Managers Protect Their Players, The Baseball Codes

On Managers Protecting Their Players: Strasburg Saga Shows Baker Going to Bat for his Boys

Dusty Nats

For a while there, it appeared that Tanner Roark would start the make-or-break NLDS Game 4 for the Washington Nationals instead of Stephen Strasburg. This struck most people as odd because while both were fully rested, Strasburg is an excellent pitcher, Roark somewhat less so. Up until a couple hours before game time, though, the Nationals said that Roark would get the call. We’re still not totally sure why.

At first, Washington manager Dusty Baker attributed it to Strasburg having thrown a full bullpen session on Tuesday, leaving him too depleted to make the start. Then we found out that the right-hander had actually thrown on Monday.

Baker mentioned something about mold in the team hotel. He hinted at Strasburg (and other players, maybe) being under the weather. What he didn’t say, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did, was that the pitcher had effectively removed himself from the rotation:

The Nationals were all set to pitch him Wednesday in Game 4 at 4:08 p.m. ET (TBS) at Wrigley Field, trailing 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs, only for Strasburg to decline.

He told them he’s under the weather.

He informed the Nationals’ staff that he ran a half-mile Tuesday afternoon, was wheezing during his run and simply isn’t prepared to start Wednesday, even though he’d be on regular rest, according to a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ pitching plans.

This is not a story about whether Strasburg’s decision was appropriate, or what ultimately led him to reconsider. It is a story about the steps major league managers take to shield their players from unnecessary—and often unflattering—attention. It is the reason that Baker has long been known as a “player’s manager,” someone able to get maximum production out of guys who adore him. For any faults in Baker’s managerial accumen, this is an undeniable strength.

It is not difficult to see what the opposite approach can bring. For an example, look toward the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, with Oakland needing to win two straight against the Angels to force a divisional tie. Barry Zito pitched exceedingly well for the A’s, giving up three hits and two walks over seven innings, at which point Oakland held a 4-2 lead. Then manager Ken Macha pulled him, the bullpen imploded, and the A’s lost, 5-4, missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.

One problem for Zito was that after the game, Macha told reporters that Zito could have pitched the eighth if he wanted to. The left-hander—who’d thrown 114 pitches and was suffering from cramping in his legs—had decided that the team’s fortunes would be better off with its bullpen, and asked out. Macha let everyone know.

Asked about the revelation in the postgame clubhouse, Zito was dismayed. “Obviously, I’m the ass around here,” he told reporters. He waited until Macha was fired two years later, however, to truly unburden himself, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “I felt like [Macha] didn’t protect me.”

Zito was hardly alone. With the manager gone, players up and down the roster began to chime in. Earlier in the season, Macha had described the absence of outfielder Mark Kotsay—who had battled a back injury all season long—in a game against Tampa Bay as “puzzling.” Two days earlier, Kotsay said he’d needed to duct-tape himself together to simply show up to the ballpark.

“I felt disrespected,” Kotsay said upon Macha’s dismissal. “The ‘puzzling’ comment really threw me. My manager didn’t have my back, and every manager’s first business is to protect his players. That totally lost my trust in that relationship, between us as player and manager.”

The commentary didn’t stop there. “I know that the one thing any player wants from his manager is to be protected,” added A’s catcher Jason Kendall. “If there’s a bang-bang play at first, even if you’re out, if you’re arguing, you want someone there behind you. If you argue a pitch, even if you’re wrong, you want someone joining in. And I’m not sure Macha did that.”

This is a lot of calories burned by players on a guy who no longer had any influence over them. It shows just how deeply such actions can cut.

Another example can be found from the 1966 season, when Astros second baseman Ron Brand took the fall after rookie shortstop Sonny Jackson mishandled the feed on a potential double-play against Pittsburgh, enabling a rally that eventually cost Houston the game. It was a calculated move on Brand’s part, protecting his young teammate from criticism. That very day, the Astros acquired aging infielder Gene Freese, batting .208, from the White Sox. When Houston began its next series against the Mets, Brand was shocked to see Freese’s name in the starting lineup in place of his own. Freese hadn’t played second base regularly in a decade. Brand figured it had something to do with the error.

Speaking to manager Grady Hatton about it, he addressed the issue directly, asking whether Hatton thought the play was his fault. “No,” said the manager, “I know what happened. But I can’t leave myself open to criticism by playing a catcher at second base.” (Brand’s primary position was catcher, but he had been signed as a shortstop and had fielded well as a fill-in second baseman.)

“He threw me under the bus, is what he did,” said Brand, still rankled years later.

In 2006, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen—perhaps feeling a bit invincible after winning the World Series the previous season—actually boasted about his ability to publicly roast his players. A feature in Playboy introduced him with the following sentiment:

Guillen proudly claims he “’leads the league in throwing players under the bus.” Last season he suggested White Sox pitcher Damaso Marte was faking an injury, blamed veteran hitter Frank Thomas for contributing to the team’s prior bad attitude and called former White Sox player Magglio Ordonez a piece of shit. During a September losing streak, Guillen told the press, “We flat-out stink.”

