[Remember me? Sorry I went into the basement for so long. The convergence of the season ending and my son arriving was the perfect opportunity to lock in for some family time. I'll write more frequently this winter as we gear up for 2012. Thanks for your patience.]
I cannot stop watching this continuing meltdown on Yawkey Way. For some reason, it doesn’t appear to be getting the national run I expected it would. First, the skipper quits and mentions the rift in the clubhouse. Then, the Boston Globe ran this blockbuster quoting a ton of unnamed sources (I have no doubt every unnamed source was a member of the ownership team/executive management team) outing every dastardly deed by every Sox star down the stretch. Then, the architect skips town leaving the team without a creative GM, without a skipper, a roster full of overpaid and apparently unmotivated talent that has no incentive to care.
This seems like its all good for the Rays. Boston has been our biggest rival since 2008. But, this isn’t the way you want a rivalry to end. You don’t want the other guy to shoot himself in the leg (well, in the Sox case, both legs and an arm). You want them to be at full strength when you rip their heart out.
Rivalry aside, the Sox problems open the door for a new look at an oft-debated topic: chemistry in baseball. Chemistry seems like an obvious component in other team sports. If I don’t like you in football, I might not block. In basketball, I might not pass. Those sort of personal rivalries directly impact the game. But, baseball is a game of individual interactions so, a lot of people believe that team chemistry doesn’t matter because no player’s outcome is directly-dependent on another player’s effort. Put another way, I am not going to intentionally refuse to hit or make a defensive play because I cannot directly hurt any individual teammate in doing so. I wrote as much earlier this season when I was trying to take the counter-point on themed road trips. (In all honesty, I wasn’t totally sold on my position but it made for a fun debate).
The contrast between the Theo/Tito approach and the Friedman/Maddon approach brings the importance of chemistry into focus. The evidence that the Sox collapse was brought on, in large part, by clubhouse discord necessarily validates Joe Maddon’s approach to managing big leaguers and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Friedman’s approach to roster construction.
Lets take Joe first, because he is the easiest to explain. The skipper continues to make headlines for his creative attempts at keeping the baseball season fun. Whether it is music in the clubhouse regardless of the game’s outcome, or theme road trips, or team parties. The Rays have a ton of fun in the clubhouse and, it paid off when they were 9 games out at the start of September. As I wrote back then, the entire roster was on the rail every pitch. That is in stark contrast to the Sox, who were apparently partying in their incredibly tiny clubhouse while teammates were slogging through the hardest month of the season. Joe didn’t have to demand the team support each other. He created an environment that made the players want to support each other.
No, the clubhouse atmosphere didn’t directly influence any particular play, but it had an important indirect influence that my prior analysis missed. If you are happy when you are at work, you are going to work harder and smarter. The easiest way to make people happy at work, is to make sure they are working with people they like. Productivity increases as stress is reduced. That maxim is applicable in my law firm and in a big league clubhouse. The fact of the matter is, big leaguers spend a lot of time together. The length of the season can be excruciating if you are not happy. They spend long hours in clubhouses before and after games, on planes, in hotels. This is hard to understand if you haven’t spent time around a big-league club but it is tangible. The cliques and in-fighting in Boston wore everyone out and, when the going got tough, they couldn’t rally because they just wanted it to be over. They wanted to stop coming to work for a few months. They needed a break from the tension of their strained personal relationships. It had to be like working and traveling with an ex-wife….EVERY DAY.
The Rays on the other hand, had every incentive to keep going. They were living and working in a frat house. What frat member is excited about summer vacation? Every Ray wanted to be in the clubhouse before the game and in the dugout during the game because they wanted to be around each other. They all wanted to participate in the silly superstitions and laugh on the team flight. They all wanted one more weekend on the road, one more story for their grandkids. When you like your co-workers, going to work is fun. The comaraderie in the clubhouse kept the pressure-monster at bay. The Rays were productive because they were happy. The Sox were not because they were unhappy.
But, there is more than just letter-sweaters and train rides at play. Late in the season, Joe Girardi implied that the Rays had an advantage due to the size of their payroll. On its face that sounds ridiculous but, in looking at Boston’s problems, I think he might actually have a valid point. Gross pay disparity in any workplace can be a divisive force. John Lackey’s struggles were certainly exacerbated by his salary. The same goes for Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. Why wouldn’t Jacoby Ellsbury be upset every day when he sees his underperforming teammates — like Kevin Youkilis who criticized him the previous year — buying and selling cars just for the heck of it?
The Rays, due to their limits, didn’t have that problem. The egalitarian nature of the Rays payroll kept each employee’s personal finance from being an issue. Even the biggest stars in the clubhouse were paid below market price. No Ray is significantly richer than anyone else. I am not suggesting that Andrew Friedman intentionally constructed a roster to avoid personal financial conflicts but, by refusing to over-pay any particular player, he built a team that Joe could make into a group of friends. He lessened the impact of poor performance by not taking big financial risks on uncertain outcomes.
In the final analysis, I do not think clubhouse chemistry is an end in itself. I don’t think the Rays could beat more talented teams simply because they got along better. But, when the talent is close — and the talent is going to be close in the AL East every summer for the forseeable future — a good working environment can be the tie-breaker. It can push us ahead by a nose when a nose is all we need.
At the very least, it allows us to have a team that is fun to root for. I cannot imagine what Sox fans are going through right now. The players refused to play hard for management before they were publicly embarrassed. What are they going to do now that they have been outed? Who do you root for next spring? Where do you think Carl Crawford — who, lets not forget, criticized the Rays for “partying” too much late in August, that looks ironic now, doesn’t it? — wishes his locker was going to be in February? Port Charlotte or Fort Myers?