This week we all saw two remarkable (historic?) baseball events. I actually was in the stands for the first—the Angels no-hitting the Dodgers, but losing. That one seemed to come from nowhere, sneak up like an October Indian summer day, a bolt of dry lightning in the backyard. The crowd was stunned more than anything else: did that really just happen?
But the other event was different. The Tampa Bay Rays, with the best record in baseball at the season’s halfway point? After winning just 66 a year ago? Remarkable of course, but unlike the odd events in Dodger Stadium that came from nowhere, this one has come from…well, from Somewhere.
It’s worthwhile assessing why, and how, and where the path leads next.
First off, remarkable as the Rays season has been, the main significance of it isn’t whether they actually win the division, or make the playoffs—it’s that expectations about the team have changed. ESPN actually is taking them more seriously—reluctantly maybe—but winning forces the media’s hand. More knowledgeable people already knew better, of course. Other teams took notice long before the media, but somehow it all seemed like a fluke…but not anymore, not with the legitimacy of magazine covers and nationally televised games. But most critically, the expectations about the team have changed from within. Players who are on the club are excited, they act like a real team. And players who aren’t on the Rays are beginning to wonder what it would be like to be part of the team. And that really is the key to sustainability.
This was no bolt of lightning, but the result of a methodical plan. And like any plan, it needs constant re-evaluation. The key wrinkle it seems to me is that it’s happened faster than management expected. Instead of flying under the radar for another year, the goals have changed. Do the Rays make a big trade before the deadline? Is it necessary? These are not questions that management expected to have to seriously contemplate this year. That was a 2009 “problem”, according to plan.
But it is indeed a problem today, the “good kind”, in the words typically found in corporate management quarterly reports.
What to do?
First, perspective: We would be getting way in front of our skis to suggest that the Rays can be expected to win the AL East, let alone beyond that. Not impossible of course, but an unfair expectation, and one that must be downplayed delicately from within, or risk possible implosion. And yet, the very fact that it is conceivable just raises the stakes, and could affect player performance. This is not just rarified air, this is outer space. Hard to breathe in space, I’m told.
And so the monster that is being built in Tampa Bay is something like Frankenstein, or nuclear power—an incomplete work of genius. It’s critical to stay with the plan, and avoid rash deviations—short-term expediencies at the expense of long-term sustainability—as the technology is being refined, and the fully operational battle station (in the prescient words of Darth Vader) is unleashed on Major League Baseball.
So there remains much work to be done. But let’s assess the reasons why we are here at all. Of course it is the players who must play the game, but let’s really put this in perspective: this is the triumph of patient (and shrewd) planning, management, teaching, and execution. Specifically, here are the reasons:
- There Was a Plan. On this forum, it is instructive to review BobR’s analysis since 2005. While the crazies of the world had been calling for Maddon, Friedman, et al’s heads during downtimes, chiding Maddon in particular for Pollyannaism, it is clear now that all they have been taking the long view, and have shown remarkable cohesion in sticking with a plan in the face of withering criticism. BobR has nailed this observation consistently for years, and he was part of a lonely minority view…which is now taking on more adherents, some reluctantly, others enthusiastically, but in any case, it all seems obvious now. It takes remarkable patience, management teamwork, and confidence to be able to pull this off when all advice points the other way, and kudos to both Friedman and Maddon for doing this.
- Change in Attitude. This was Maddon’s mantra from Day 1, and it remains a top priority at all times. His patience, teaching style, his ability and willingness to shield players from the glare of the media, and confidence have been crucial. He’s the only manager out there confident enough to talk about Springsteen, wine and bicycling without worrying about his baseball image. He’s got a perspective that positively rubs off on players, and one need not go further than comb through a roster of who he coached in the past to get but one single story: the guy is a leader.
- There’s Captain on the Ship. You can’t blame the captain of the Titanic for hitting the iceberg, but you have to blame him for not being prepared in the event it happened. Along with the change in attitude, that is Maddon’s key contribution to the success of the team. Now you have players singing the same tune, saying the same things in public, working toward the same goal. Failure is tolerated—even expected—because these are teaching moments. Leadership is everything, and a young group with a respected leader is a sustainable combination. And if the ship hits an iceberg, you can bet there’s a contingency plan, or at least a few extra lifeboats.
- Getting the Most from Players. Nobody is having a truly breakout year, with the possible exception of Navarro. But even Navarro’s year is the product of patience, attitude, and leadership. The guy always had some potential, but it took some patience for this to be realized.
- Players Are Coaches Too. The intangible effects of Percival, Floyd and Hinske cannot be overstated. They’ve changed the equation, of course, and in effect are more properly considered an expanded coaching staff. And they have made a young, talented team even more effective. They will be critical down the stretch.
- Pitching and Defense. It’s a new world when you learn to play defense, and the Rays are Exhibit #1. As for pitching, is it really a remarkable turnaround, or more accurately the product of experience, teaching, attitude, coaching, and finding the proper roles? For all the team’s success, Garza and Shields have been up and down, Jackson hit or miss, and no one can quite figure out why Sonnanstine has been so clutch. And yet the proof is in the pudding. The maturing of J. P. Howell is huge, and the congealing effect of Percival is evident everywhere. Key consideration: what about Jim Hickey? Give the man credit here, and give the front office credit for staying with him after a lesser group would have canned him after the off-season drunk driving incident.
- Statistics Lie. The best indicator of all that the team is on the right track. Where is Carlos Pena? Where is Crawford? Where are the .300 seasons? The big numbers at the plate? If you went purely on stats, you’d panic. But their leadership and contributions are there, and critical in the making of players like Upton and Longoria. It is a team game, and the only statistic that matters in the end is the one in the Win column. That’s a message that is clearly taught, and understood, by these players.
There are other reasons of course, luck being one of them. But the overall theme here is that it’s been mostly the triumph of a Plan, not the sum of individual efforts.
The mid-season report card has to be an A+, particularly on the part of Maddon and Friedman. But it’s the players who have shown the mettle to compete, and the ability to execute. Remarkable efforts all around.
Now comes the hard part: THE SECOND HALF. This should be exciting, but another story to be told another day. Hopefully in October…