Guillen did not hold back on his rationale. “My pitcher, Mark Buehrle, said in the press last season that the Texas Rangers were using light signals to cheat,” he said. “When they asked me about it, I said the way Buehrle was throwing, Texas didn’t need to cheat. He was throwing shit. The next day, Brandon McCarthy threw an eight-inning shutout for us. If I had protected Buehrle, people would have wondered what the fuck I was talking about. So I throw my players under the bus because I don’t want them to have an excuse for anything. If you’re horseshit, you’re horseshit. If you’re good, you’re good. Don’t make yourself look like an idiot.”

That season, White Sox players drove over a t-shirt, leaving tire treads, wrote “Under the bus” on it, and presented it to the manager.

***

On the other hand, managers who do the opposite, like Baker, are enduringly appreciated. Protection covers on-field miscues, hangover- or STD-induced absences, and any other manner of impropriety. It has nothing to do with internal discipline, which can be meted out in any way the manager sees fit—only the public perception about what’s actually happening.

One guy who came around entirely was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In Williams’ first gig, with the Red Sox in the late 1960s, his success was undeniable, but his style was so grating that he was fired midway into the 1969 season despite having recently led Boston to its first World Series in 21 years, and second since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.

Among the clubhouse complaints was Williams’ habit of conducting postgame interviews nearby the locker of whichever player may have made an error in that night’s game, and, in the words of pitcher Bill Lee, “pointing out how horseshit he was.” It was an expedient way to lose support among the ranks.

By the time Williams got his next job, in Oakland, he was just as hard-edged—he went off on players all the time—but he had learned to do it in private. Not only that, but the manager went out of his way to protect his players from the press. A prime example came during the 1972 World Series, when first baseman Mike Epstein accosted Williams on a team flight about having been removed for a defensive replacement late in Game 2. It was an alcohol-fueled, profanity-laden tirade, unleashed in full view of the reporters who traveled with the team. Williams, in no mood, shouted right back. By morning, details were being reported across the country, and Williams did what he had to do. From Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic:

The following day the manager, eyes firmly on the Reds, walked back his previous sentiments. “I can’t blame a ballplayer for feeling bad about coming out,” he told the press, confirming that Epstein would be in the starting lineup for Game 3, again batting cleanup. “If he feels bad about coming out, that shows that he wants to play. And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.” It was Williams at his best. He needed Epstein’s focus in Game 3; sacrificing himself on a public pyre was a small price to pay for it.”

Seven days later, the A’s won the World Series, and went on to win the next two as well. Ultimately, Williams’s reaction is the kind of thing that leads to winning baseball.

There’s a reason Baker is a three-time manager of the year.

Advertisements
Managers Protect Their Players

1973: Billy Goes to Bat for his Boys

Billy MartinResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest is from September 5, 1973, and has to do the Detroit Tigers. The topic is ostensibly cheating, but, if we take it at face value, actually concerns managers protecting their players. From the Associated Press:

Billy Martin claims he lied about the incident which led to his being fired as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

Martin says he never told pitchers Joe Coleman and Fred Scherman it to throw spitballs in a game last week against Cleveland.

Coleman and catcher Duke Sims, meanwhile, also say Martin didn’t order spitters thrown.

“They had gotten together with Duke Sims in the dugout and decided to prove to the umpires that they (umpires) didn’t know what a spitter was,” Martin told one reporter. “The first I knew about it was when I saw Coleman wetting his fingers on the mound.”

“Once that happened I had to stand behind my players,” he continued. “I knew they’d be fined or suspended for what they had done, and I couldn’t let that happen. I needed them to pitch.”

Martin told newsmen after last Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Indians’ alleged spitball specialist Gaylord Perry that he had ordered the illegal pitches to bring controversy “to a head.”

“I’m admitting it,” he said then. “We threw spitters tonight. Obvious spitters. On purpose.”

He said it was at his order.

Friday, Martin was suspended by American League President Joe Cronin, who said the action was taken “for directing your pitchers to throw illegal pitches and publicly stating that you have done so.”

Sunday, Martin was fired by Jim Campell, Tigers general manager, who said the spitball incident wasn’t the sole reason but the final straw in a long line of incidents leading to the sacking.

Bonus fun: Figure out how Martin created controversy with his 1972 baseball card, above!

Bobby Valentine, Kevin Youkilis, Managers Protect Their Players, Sports Illustrated.com

Now at SI.com: Bobby Valentine Sometimes Says Stupid Things

My latest is up over at Sports Illustrated.com, involving Bobby Valentine‘s recent comments about Kevin Youkilis. You can click over there to see a full-color photo of Bobby V during game action, or you can save your mouse-clicking finger and just scroll down. (Bonus points for reading it here: The original, un-edited ending!)

