We’ve reached the point in the season at which good teams are looking toward the playoffs—and, to their horror, find themselves imagining some combination of absence or failure. Which is why managers have recently taken to the time-tested strategy of the closed-door meeting.
Last week it was the NL East’s turn. Monday afternoon, Braves skipper Freddi Gonzalez insisted that his team merited no such tactic, despite losing three in a row and 11 of 17. That very night, however, after watching his players go 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position during a 12-inning loss to Florida, he about-faced, closing the doors after batting practice on Tuesday, and gave his team a talking to.
The question, of course, is whether this type of thing has any affect. Overall, the results are decidedly mixed, but the tactic seems to be effective for Atlanta.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Braves last met after a loss to the Mets on June 5, then won six in a row.
“It’s almost like therapy,” said Chipper Jones in the AJC. “You knew what was going to be said, but it still helps to hear it, to say it, to look in your teammates’ eyes and let them see your conviction and know that you can’t help what happens next year. This might be your only opportunity.”
For a historical reference, take the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, who had an August loaded with meetings. After a 7-1 loss to the Pirates in the first game of a doubleheader that Aug. 10, manager Dallas Green tore into his players with such fury that reliever Ron Reed had to be restrained from going after him.
“What Dallas was saying went right to the core,” wrote Tug McGraw in Ya Gotta Believe. “Sometimes it’s not what’s being said as much as it is who’s saying it and when they’re saying it. By this time of the year, Dallas had earned a lot of respect. We all knew he was real and wasn’t just a blowhard. So after the meeting, we went out and won eight of nine, including five in a row from the pitiful Mets.”
Less than two weeks later, however, the team lost the final two games of a series at San Diego, earning another dressing-down—this time by general manager Paul Owens, who singled out Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox for their poor play. Rather than let a player come after him, Owens got proactive, offering to fight whoever was up for the challenge. Philadelphia, 5-7 since that Mets series, went 23-11 to close the season (including 12 one-run victories) and went on to win its first World Series in nearly 100 years of existence.
This year’s version of the Phillies has recently had its own challenges. The same night Gonzalez addressed the Braves, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel “had a little talk” with his players following a poorly played 5-2 loss to the Astros, Philadelphia’s second straight defeat.
Manuel downplayed the incident afterward, but according to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, “he rattled some cages pretty soundly.”
Not that it did much good. Nearly every Phillies player who took the field the following day was utterly ineffective, as they managed just four hits against Houston starter Bud Norris and two relievers. Luckily for Manuel and the good people of Philadelphia, one guy rose to the occasion: Roy Halladay, who spun a complete-game shutout.
It’s not like this is a new tactic; May alone saw at least four such meetings. (Only one of them was unusual, when the Mets closed the clubhouse doors to discuss the inflammatory comments made by owner Fred Wilpon in a New Yorker profile.)
On May 16, Cubs manager Mike Quade lectured his team after Carlos Zambrano blew a four-run, sixth-inning lead in a loss to the Reds. (The message delivered, according to Quade, via the Chicago Tribune: “That was embarrassing. That (stuff) has got to stop. And it’s everybody that was in that room for that meeting. Myself, the players and the coaching staff. It’s just not going to cut it right now.”)
The Cubs lost their next game. After going 6-and-6 over the next two weeks, they then lost eight in a row.
On May 16, Rockies manager Jim Tracy tried to end a 4-11 streak by addressing his club. (The message delivered, according to Tracy, via the Denver Post: “We need to get back to playing the game the way we did in spring training and the early part of the season.”)
The Rockies won their next two games, then went 3-11 over the following two weeks.
On May 22, Padres manager Bud Black called a meeting after his team was swept by Seattle. (The message delivered, according to Heath Bell, via the San Diego Union-Tribune: “We’re major league ballplayers. That no matter who we’re facing, we need to have a chip on our shoulders to go out there and win every single day.”)
San Diego lost three of its next four.
Heck, Mariners manager Eric Wedge closed his clubhouse doors on April 16—two weeks into the season—to berate his hapless club, which had just gone 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position against the Royals to drop its 11th game in 13 contests. (The message delivered, according to Wedge, via the Seattle Times: “I want them to have the mindset that’s aggressive and such to where we’re up there ready for anything.”)
Unlike the above teams, the Mariners actually responded, splitting their next eight games before winning five in a row on the road against Detroit and Boston.
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It goes without saying that struggling teams call such meetings with significantly more frequency than those that are winning. One trick to a successful meeting, according to the New York Daily News, is to “always hold your clubhouse meetings the day before your best pitcher is pitching.” That was written in 2000, in response to Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who aired out his team after a 12-4 loss to the Braves—one day before Al Leiter took the hill. (Sure enough, Leiter was perfect into the sixth, and the Mets beat Atlanta, 6-3, making Valentine look like a genius.)
Of course, not all such meetings are simply about playing better. They also serve as a forum for players to air out grievances. (In a 1990 meeting, San Diego’s Jack Clark, Mike Pagliarulo and Garry Templeton verbally ganged up on Tony Gwynn, accusing the star outfielder of caring more about his own statistics than the team. In 1997, Dodgers Eric Karros and Ismael Valdez had to be separated after Karros criticized the pitcher during a meeting.)
Occasionally, management will get involved. (During a meeting in 2006, for example, Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons challenged Shea Hillenbrand to a fight after the third baseman allegedly wrote “This is a sinking ship” on a clubhouse whiteboard.)
In 1983, Yankees manager Billy Martin called a team meeting—reporters included—so he could chew out New York Post writer Henry Hecht with extremely lively language for what he felt was inflammatory reporting. (In Martin’s defense, he was correct in his assessment.) The manager threatened to dump Hecht in the whirlpool if he so much as stepped foot in the manager’s office again.
“It was probably the best clubhouse meeting we ever had,” wrote Graig Nettles in Balls.
In 1971, Cubs manager Leo Durocher called a closed-door meeting in which he encouraged players to open up about what they thought was going wrong with the season. As it turned out, many of them thought the answer was Durocher himself; Ron Santo, Joe Pepitone and Ken Holtzman all criticized Durocher’s managerial style. Things got so heated that Santo had to be restrained by Billy Williams and Jim Hickman from going after the skipper. Team owner Phillip Wrigley responded by taking out a full-page ad in all four of Chicago’s daily papers, saying that it was Durocher’s team, and that anybody who didn’t like it could be moved in the off-season. He ended with the statement, “If only we could find more players like Ernie Banks.”
Durocher was fired midway through the following season.
Still, not all such gatherings are so morose. When Frank Robinson managed the Giants in 1984, he responded to an early-May slump by gathering the team for a talking to by “Dr. Johnson,” a local psychologist, with the message that “she will give you a good pep talk.”
When the “doctor” began to peel off her business suit in time to music pouring from a boombox in her briefcase, the skipper’s true intention became very clear.
“We still went out and lost that night,” said pitcher Mark Grant, “but we certainly had more fun.”