Waxing philosophical about baseball and leadership
You've probably mostly missed it, but over on Another Cubs Blog, I've been party to a running debate on the leadership qualities of Aramis Ramirez, and the value of sports leaders in general. It remains a topic I enjoy discussing, so I figured I'd take a stab at explaining my views in a succinct and self-contained post that will be so incredibly sensible that, surely, nobody will question or debate it. But in order to do that, let's establish some ground rules. Read more after the break.
Rule the First: The only thing that is absolutely true is that there are no absolute truths in the world. 1+1 does not always = 2. Nothing is certain. So, if that's true in life, then it's probably true in baseball. If I told you that no team could win a World Series without a "team leader," I'd be wrong. If I told you that team chemistry is essential to every winning team, it would be incorrect. If I told you that there was a sure-fire recipe for winning a World Series, then I'd be blowing smoke up your ass. But, similarly, if I said "the best team will win," I'd also be wrong. We've seen lots of "best teams" lose.
All of that is my way of saying that everything is subjective. Take it for what you will.
What is a team leader? I've tried to avoid giving a straight answer to this question for one simple reason: no matter who says it, no matter how they say it, it's going to sound stupid. You could be reading a book on sports leadership co-written by Derek Jeter, George Brett, and David Ortiz and their views would come off sounding trite and ridiculous.
Actually, I like the analogy I eventually resorted to using on ACB - you know a team leader when you see one. But to be more specific: He's a guy who is more than well-liked by his teammates - he commands their respect. He's fun in the clubhouse, intense on the field, focused on winning, and vocal about his displeasure for losing. He's usually a star player, he tends to play every day, and players and fans alike should feel comfortable when he's batting in a clutch situation. That doesn't mean that he always delivers victory, or even often does, but when you watch him play you feel confident that he can do damage to the other team at any time. He also keeps his teammates focused on the field and at the plate. Disclaimer: Which isn't to say that an outstanding team leader is essential. They're just nice to have for a variety of reasons.
Can a pitcher be a team leader? Sure, and while we're at it, I would imagine that every team has more than one guy who you'd call a leader. But a pitcher is different - he's not out there every day. In the context of what we're discussing, the kind of leader the Cubs are lacking is the field commander. In terms of pitching leadership, I would characterize Kerry Wood and Ryan Dempster as leader-types.
Wood is a well-liked intense player who is the epitome of Cubs baseball. He's been there for good years and bad. He's been a hero and a goat. Based on the contracts that he's accepted in recent years, he's probably a little more loyal than most players out there, he genuinely gives the impression that he badly wants to win, and as the veteran Cub he probably is not afraid to speak up in the clubhouse.
Dempster is another guy who hates losing and, if he returns, he will be entering his 5th year with the Cubs. When he was in the bullpen, he was known for keeping his teammates loose and he has a comical sense of humor. His demeanor and drive make him valuable to the team both on and off the field - to me, that's a key characteristic of being a leader.
Can a bench player be a team leader? It's not as likely in the traditional sense. While there may be vocal veterans who have been relegated on down to the bench, team leaders in the traditional sense have been starters. A recent example of a borderline bench/starter team leader was Eric Karros, who apparently was very well-respected by his teammates during the 2003 season. Karros may have been the last example of a more traditional team leader.
How important is a team leader? This is the crux of the debate. Some people look at baseball in very black-and-white terms. The teams with the best players win. The players with the best statistics play. Simple as that.
In reality, if you took a well-respected team leader-type like Derek Jeter and stuck him on the Pirates, while he might be admired by the younger players for his professionalism the Bucks would still suck and, if he was miserable enough, his numbers might even get worse. And if you assembled a team of 25 players equivalent in talent and douchetude to Barry Bonds when he was in his prime, then you would have a despised team that would only lose from time to time out of boredom and indifference.
You could have a team of 25 players who hate each other, who brawl and battle and detest one another, and if they were talented enough they'd still win.
However, baseball cannot be boiled down to statistical inevitability, or otherwise we'd all just crunch the numbers, declare a winner without play, and go home. But we can't do that; there are an infinite number of factors in any given game. We don't know if the ace starter is dehydrated, or if the clutch batter is hung over. We don't know who had a brutal fight with his wife the previous evening, or who's worried about his .220 AVG because he's half way through a contract season. We don't know who's brimming with confidence and who's shaking with nervousness. We don't know if the shortstop is on talking terms with the second baseman, or how their dislike toward one another might effect a variety of situations (altho' I doubt that one or the other might intentionally perform worse). That's where good chemistry and leadership may play a part.
Imagine, if you will, your work place. Maybe you work with 3 people, maybe you work with 30, I don't know. But chances are, you get to know the people you see every day. You probably hate some of them, you probably like others, and there are more still who you feel indifferent toward. But if you really hate Bertha in accounting and she needs something from you, will you always do your best to accommodate her? If you can't stand working with Manuel in sales, but you work next to him every single day, isn't it possible that you might hate coming to work after a while? Now, imagine working with 30 or 35 people on a daily basis for about nine months out of the year in an everlasting pressure situation on a national stage - oh, and you spend about half that time on the road, traveling and rooming with your co-workers.
