I never want to write about baseball, because there are so many fans who know so much more about the game than I do. But as a third-level Washington Nationals fan (Red Sox first, Braves second), I’ve enjoyed the luxury, after many a year, of rooting for a major league baseball team resident in my metropolitan area. The media coverage allows for in-depth understanding of team dynamics—the players, the coaches, the owners. For better or for worse, I know what is going on, and I appreciate what these professional athletes go through every day, who they are, and how the individual and team dynamics shift, slide, shuffle over the long season. (The old Cardinals and Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan wrote a great baseball book called The Long Season about his 1959 experience; a must read.) Indeed, the uniquely long season, 154 games in Brosnan’s day, 162 today, contributes mightily to baseball’s being a unique team sport.
This year our Washington Nationals were projected to be a shoo-in for a World Series experience long before the snows melted and the dirt thawed on baseball diamonds across the country. Talk around the Hot Stove League (village pundits in old-fashioned general merchandise and hardware stores huddled around the old wood-burner to keep warm) was that the extra year’s maturing of their young squad and the retaining of some old pros –$13M to 32-year-old pitcher Dan Haren, $28M/2 yr to 33-year-old closer Raphael Soriano, and $24M/2 yr to keep 33-year-old slugger and slick fielder Adam LaRoche after a career year–was just the mixture to put the Nats over the top.
As I write this on July 28 the Nationals are floundering, 3 games under .500, 8 ½ games behind the Braves in their division, and this after winning three of their last four games. Every fan had an innate if intangible sense–even fear–coming out of Spring Training that something was wrong, that the hype was just that, and trouble lay ahead. The Nationals’ best young pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, did not have one solid outing all spring. He began erratically and is now pitching better, but he’s getting no run support. Indeed, offensive production from Spring Training forward has been the biggest failure for these Nationals. Only Bryce Harper was hitting well in March and beyond, and he ran into a wall early in the season, resulting in a knee injury and much reduced performance. Two or three weeks into the season it was pretty clear that the team was in trouble. Danny Espinosa, their second baseman, was striking out at an alarming rate; their displaced closer, Drew Storen, was getting nobody out in his setup role. They missed their biggest slugger and emotional core player, Mike Morse, who was exiled to Seattle. The entire team lapsed into a kind of catatonic stupor, and nobody, players, coaching staff, or manager knew what to do.
Meanwhile the local sports pundits—Tom Boswell, Adam Kilgore, Mike Wise, Dave Steinberg, et al.—were writing “they’ll snap out of it any day” columns regularly for the first three months of the season, and the TV sports anchors were echoing it. These folks are supposed to be astute observers of the game and the team, but they are just now catching on, as the “Unraveling of the Nationals” story in today’s Washington Post signifies. From “nothing’s really wrong” to “what went wrong” in a couple of weeks. Zowie!
It has always astonished me that consummate sports professionals need motivation to be at their best, but they do. The manager doesn’t always have to impart fear, but there has to be something more visceral than “respect” for a manager when things start to go awry. Even a double World Championship manager like Terry Francona of the Boston Red Sox completely lost his team in September 2011. Chemistry does not last forever. Good managers don’t get stupid overnight, any more than they get smart when they have excellent personnel. But the right fit between manager and team is never eternal. As Warren Spahn, best of all MLB left-handed pitchers, said of the famed mentor who was on the bench with him at the early stages, and then the tail end, of his career, “I played for Casey Stengel both before and after he was a genius.”
Davey Johnson of the Nationals personifies this phenomenon. He came out of higher management “retirement” to coach the Nationals in 2011 when his predecessor unexpectedly quit. Johnson did a wonderful job with the Nats, especially in 2012. Having overseen the debuts of Stephen Strasburg (post-surgery) and Bryce Harper, and having earned his players’ trust and respect, he coaxed high level performances from them, individually and as a unit, and he got them into the post-season, albeit briefly. His attitude has been unfailingly positive, but he his firm on his own principles, such as putting Strasburg on a pitch count in his first season after elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Yet this year as his team has underperformed he acts shell-shocked and clueless. No fire, no anger, no passion. He now appears to be a great manager for a front-running, overachieving team, when he can be positive and supportive, and stay pretty much out of the players’ way. In the face of this year’s crisis, however, he seems to be a terrible motivator of underachievers and unimaginative about how to shake things up. It would be nice to see Johnson visibly upset, and with some kind of clue about how to motivate his players beyond moving a few of them up and down the batting order. Fans and players alike deserve more.
The immediate problem is that the team is not going to fire Johnson, since he announced his post-season retirement before the campaign began. Perhaps the players, knowing he is a lame duck, have lost respect and the will to play hard for him. Without strong and purposeful managerial direction the season is pretty much sunk, as the players’ performances have largely rendered it anyway. Building for next year? They still have a good core, but they will need to start with new leadership, a necessarily different managerial vision, with every player earning his respect from a different leader. As a Red Sox fan, I suggest a look at the Red Sox’ September 2011, and their entire ensuing 2012 season, to see what that looks like. It is not pretty.
A Davey Johnson Postscript: Davey Johnson played for 13 years in the big leagues. In that time he hit 136 home runs. His home run totals were double-digit on five occasions: 10, 10, 15, 18, and, in 1973, playing for the Braves, 43. Yes, he hit 32%, nearly 1/3, of all the home runs he ever hit in one year. His career slugging percentage was .404, but in 1973 it was .546, or 35% higher than his career number. The one sports stat that pops into my mind in this context is Floyd Landis and his 11:1 T/E ratio in 2006’s Tour de France.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.