Managing Adversity
April 20, 2007

I had my first experience as a Little League coach last year.... well, to be completely accurate it was Tee-ball, not actual Little League.  The team's head coach was an older gent who was reputed to have had considerable success coaching high school and college players.  Anyway, he was pretty up front from the get-go that he knew what he was doing, because he knew "more about baseball" than I did.  His words, not mine.  He didn't know my name, but he knew that he knew more.  Which is no big deal because there are certainly enough people out there who do.  

So I was a bit surprised when his first practices focused entirely on hitting the ball the Tom Emanski way.  No fielding or throwing, just swinging the bat at underhand pitches.  His method was also a bit of a surprise to opposing teams' coaches.  You might be asking yourself how did they know that he didn't teach the kids anything about fielding or throwing?  Because anytime the other teams' kids hit a ball, every player on this team would run after it.  They not only ran after it, imagine a grounder rolling into right field, followed by a dog pile of five-year olds culminating in a epic struggle worthy of  Frazetta painting as to who would get to throw the ball back into the infield.  It's really cute to watch on video, but not quite as satisfying when these are the kids you are trying to teach how to play baseball.  It got so bad that opposing coaches started setting these kids up at their positions and teaching them who's responsibility the balls in play were.  

I don't doubt this guy knows a lot about baseball, especially about teaching baseball.  But what is abundantly clear is that what he knows about baseball is limited to teaching kids who are at least high school age.  Teaching five year olds the most basic elements of the game was not his forte.  For one, the ball is on the tee so they don't really need to have perfect hitting mechanics.  Let them have the fantasy of hitting like their favorite players, whether it be Albert Pujols, Gary Sheffield, Julio Franco or Craig Counsell.  Their crazy batting stances didn't prevent them from becoming major leaguers.  Cal Ripken had a new batting stance just about every other day, but he managed to be a pretty good hitter.  Secondly, even with light aluminum bats most five year olds don't have the forearm or wrist strength to control a bat even if they did know the proper form.  However, throwing mechanics might be good to know.  Knowing where and how to position oneself to get a groundball without taking one in the face would be good to know.  Knowing which base to throw to might be good to know.  The infielders knowing that they don't have to run after any ball hit to the outfield because that's what outfielders are for... that too would be good to know.  But most importantly, yelling at them for not knowing things that should have been taught them in practice certainly won't do anything to cultivate their enthusiasm for the game, which is really the only thing one should be concentrating on with five-year olds.

But that brings me to something that probably doesn't get much play in the media, particularly now with all the news surrounding Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.  That thing is that every major league manager is really good at some aspect of managing.  Being a major league manager is not just about knowing who to pinch hit for or knowing how to do a double switch.  It's as much about things that happen off the field - soothing egos, building confidence, mediating disputes - as it is game strategy.  

For example, Bruce Bochy is notorious for making poor game decisions.  He used to love to hit and run with the pitcher at the plate and a catcher standing at first.  He's also famous for experimenting with his bullpen set-up in April to find out who he can trust in different situations, then going on autopilot for the rest of the season regardless of how well or poorly a reliever is performing.  That said, there probably isn't any manager who does a better job of managing a clubhouse over the course of a season and no manager gets more respect from his players for the way he treats them.  For that, no manager gets more effort form his players than Bochy.

Buck Showalter is well known for the discipline he brings to a team.  Some players, perhaps a lot of players, need that kind of order in their lives.  But after a while that can wear a little thin on grown men earning millions of dollars.  Eventually they need someone who will just let them play.  That's why two teams won World Series the year after Showalter was fired.  After Buck taught them how to play, they just needed someone to let them.  

But back to Manuel... radio host Howard Eskin has been extremely critical of Manuel's managing style.  And to be honest, there's plenty to be critical about.  But Eskin's criticism is that the Philly players aren't exerting enough effort.  That's the last thing the Phillies are struggling with.  In fact, it's such an absurd argument it's almost laughable.  Last year the Philles not only had the league MVP, but Chase Utley hit .300 with 30 homers (something only five other second basemen have ever done), Jimmy Rollins hit 25 homers, scored 100 runs and stole more than 30 bases (something only three other shortstops have ever done) and had a centerfielder practically run through the outfield wall going after a flyball.  When you have guys running through walls and doing things that only a handful of people have ever done in the game, effort is not your problem.  

What is the Phillies problem is a manager who doesn't know how to manage a pitching staff and who doesn't think particularly clearly during critical points of the game.  For a team that has enough talent to win it all, that's a bad combination.  I'm sure there is a managerial situation that would be perfect for Manuel, maybe with a young team that needs someone to teach them the right way to play the game.  Whatever it is, Manuel has strengths as a manager even though they aren't obvious to anyone outside the organization.  He just needs to find the right situation for his skills.  Philadephia isn't it.  Eskin has the right solution, just the wrong reason for it.

