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Managing the “AAA” Franchise: A View from 102

“Baseball is a simple game. If you have good players and if you keep them in the right frame of mind then the manager is a success.” Sparky Anderson

“I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”  Tommy Lasorda

This has been an interesting year for the Norfolk Tides.  For me the year has been the first where I have had the opportunity to observe the game on nearly a daily basis from field level behind the plate. The proximity of where I sit to the playing field in Section 102, Row B Seat 2 at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish has given me the chance to sharpen my eye for the nuances of the game.  Part of this has been lessons on life, leadership, strategy, player development and the psychology of winning and organizations that win.  In fact if you are a regular reader of this website you will likely note that baseball is pervasive in my writings.  Likewise the subject of baseball is usually entwined with my local team the Norfolk Tides who inhabit the parish church with me.  Thus my closest observations of the game come from watching the Tides.  Over the course of the season I have become familiar with the players met a decent number of the starting pitchers on more than one occasion each as well as talked with scouts and former players.  Additionally one of the best baseball men round who really needs to be hired as a color man for the Tides radio show is Elliott the Usher. Elliott and I have had numerous discussions regarding strategy, player development and baseball philosophy throughout the season, not always agreeing, but each hearing what the other had to say.  Elliott knows the game, knows the players and despite being a Red Sox fan, not that there’s anything wrong with that is a great human being.  Thank the Deity Herself that he is not a Dodgers fan, yeech!

So anyway, here are a couple of Padre Steve’s observations about the Tides this year that I think hurt player development and kept them out of the playoffs.   Now I don’t think being in the playoff as a minor league team is the end all of life, but it does not hurt the organization.  My thesis is that although the Tides suffered an end of July and August collapse that need not have happened and may have hurt a number of player’s chances of making the majors.   The collapse was like the old “June Swoon” days of the San Francisco Giants only worse.  Yet despite the swoon the Tides continued to maintain one of the highest batting averages in the league and their pitching, though not as reliable as earlier in the season was constantly around the middle of the league.  I think that there is a reason for what happened to the reliability of the pitching and it is not because the pitchers suddenly went bad. I’ll explain this further on in this article.

Fielding, in regard to the number of errors committed by the infield was not that much different than their International League South rivals.  However it seemed that the errors committed by Tides players tended to come at the worst possible time and often scuttled solid performances by pitchers.  My thesis is that this was not a case of the talent available to the team despite mid-season call ups and injuries. Nor is it just because the players did not play as well as they could thus I would take issue with those who would who want to simply blame the collapse on these factors.  Did they play a part? Yes, were they the over-riding factor? I don’t think so.

The most important person on a Triple “A” team is the Manager.  The manager sets the tone for the team and is the face of the team.  The manager is not simply a teacher, but someone who has to have a feel, almost a 6th sense for how players are doing at given points in the game or season, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what makes them tick…in other words the way that a manager deals with his players is as important to their development and success as is the talent and ability that the players bring to the team when they show up.  A minor league manager cannot allow himself to just be a cog in the big league club’s system.  The manager needs to be able to make the hard calls of telling the big club what he thinks of where players can fit and when and where they should play. A manager should never be a slave to arbitrary pitch counts, especially if he sees a pitcher is really doing badly early, or if he sees a pitcher doing well enough to complete a game.   Psychology is as important as numbers.  There are times players need to be handled with great care and other times that they might need a dressing down or boot up their ass, but this must be well thought out and not an arbitrary process.  Likewise, there is the emotional tone that a player sets in the clubhouse.  There is no right or wrong as to style, but the manager needs to be able to make his style work. If he cannot the cohesion of the club will suffer as will the hardiness of the players, individually and as a team to weather difficult times during the season.   All this said it is my belief that Tides manager Gary Allenson was not effective in this, especially during July and August.  This is certainly not to be interpreted as a sour grapes kind of accusation.  As someone who has had the responsibility for over a hundred personnel, and a couple of million dollars worth of equipment and property as well as regularly dealing with people in life and death circumstances I am sensitive to the weight on a manager’s shoulders and I have taken my share of criticism.  The job is not easy and Allenson has had a lot of success during his managing career.  So I am not saying that he is a bad manager, but that this year his management of the team was a causal factor in the collapse.

To go into specifics the biggest places that this was apparent was with the pitching staff.  When a starter of reliever got in trouble it seemed that Allenson was often disengaged.  Maybe he was trying to reach a pitch count with them or maybe trying to teach them how to pitch through difficult situations. Patently these are important in grooming pitchers but cannot be seen as the goal itself.  They are rather measurement tool to assess the pitcher’s development and readiness to play at the current level or move up in the organization.  However, the tools cannot be allowed to dictate the manager’s decision making process.  Observing this close hand watching the pitchers at various points during the game and season and watching Allenson’s body language in the dugout as well as how long it would take to have  a reliever ready makes me believe that these were overriding factors in the decision making process.

