Friday, October 8, 2010

Why Manager? Why Not Coach?

Last night in the Twins/Yankees ALDS game I saw something pretty normal, but with new eyes. Ron Gardenhire was sitting back in the dugout, calm and collected as usual. Man on first 2 outs. The count was 1-2 to Lance Berkman and Pavano was on the hill. He was 1 strike away from pitching seven innings of 2 run ball and leaving the game tied. Having set Berkman up perfectly, Pavano and Mauer called for an inside fastball. The pitch was thrown on the black at the knees with some sinking action that caused it to catch the plate. Catcher, pitcher, and second baseman start walking to the dugout...BALL! Fans begin to boo as Pavano cocks his head to the side and stares at the home plate umpire wondering what else he could do to get that pitch. As happens so often, next pitch double. Scores the man from first and breaks the game back open. This is where it gets interesting.

Instead of the pitching coach going out to the mound to settle the pitcher down, Gardenhire himself gathers the infielders at the mound and talks. Talks some more. Talks as much as he needs to until the homeplate umpire has no choice but to break it up. The meeting adjourns and players scamper back to their positions, but not Gardenhire. He follows the ump back to home plate jawing in his ear the entire time. Everybody in the park knows what's about to happen. "You're outta here!!" Gardenhire loses it. He gets toe to toe with the homeplate ump and lets him have it. All the rage and frustration of the whole team flows out of him like a river and leaves the umpire in no doubt of his opinion. Almost triumphantly Gardenhire walks back to the dugout and into the clubhouse hoping that his little act would inspire the troops to victory.

Then and there it dawned on me how managers aren't coaches. If this was the pitching coach and he got tossed, the pitchers would be at the mercy of another less specialized coach for the remainder of the game. Same goes for the hitters. But a manager isn't firstly a coach. His first duty is to manage the egos, emotions, and expectations of his 25 players and handful of assistant coaches. For Gardenhire it wasn't a matter of whether the team would be able to go on without him in the dugout, it was what do the players need to "feel" like they can win. If it means not being able to put on a hit-and-run in the 8th inning, most big league managers will choose motivating their team over strategy. They are managers first and foremost. Just like in the corporate world, Big League managers do what is best for the team as a whole over what is best for an individual. Perhaps it wasn't the best for him to get thrown out of a one run game in the late innings down by a run, but if it means the team as a whole gains any confidence at all it will have been worth it.

Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, Joe Torre, Mike Soscia, Ron Gardenhire, etc. All of these guys are relatively docile in the dugout until they know their team needs a defender, a champion. They manage the game, the team, the players, the coaches, the ups and downs, the good and bad. They're a calming effect until they need to be a lightning rod. It didn't work last night for the Twins, but I finally saw the merit in trying.


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