Even though he had a rough outing, there's no reason to demote Rick VandenHurk unless the Marlins think he has lost confidence.  His stuff is plenty good to be a really good major league pitcher.  The Mets got to him Thursday because in the third inning he got predictable with his pitches (part of the blame should be put on Miguel Olivo), he started overthrowing and got almost no help from Josh Willingham in left field, who with the way he reads the ball off the bat, is obviously a catcher playing the outfield.  

In the third the trouble began when Willingham played what should have been either an out or a hard single by Jose Reyes into a triple.  After striking out Beltran, Hurk didn't want any part of Moises Alou who had hit his fastball hard in the first inning to score a run.  So he walked him to put men at first and third.  No big deal.  Next was Carlos Delgado, whom he had caught looking at a nasty hook in the first.  This time around, Delgado was looking for it.  Olivo kept calling for it, but VandenHurk was reluctant to go to it again.  He finally obliged and Delgado's patience paid off with a double to the wall.  He next had David Wright down in the count and could have put him away had he just used his change to get a groundball, but he was overthrowing badly at this point and couldn't get anything over for a strike.  Wright drew a walk which brought up Shawn Green.  Again, Vanden Hurk could have put the hitter away easily had he just taken a deep breath and resumed pitching instead of throwing.  Green got a ball over the heart of the plate and slapped it over Willinghan for a double.  After he hung a change to Ramon Castro, he finally regained his composure to strike out Jose Valentin.  

His strikeout of Beltran in the third, the second time he had gotten him, was a thing of beauty.  In the first inning, he got him looking on a low fastball but once Beltran saw other Mets hitters going down on that nasty curve, he was sure he was going to see it his next time up.  Olivo kept calling for it, but VandenHurk kept working his fastball up instead and got Beltran swinging at pitches well above the strikezone.  Had he taken a deep breath, trusted his instincts and gone with a high fastball to Delgado instead of the curve in the third, he probably would have escaped the inning with no damage instead of 6 runs.  Chalk up this bad outing to growing pains.  VandenHurk has very good instincts for setting up hitters and once he has enough confidence to shake off the catcher and throw what he knows is the right pitch, he'll be terrific.

I'll be the first to predict it - Alex Rodriguez will hit 70 homers this year.  He's having a monster season so far and I think it will continue all season long unabated.  That guy has taken more unfair abuse from the New York media and fans than anyone deserves and he's channelling three years of frustration onto the field.  It's just a shame that fans so underserving will get to see this historic season.  Last time I was in New York I asked a cabbie why he though the Yankees didn't win the World Series last year.  He blamed ARod.  Not the pitching, or any other player or even acknowledged the possibility that the Tigers might have been the better team.  No, it was ARod's fault.  The baseball gods are dismayed that their greatest creation has been so under-appreciated and so they are blessing him with a season for the ages.  

Just to be clear how amazingly good he is, even though he won't turn 32 years old until late July he will finish this season with more than 500 career home runs (probably as many as 525) and maybe as many as 1500 RBIs and 1500 runs scored.  In five more years he should be a slam dunk to be passing 700 career homers.  That still puts him six years younger than Barry Bonds is right now but in roughly the same spot on the all-time home run list.  Also in five more years he should be passing 2200 runs scored and 2200 RBIs.  That means by the time he is 38 years old, there's a very real chance that Alex Rodriguez will not only be the all-time home run king, but also the all-time leader in runs scored and RBI...  and he will still have several years left to play.  This is the guy that Yankee fans booed and the New York media labeled as an underachiever.  Imagine how bad it would be if the stink of steroid use was hanging over him the way it is with Bonds.

The great Frank Deford compared ARod to Wilt Chamberlain recently, another amazing talent that was overly-criticized and under-appreciated.  Chamberlain, without much question, was the greatest basketball player who ever lived.  There are arguments for others, but none of them come close to matching his individual achievements.  He averaged more than 50 points a game for a season, led the league in scoring seven times, rebounds eleven times and even assists once.  He's the only man ever to average more than 40 points a game for a season and he did it twice.  He holds five of the six best seasons ever for scoring average and six of the top seven best seasons for rebounding.  His worst season rebounding ranks 36th best all-time; only seven other players have ever recorded more rebounds in a season than Chamberlain's worst season.  The NBA started recording block shots as a stat because of him.  The primary criticism leveled at Chamberlain is that he didn't win nearly as many championships (2) as the perception that he should have.  The problem, however, is not with Chamberlain but with his opposition in the playoffs.  Seven times in his 14 year career, his teams lost to the Boston Celtics, a team that had six of the NBA's top 50 players of all time; Michael Jordan never played against a team that had more than three.  Neither did Bill Russell, who was unquestionably the leader of those great Celtic teams but also a beneficiary.  Had Chamberlain faced the competition either of those guys did, he undoubtedly would have had many more rings.  Chamberlain was still one of the best players in the NBA when he retired, averaging 43 minutes played, 13 points, 18 boards and better than 4 assists per game in his final season.  

Did hating Goliath run Chamberlain out of basketball prematurely?  Probably.  Will ARod also reach the same conclusion?  Maybe.  So can we please not make the same mistake with ARod that we did with Chamberlain and just appreciate the talent while we're seeing it?

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