There were a lot of cool perks that came with my 8 seasons on the Devil Rays’ PR staff. My favorite, however, was the opportunity to observe Major League players and managers in their native environment.
One of my primary duties during many of those 8 seasons was to assist the visiting PR staff (only one member of a team’s PR staff is in the travel party).
That put me in a lot of different managers’ offices and gave me the opportunity how the greats and the not-so-greats skippered the ship.
Good baseball, obviously, requires a lot of intricate managerial strategy. In fact, outside of the NFL, I think you could argue that baseball managers have more effect on the outcome of games than coaches in any other sport. (And, if you share my opinion that the NFL is incredibly -and unnecessarily- overcoached, then perhaps you would also conclude that MLB managers are the most important coaches in sports.)
But, based on my own observation, strategy alone isn’t sufficient to successfully skipper a big league club. The best managers are also great motivators. The baseball season is a long, hard slog. Good managers know that a long dry spell at any point in the season can remove an otherwise qualified team from postseason contention. So, part of the skipper’s job is to ensure that his team shows up to the yard ready to play despite a 5-hour, overnight, cross country flight or a getaway-day matinee in front of senior citizens and kids from summer camp. Managers have to prevent their teams from thinking ‘hey, we have 161 other games, this one isn’t important.’
“Motivating” a group of Major League baseball players is a more subtle art than rallying a college football team before kickoff. Managing is less Knute Rockne and more Lou Brown.
Some managers, like Joe Torre, motivated their players through a consistent approach. Torre and Bobby Cox were in their office at the same time every day. They did the same pre-game work every day. Nothing changed. That quiet confidence passed along to their teams who undertook their own jobs in a similar fashion. (This approach, is heavily reliant on veteran talent that already know how to go about their daily routine).
Other good motivators, like Tony LaRussa and Lou Piniella, kept their teams focused through their own personal intensity. Tony and Lou express that West Tampa intensity at different times and in different ways but, each creates an environment in which their players expend incredible effort to avoid the skipper’s scrutiny. (This approach, in my opinion, works through the dog days but, tends to burn players out before October).
Some managers use their own personal experience to keep their teams balanced. Frank Robinson was really good, apparently, at using stories from his playing days to show his players that everyone, even the greats, hit rough spots. (In fact, right before Robinson finished his tenure in Washington, he speculated to my boss and I during BP that less than 10 of the guys in the Nats clubhouse knew that he was a Major Leaguer, much less a Hall of Famer. Digest that for a minute. There were 15 Major Leaguers that talked to Frank Robinson everyday who had no idea who Robby was. Incredible. Ultimately, that undermined one of his great strengths as a skipper and, in my opinion, pushed him out of the game.)
Still other good motivators keep things light in the clubhouse to keep their teams from the downward spiral brought on by negative thoughts. Tom Kelly, for example, was the first manager I remember that allowed music in the postgame clubhouse regardless of whether the Twins won or lost. His young team at the time worked to win but, didn’t spend all night obsessing over a loss. They moved on to the next day with ease.
All of that comes full circle to Joe Maddon who, despite his advanced number crunching and creative player use, might be the best motivator in baseball. Joe fits all those descriptions above. He is steadfastly ritualistic and intensely prepared but keeps his players free and easy. This balance between a light, loose pre and post game clubhouse and a laser in-game focus is groundbreaking, based on my short experience. Joe’s approach has allowed him to take a group of young players (who, at the time of his arrival would fairly have been described as prima donnas) and turn them into seasoned Major Leaguers with good, Major League work habits without fanfare or evaluation.
All of this occurred to me this morning when I was reading Roger Mooney’s entertaining recap of Raheem Morris’s day in Rays camp. Say what you want about Morris – and I say a lot, trust me – but the guy has shown the ability to motivate his young players. In fact, I think a lot of NFL teams look at Morris and other young coaches as the new prototype. No more old, crusty, unpleasant guys stalking the sidelines yelling about a player’s mother. Today’s NFL players do not respond to that kind of intimidation. They are too rich and have been too pampered throughout their lives. Today’s NFL player needs a buddy, like Morris. And Morris has pressed that advantage with his team perhaps putting a nail in the coffin of the Vince Lombardi stereotype.
Maddon, likewise, has broken the old taboos for big league skippers. (I doubt, for example, that Al Lopez would have allowed Jon McKay to visit one of his spring camps, much less participate in a long drive contest and make a pitching change during a game). And, I would say that Maddon’s run of success means that 31 other teams are currently scouring their minor league systems for similarly innovative managerial prospects. The era of Connie Mack may finally be dead in Major League baseball and Joe deserves more credit for ending it.