The manager wants his players to be more prepared for games. The manager doesn't want change how his players prepare for a game. It's a great catch-22, and Joe Maddon better pick a side.
There's an old joke where a guy goes to the doctor's office, and he tells the doctor, "Doc, it hurts when I do this." The doctor thinks for a moment and gives his diagnosis with the words, "Well stop doing that!" A corny joke, yes. But the underlying message is sometimes the answer is so plain to see, you should probably pick up on it any minute now.
And so is the case of the Rays' preparedness, a topic that come up this past weekend when the team was humiliated in two blowout losses in Anaheim and Oakland. Manager Joe Maddon questioned the readiness of his team, basically implying the team wasn't mentally prepared from the first pitch of the game. The comments, made after Saturday's 12-5 loss at Oakland, sets up three arguments that I will get in to now.
First, many people applaud Maddon for speaking up and getting a little fire in his usual laid back, "nothing to see here, move along" approach to the game. At the very least I commend Maddon for speaking up about the obvious in that game: the team was flat from the very start. I've never wanted a Lou Piniella-esque tirade from Maddon, and I know I'll never get one and that's just fine with me. Personally I think some of Lou's temper tantrums were carried out just to further his agendas and not help the team out (but I digress). The occasional venting of one's opinions is a good thing for Maddon, and at the very least he can show the world he truly is aware of what's going on with this team. But if he is going to criticize the team, he has to choose his words carefully.
While Maddon was right to question the preparedness of the team, he was wrong to make it a blanket statement. Carl Crawford had every right to be upset at the blanket statement, although he was partially responsible for the comedy of errors with his throwing error in the game. Still, Crawford is right to say that if some guys are not pulling their weight, then Maddon needs to address those players and not make it sound like the whole team is struggling. Maddon says he does talk to individual players, and I know he does. But changing a few words from "we" to "some guys" or "a few players, and they know who they are" could have been less abrasive.
Second, it must be pointed out that ALL teams have bad games. It's especially tough for a team to play a night game in St. Pete and then fly out to Anaheim for a night game the next night. If you've even travelled three hours on an airplane trip, you know it's hard enough to remain mentally focused on everything, let alone six hours and three time zones on a plane trip. All teams making such difficult trips are succeptable to a little stumbling because of the schedule. The Rays will be more succeptable to a failure of adjusting to said schedule simply because the team is so young, and quite a few of the players are in their first full season in the bigs. That being said, the youth factor of this team can't be used as a crutch for explaining everything that goes wrong this season.
Third, and most importantly, IT'S UP TO THE MANAGER to make sure his team is prepared! You know what? Sometimes you have a difficult schedule, but you and the 29 other teams just have to deal with it. Sometimes adversity happens and as the manager you have to take it on your shoulders to lead the team through the valleys and hills of a season. Joe Torre is missing three of his starting pitchers, and the Yankees are not surprisingly in last place in the AL East. But Torre realizes it his job at stake, and he has to do the best with what he has. Bobby Cox never points a finger to any particular player after a loss. If the Braves lose, it's Bobby's fault and he says he'll make some changes to address the issue. The same can be said for Maddon's situation.
Yes this team is a young and somewhat inexperienced team. But that is even MORE reason why Maddon needs to be a MANAGER and not evry player's friend. In response to the team's lack of mental preparedness, especially for day games, Maddon says he's not going to change his routine in terms of organized warmups or batting practice. Gee, I guess his system has worked well so far. Or maybe it hasn't, and there enlies the problem.
With so many young players on this team, a manager has to put them through a daily routine. A lot of players don't like batting practice on day games after night games. But if that's what it takes to snap guys into "game mode" in time for the first pitch, then by golly maybe we should try it. The lack of organized warmups is also a serious issue. Is it any wonder why this team has been so injured the past two seasons? Perhaps some organized stretching and throwing exercises can help the physical aspect of the game as well as the much-needed mental boost.
Yet Maddon doesn't want a "knee-jerk" answer to solve the question. With 187 regular season games on Maddon's resume', 115 of them losses, this hardly a knee-jerk reaction. Clearly the way things have been done in 2006 and so far in 2007 isn't yielding results. And if the skipper wants his team to change its approach to a game, he needs to change his.
With so many young players playing their first full season in the bigs, and a few "veteran" players playing their fourth or fifth seasons in the majors, someone needs to take the bull by the horns and introduce this team to a workout and practice regimen that helps them understand what it takes to be a big league ballplayer every day. That someone has to be Joe Maddon. With a club option on his future coming up this winter, and quite a few people tired of a losing team, it would be in Maddon's best interest to start setting the DAILY framework of a winning team now.
And now, some other observations in Raysland and elsewhere:
* Sports teams often let business decisions get in the way of common sense (such as starting the season on a three-week road trip as a new stadium is completed). The Rays opting for a night game versus the Yankess 24 hours before a night game at Anaheim for higher TV ratings and higer attendance is one of those decisions.
* Don't say I didn't tell you so: According to the St. Pete Times' Marc Topkin, the three-game series versus Texas in Orlando isn't exactly selling like hot cakes. Topkin wrote in Sunday's edition of the Times that ticket sales are hovering in the low 3,000s for each game, in a ballpark that can seat around 10,000. In the end, I'm sure the stadium will be filled up thanks to a bunch of free ticket vouchers handed out at Disney World. In the end, I think the NDRO will realize you have to build your fanbase in the Tampa Bay area before reaching out to the rest of the state.
* Even though the Yankees are in dead last right now, (I hate to say this) they will rally and challenge for the division title again. If and when the rotation gets healthy, and if Brian Cashman can swing a deal for a legitimate starter (probably won't happen until July), the Yankees will be right up there in the end. After all, they've pulled this type of trick off in the last two seasons.
* According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, several witnesses claim Josh Hancock was drinking excessively the night he died in a traffic accident. While it's too early to know the autopsy results, I'd hate to think a kid who made it to the major leagues lost it all because of a few stiff drinks.
* In today's Kansas City Star, Royals' manager Buddy Bell says his 8-18 Royals are better than last season's 5-17 Royals. To me, that's like arguing your AMC Gremlin is better than the Ford Pinto you had last year.
* Finally, I saw a commercial for the sleep aide Ambien. One of its side effects was drowsiness. Is drowsiness in a sleeping aide a bad thing?
**DISCLAIMER: As of this summer, Matt Sammon is now a part-time, paid employee of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' ownership, management, players, coaches, or other employees.