I do not know if Allenson’s intent was to let pitchers try to work through rough outings without relief every time that they pitch, or if it is something that the Orioles have instructed him to do.  Regardless of what it is that plan did not work.  The pitching staff became demoralized it was evident in their body language and by what was heard around the park.  It is fine to occasionally let a pitcher work through a difficult patch and even get roughed up a bit.  That builds character and perseverance, in fact not to do it promotes a false sense of confidence that hurts the pitcher later on.  However it is not a good policy to do this in every game as it becomes counterproductive as the pitcher loses confidence because they are not winning.  This appeared to be what was happening with Tides pitchers.  The psychology of pitchers depends a lot on winning. To take a pitcher out before he gets in trouble while he is ahead is not a bad thing. Winning helps promote a winning attitude that carries over from game to game.  Pulling a pitcher before he gets in trouble can be used to the benefit of the pitcher and the team.  This is the way of great major league managers including Earl Weaver.  Allowing pitchers to be roughed up and have no relief waiting in the bullpen on a regular basis is detrimental to their development and serves no purpose.  Thus if a pitcher is beaten and the manager knows it leaving him in the game serves no purpose unless it is simply to preserve the bullpen.  If a manager senses that a pitcher is in trouble he should be more like Earl Weaver and get the guy out of the game for his good as well as that of the team.  Losing is contagious.  Lose a lot, especially when the losses could have been avoided and a team loses its fire and often its heart.  Take a look at perennial winning and losing teams and you will find that it is not just the talent that makes a team, it is the management and manner in which they work with the talent available that make them the organizations that they are.  Winning organizations promote winning at all levels.

Another aspect of the management of Tides pitchers has been the lack of consistency in developing relief pitchers.  It is important to work to individual pitcher’s strengths in how they are employed.  If a reliever finds his particular niche then it is incumbent on management to build on this.  Relievers are a quirky breed and by the time that they are in Triple “A” ball the management should have a relatively good idea of where they fit in the organization and start preparing them for that role on the big league club.  Thus at Triple “A” it is not the best policy to give players shots at all the different relief situations, especially if it takes someone who has the potential to be a great closer out of his game.  Case in point for the Tides was the use of Jim Miller.  Miller became the Tides closer early in the season and by the All-Star break had 15 saves.  When Miller went in during the first half of the season it was almost automatic that he would close the game successfully.  After the All-Star break Miller was bounced to middle relief and occasional set up roles as the Orioles according to Gary Allenson “wanted to turn him into a two-inning pitcher, because he’s probably not going to close games in the big leagues.”  Miller said recently that he would rather finish games. “That’s what I’ve done my whole career. They wanted to stretch me out, have me throwing 30-35 pitches. If that’s what they want, of course, that’s what I’ll do. But I like closing games.” It was noticeable how uncomfortable Miller was and how his effectiveness went down when moved out of the closer role.  I’m a firm believer that if someone does something better than others that you play to strength and build on it. Guys who can close a game and have a closers mindset are rare; those guys need to be coached to be even better and not bounced around.  Miller has come into the game in the 9th in close situations since the 31st and has been his old self, even games where he had no chance at a save he shut the opponent down.  It may be the case that the Orioles do not need Miller as a closer, however he could be the 8th inning set up man, not the 5th to 7th inning middle reliever and still keep a closer mindset.

Winning organizations know when a player is in his element and from thereon work hard to make him the best at that position and to put complementary players around him. To win an organization needs no only to produce a lot of middle of the road jack of all trades utility players but guys who can become All-Stars.  Utility players do not end up on the All-Star team and while important to an organization are not the building blocks of it.  I have heard it said that giving infielders experience at a lot of different positions helps them get to the majors.  While I believe this has some validity,  I think if an infielder is gifted at a certain position, say 2nd, 3rd or shortstop and has the potential to be a starter in that position on the major league club then it imperative that the organization focus on making him the best possible player at that position.  Can the player be used at other positions occasionally?  Of course, they need to be somewhat versatile but to use a military expression, I think it is best to “train as you fight.”  In other words of the player is being groomed for a certain position don’t waste too much time trying him at other positions, or moving him to allow someone who is a utility player to play in his spot.  A Triple “A” team might have one of these players on their team at any given time; they should be the linchpin around which utility players are utilized.   I think that 2nd Baseman Justin Turner was this player on the 2009 Tides and should be used in this manner in 2010 as the Orioles prepare to bring him up. Can he play other positions? Certainly, but watching him the further he was moved from 2nd base the less effective and sure of himself he became.