One update: Between the time I turned in the copy yesterday and this morning, video of Valentine’s press conference, in which he discusses the situation, has been posted on the Red Sox Web site. In it, the manager says that he talked to Youkilis “during the game” (this after an earlier apology did not appear to go well), and that, instead of everything being fine, “it is what it is.”

If things don’t get better in a hurry over there, it’s pretty clear they’re going to get a lot worse.

On to SI:

Bobby Valentine was brought to Boston as a knee-jerk reaction to a perfect storm of last year’s late-season collapse, wild accusations about allegedly dispassionate players, and a clubhouse culture that allowed such accusations to surface in the first place.

Blaming Terry Francona is one thing, but expecting a guy like Valentine — long on baseball acumen but short on verbal filters — to provide a calming influence to a team in turmoil was, at best, a crapshoot. Not yet two weeks into the the 2012 regular season, Valentine is embroiled in his first controversy.

It may seem innocuous, going on television as Valentine did and saying that Kevin Youkilis is not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” It was a phrase amid an otherwise complementary comment; Valentine is obviously invested in Youkilis’ success, and he made sure to note that his third baseman’s slow start appears to be turning around.

None of that matters, of course. In baseball, a manager’s primary duty away from the field is to protect his players at any cost, usually from the media, at least until the point that a player leaves him no other option. If Youkilis has somehow already reached that point with Valentine, if his manager felt that calling him out in a local television interview was the only recourse left to reach him, well, that would constitute a newsworthy story. Other than his manager’s off-the-cuff banter, however, there is no indication that this is the case.

Instead, Valentine and the Red Sox are left to deal with the fallout, which serves to illustrate precisely why managers are expected to be measured in public statements about their players. Now, instead of coming to the ballpark and focusing on the game at hand, Youkilis has to answer questions about his manager’s lack of confidence, in addition to questions about his slump. Now, Dustin Pedroia has to step back from his own preparations in order, as a team leader, to defend his compatriot. Now, the rest of Boston’s players have to wonder what it might take before their manager publicly questions them, as well. Now, Valentine, the man brought in to help manage a media circus, has added a ring to the big top, and — inadvertently or not — is forcing his players to dance through hoops before they reach the field.

The unwritten rule to protect your players is why Whitey Herzog refused to admit that Keith Hernandez’s drug use (and his subsequent untruths when discussing it) were motivating factors in his being dealt to the Mets in 1983, even as the manager took considerable grief for the deal.

This rule is why Joe Torre, after Roger Clemens threw a bat shard at Mike Piazza during the 2001 World Series, refrained from storming out of his postgame interview amid a battery of leading questions. He knew Clemens was to follow him in front of the press, and wanted to absorb the difficult queries himself.

This rule is why Tony La Russa defended Jose Canseco long after steroid accusations against him became part of the public dialogue, and it is likely why he continued to defend Mark McGwire against similar charges after even many of his staunchest defenders had long since given up.

This rule is why Arizona manager Bob Brenly so vociferously attacked Ben Davis in the press following the Padres catcher’s bunt single that broke up Curt Schilling‘s perfect game in 2001. It was less because Brenly was angry at Davis, he said, and more because he wanted his pitcher to know that he “was looking out for his interests.”

For a clear comparison, consider two baseball stories, both of which involve pitchers being pulled from games in which their teams led by identical 4-2 scores. In one, A’s manager Ken Macha discussed with the press the fact that Barry Zito removed himself from the penultimate game of the 2004 season, with the division on the line against the Angels, after 114 pitches. Zito logged seven full innings, but Oakland’s bullpen gave up three quick runs, and Anaheim went on to win the game and a spot in the postseason. There was heat for pulling an effective pitcher, and Macha wanted no part of it.

In the other, Tigers manager Mayo Smith opted in 1969 to keep quiet about the fact that he pulled his own starting pitcher, Denny McLain, with one out in the sixth inning, after McLain warned him that he was tiring. Reliever Darryl Patterson came on and gave up, in order, a single, a walk, a sacrifice fly and a three-run homer; Detroit lost, 6-4.

Afterward, with media speculation raging about Smith’s decision to remove his star pitcher so early, the manager refrained from divulging the fact that McLain had effectively removed himself, not to mention that he had left the park altogether by the eighth inning. Smith kept quiet even when telling the truth would have deflected criticism. Valentine didn’t even have that for motivation.

Valentine has publicly apologized to Youkilis, but a question for players in the Boston clubhouse may soon arise—if it hasn’t already—about what kind of manager they want to play for. If the answer is less Ken Macha and more Mayo Smith—or less Bobby Valentine and more anybody—but anybody—else, then the manager has far bigger things to worry about than Kevin Youkilis’ early-season hitting woes.