Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Papelbon vs. Harper: A Study in Old-School Leadership and Team Chemistry

By now, virtually everyone on the planet who is a sports fan, and most who are not, has seen the dramatic footage of the, uh, disagreement between Nationals players Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. Harper, upset at popping up, was not pleased when he returned to the bench and was publicly castigated by Papelbon, the team's new and disappointing closer. According to lip-readers, Harper said a few words which his mother might not be particularly proud of and the two engaged in a shoving match in full view of the modern digital world.

It was upsetting for many to watch this spectacle because Harper is an unbelievably talented 22-year-old with seemingly endless potential and the Nationals are a team whose high expectations for the season have imploded. More is expected out of both.

But before everyone panics and starts slinging accusations, we need to realize that these things happen. Ultra-competitive men playing a difficult game for six months will have heated disagreements. Ideally, they will occur behind closed doors and not in front of cameras and be spread throughout the twitter-world in minutes. But it happens. Often. It goes with the territory.

It would appear to an outsider that Jon and Bryce do not particularly like each other; they are not pals off the field and they have difficulty playing well together. And that's okay too. They don't need to like each other--only perform to help the team win. And for the sake of the team, they need to take away the lesson that they approached this whole thing entirely wrong. First, the timing could not have been worse. Any competitive player who makes an out is upset--especially when the team is going bad--and getting in his face immediately afterwards is absolutely the wrong thing to do, no matter what the message. I should pause here to note that I am talking about teammates. As far as opponents, anything goes (see Fisk v. Sanders, 1990).

This is a good time to talk about leadership and team chemistry. We can look to the business world where any businessman will tell you that one of the cornerstones of the lean six sigma model for team-building cohesiveness is that conflicts between team members should ideally be resolved without one member holding the other member by the throat.

But perhaps it's best to look to baseball's own past. How would two of the greatest TEAMS in baseball history, the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles and the Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies, have handled this?

The Orioles had a great nucleus of veterans who had been together for years, but everyone understood that two men led the team, each by very different methods. Brooks Robinson, the erstwhile magician with a glove, was everyone's friend. He functioned as the bank president and Rotary Club leader of a small town. He avoided confrontation, almost by instinct, always had a good word for everyone, enjoyed a good, if not raucous, joke, frequently at his own expense, and possessed an uncanny ability to put a bad game behind him. Win, lose, greatly-played or terribly-played, he was absolutely the same in the clubhouse immediately afterwards. Teammates understood after the rare loss: no big deal, we'll get them tomorrow.

While Robinson was not the holler guy, he set an unmistakable example with his play and work ethic. His uniform was usually the dirtiest on the field as he flung himself all over Memorial Stadium while making impossible plays. He ran the bases the same way--all out--although perhaps a bit slower than most. And teammates watched as he, the possessor of innumerable Gold Gloves, spent hours in the spring taking extra grounders and fielding bunts--perfecting the already perfected art.

Frank Robinson, on the other hand, led by an altogether different standard operating procedure. He was the tough drill sargent leading his men into the machine gun nest--running full throttle at the front. Frank talked the talk and walked the walk. He was often the most athletically gifted man on the field and few men in baseball history not named Cobb ever played with more desperate intensity than Frank Robinson. He left a trail of battered fences and second basemen in his wake. Frank kept a constant witty, biting, needling barrage in the clubhouse and on the bus--no one escaped his wrath. His comments were usually made with a smile, but if a point needed to be made, if something was hurting the team, there was no mistake in his intent. Few men wanted to risk the laser-like menacing glare of a mad Frank Robinson after they loafed or failed to make a smart play. Frank dominated the team and motivated it with his sheer force of will and talent.

The Orioles famously held a kangaroo court after winning games and Frank was the judge. The fact that they were only held after victories is significant because emotions tend to be frayed after losses and regrettable things are often said. During the proceedings of the court Oriole players could be fined the great sum of one dollar for various infractions from wearing the wrong color socks to saying something stupid in an interview. They were also fined for gaffes on the field, such as not moving over a runner with less than two outs, missing a cut-off man, or failing to get a bunt down. No one was immune and sometimes the judge himself was punished. The fines were usually meted out with a laugh and a sarcastic barb but the meaning was clear and lost to no one--these things could cost ballgames and repeat offenses would not be tolerated.

And so for the Orioles, if an uber-talented youngster, in a fit of anger after popping out, failed to properly run out a ball, he would be brought in front of toughest hanging-judge in all of baseball. His offense would be laid out before the court, he would be humiliated with catcalls and even pantomime imitations of his temper tantrum, relieved of a dollar and would think twice about ever doing it again.

The Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies had incredible talent from top to bottom as well as incredibly efficient leadership. They had a centerfielder, Cesar Geronimo, who not only won Gold Gloves, but hit over .300 in 1975. Dave Concepcion was a regular Gold Glover and the best shortstop of his era. They had a left fielder, George Foster, who was rapidly becoming a beast, compiling 121 RBIs in 1976, and a right fielder, Ken Griffey, who regularly hit .300 and was one of the fastest men in baseball. But none of the these guys were leaders. Everyone understood that the leadership on the team lay within a circle of four great players with powerful personalities: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan. While each of these men could have been a great leader on his own and three of the four possessed tremendous egos, the combination worked far better than the sum of the parts, possibly because they all understood the importance, and place, of the others and the ultimate goal of the team.

Bench, Rose and Perez had been with the team for years. Morgan joined in 1972 and, by virtue of his personality and talent, immediately joined the cadre of leaders. Bench, the more serious of the bunch on the field and in the clubhouse, led by a fierce determination and overpowering natural ability. He was the "Little General" on the field, demanding--and getting--exactly what he wanted out of each pitch.

Rose and Morgan led the vocal chorus. They ran together off  the field and tried to outdo each other in biting sarcasm. They lit up the clubhouse each day. And there was no mistaking their cocky, hell-bent attitude on the field.

While never getting the outside attention, Tony Perez was the acknowledged glue to the team. He supplied what the team needed on and off the field. He was an artist at getting a run in from second base with two outs. His sarcastic wit could be the equal of anyone, but his attitude and personality made him impossible not to like. He inherently seemed to always know what to do--when to ridicule, when to smile and joke--to lift the clubhouse.

So on these Reds if a young player had failed to run out a pop up, little would have been said in the dugout. Johnny Bench would have thrown a few surly glares in the youngster's direction, and may have grumbled to himself, but there would have been no confrontation in front of others. In the clubhouse, however, Morgan and Rose would have mercilessly ripped the poor SOB to shreds with an endless barrage of poison-tipped barbs and needles, all said with an evil grin, but leaving no doubt about the intended message. Perez would have then had the final say, either an additional ruthless jab or a smile and a pat on the back--whatever was needed--and the whole thing would have been forgotten, except by the perpetrator who would have been very unlikely to be a repeat offender. The next day, they would all take the field together and kick butt.

There are right ways and wrong ways to handle each situation and the ultimate goal is to foster a team that wins. Modern players would do well to look to history to see how others have successfully handled things. Hopefully Harper and the Nationals can take a page out of history and learn. Hopefully.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this blog and recall your version of the Orioles court and Robinson's fines from the biography of Brooks Robinson. I also enjoyed Jon Posnanski's Machine about the atmosphere in the Reds' clubhouse.