”

There’s a slight difference between “chasing” and “guaranteeing”.

Because of Ryan’s decision to administrate his team in this way—with the inmates running the asylum and a conscious choice to make outrageous statements—the Jets can’t drastically reset their template even if they get rid of some players and assistant coaches.

This is it.

The coach needs to shut up.

But we all know he won’t.

And by now, he can’t.

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