It makes sense that, like us, baseball players like, love, or loathe their teammates. It also makes sense that a number of little factors in their personal and professional lives might affect their play. There are probably a lot of things that play into the mentality of an athlete - ego, drive, desire to win (or at least make a lot of money), etc. - but I would like to argue that quality leaders are important to shepherding a team toward their ultimate goal of winning. A team leader might hear two young stars talking on the bench about their next big contracts and point out that a game is being played and their team needs them. A team leader might discover the same two players laughing and joking after a brutal loss and remind them that perhaps their focus should be on their poor play, rather than their ridiculous jokes.
So, how important is a team leader? Not as important as we make him out to be, but more important than we probably understand.
What do the Cubs have? Aramis Ramirez was the whipping boy yesterday. He does not appear to be a team leader in the traditional sense. What he does appear to be is a clutch hitter and the best Cubs third baseman since the days when my dad was dodging the draft. Clutch does not = leader, clutch = clutch.
Derrek Lee is perhaps the first example of leadership on the team, although I think he's more of a consummate professional. He appears to be well-liked by everyone, he is quick to defend his teammates (ask LaTroy and Super Jacque), and he seems to play baseball the "right way." Other examples of players in Cubs past who were like Derrek - Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Dave Kingman (kidding, kidding).
What do they need? Maybe nothing. After all, there are no universal truths. Barry Bonds will not always beat Steve Traschel. C.C. Sabathia will not always find a way to get Neifi Perez to slink back to the bench, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
What we can probably agree on is this - the '07 and '08 Cubs were missing something, although maybe that "something" was nothing more than luck and timely hitting. The hitting was not timely, the multi-multi million dollar stars failed to earn their salaries, and if you watched the games, even with the mute button on so as to avoid the mindless droning of the TBS douchebags, you might have noticed that the Cubs were pressing, especially once they started losing games. We can use cliches, we can say they were playing "tight" and their opponents were playing "loose," or we can just recognize that they were taking fastballs, they were hacking at breaking pitches, and their overall approach toward hitting and scoring runs was flawed.
The Cubs need to be a little less frantic next time. They need to stop worrying so much about the pressure and the expectations. They need to be able to come from behind, they need to be able to establish - and keep - a lead, maybe they need somebody who can keep the troops calm while delivering a death blow or three with a baseball bat. Maybe they already have that guy, maybe he'll step up and perform next year.
Maybe it's a whole lot about nothing. I mean, we're looking at thousands of words on a somewhat ridiculous subject, but let me remind you that we're waxing philosophy here. The topic is about the importance of a team leader, so obviously I'm going to waste words talking about it. But I'm pretty sure that this is the first time the subject has come up in a long, loooong while. You know why? Because the Cubs were good this year. They had no scapegoats. They had no villains. This wasn't your 2004 Cubs with Moises Alou and Kent Mercker shouting obscenities at Steve Stone, all while Dusty Baker kept his thumb warmly jammed up his ass.
Saying a guy - Aramis Ramirez in this case - is not a team leader isn't the same thing as saying that he's a cancer, or a problem, or replaceable. I respect A-Ram, and I'm glad he's a Cub. Same thing with pretty much every guy who's wearing the uniform right now, these guys are talented.
But as we sit down and see a long, cold winter ahead of us, it's hard not to think about what went wrong. How did a 97-win team with stellar pitching and an outstanding offense get knocked out of the playoffs in only 3 games? I mean, seriously, what the hell? We want to find answers to this - the hitting was gone, the pitching fell apart, Lou left Dempster in there for too long, Manny Ramirez killed them, the Cubs lacked a true leader.
The real answer goes back to one of the first things I said in this post: nothing in life is certain. Simple as that. If you want to try to find order in chaos, go right ahead, but you'll end up feeling frustrated and alone.
Yesterday it was a story about Aramis Ramirez not being the leader the Cubs were looking for. Today it'll be about Lou not moving fast enough to turn to his bullpen. Tomorrow, it'll be about Alfonso Soriano and his disappearing stroke.
But next year, next October, the Cubs very well may be in the same position again. I wouldn't be surprised. And because nothing in life is certain, I also wouldn't be surprised to see Soriano put up epic October numbers, nor would it shock me if Aramis Ramirez redeemed himself.
So, I'll ask it again: how important is a team leader? To answer my own question at last, I think it's overblown. It's like team chemistry - stop feeling shocked to see a 95-loss team sit silently in the dugout, and don't feel amazed to discover a 95 team where everybody loves one another. When the Cubs win in the playoffs again, somebody will be a hero, and it may even be somebody who has already played the goat.
Ultimately, the teams with the best chemistry will be the ones that win a lot. Simple as that.