Next year should be interesting.  Several of the late season call ups from Bowie should be good additions to the club, notably outfielders Jonathan Tucker and Dave Krynzel.  Guillermo Rodriguez should remain at catcher as he has the potential to develop pitchers and be available on short notice to play in Baltimore as a backup for Matt Wieters.  Injured Scott Moore, Donnie Murphy and Justin Christian should be back as should Rhyne Hughes, Brandon Snyder and Brandon Pinckney.  Pitchers Chris Waters if not taken up to Baltimore or traded should be back, as should Jake Arrieta, Chris Lambert and Chris George.  Andy Mitchell would be an ideal middle to long reliever to follow hard throwing starters with his submarine style delivery. Jim Miller needs to be kept if not brought up to the Orioles or traded, as should Josh Perrault and Troy Patton.  Other pitchers on the current staff could still be of use; Bob McCrory seemed to be doing well at the end of the season and as did Ross Wolf.  I believe that starter David Pauley is a free agent after this season so I do not know if he will be back.  Of the other position players I think it unlikely that 37 year old Jolbert Cabrera comes back and wonder if Melvin Dorta and Blake Davis need to be at Norfolk as both had significant numbers of errors.

If I was the Orioles organization I would re-look to see if Gary Allenson is the man to continue to lead the team.  The last half of the season the team has not performed to the level that it could have. Some of this maybe a lot has to do with management.  It is possible that Allenson’s superiors in Baltimore are calling the shots at Norfolk and that he wants to manage differently.  However my assumption has to be that Allenson was unable to get the team to gel after the loss of players to mid-year injuries and call-ups and did not adjust well to losing so much hitting at that time.  Again my take is not that of a disgruntled fan, but an observer trying to make sense of what happened from the end of July until the end of August.  My assessment is that it is largely a managerial problem, likely at the field level, though possibly higher in the Orioles organization as well.

It is too easy to criticize a manager and I have tried to be as fair as possible, however a team’s success is always to a great degree dictated by the manager and at the end of the year every organization has to ask itself if it has the right man for the manager’s job.  It is incumbent to the organization to do so.

Peace, Steve+

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Flooding! Flooding! Flooding! When Water pours from the Ceiling and Padre Steve Gets to Write a Sports Blog

steve on top of the rockPadre Steve: Soon to Be Sports Blogger…Could it lead to the Big Leagues?

This has been an interesting few days.  I got a chance to get some rest over the weekend, saw some baseball games, spent time talking to Chicago Cubs and a Philadelphia Phillies scouts on different nights, spent some time talking with Tides Pitchers David Pauley and Radhames Liz in between innings.  Both are interesting folks, Pauley and his wife just had a baby and Liz is one of the few pitchers in the Major League 100 mph club.  Both are nice guys and I hope that both do well.  I think that Radhames has a good chance; he seems to have his control back and can throw a ball of fire.  Last night I went to the game and had almost my full cast of characters in place.  Elliott the Usher and I had our usual running commentary during the game, Barry the Scorekeeper was back after visiting his family and going to a wedding over the weekend out of town.  Chip the Usher was in his appointed place, Marty the Card Dealer, Mandy the Tides Store Manager who by the way is leaving us for another job, congrats but you’ll be missed kid.  Ray and John my Vietnam Veteran of America friends who pour the beer behind home place had just returned from the organization’s national conference.  The only person missing was Kenny the Pretzel Guy.  Heck I even had my buddy Elmer the Shrink as a guest.  It was a great night even though the Tides lost.  Today I was able to see the score in between patients and the Tides won 8-7 to split the series with the Chiefs.

I came in to work this and got my usual large 24 ounce coup of Southern Pecan coffee with 4 French Vanilla creamers and four packs of Splenda from Pat down at the Dancing Goat.  I got changed, did my duty turnover and got busy, but not nearly as busy as last week.  It has been a good day, some good ministry, a lot of hard work doing some writing for our residency program and some nice times on the wards with some great people, staff and patients alike.  However, in between rounds of my ICU a coworker ask to talk to me about helping with a project that she is working on.  I went to my office and when I opened the door I saw water spreading out across my lowest bidder carpet.   I look up and the words “oh crap” or something synonymous passed through my lips.   My ceiling tile near the sprinkler system was sagging down, water coming at a steady drip from it as the tile itself was cracking under the weight of the water that it had soaked up.  Now this is not the first time this has happened, last time it happened after hours and was a soggy mess, the rotten tile looked like really bad oatmeal gone really bad.   I was not impressed so immediately I put in a call to facilities saying “I need you guy’s STAT, my ceiling is leaking and looks like it about to crash.”  It took a while for the guys to get here and when they did they looked up and said, “Sir move all your stuff, this could get ugly.”  I already had moved almost everything to the high ground and rapidly moved the last box.  He brought down the tile and oh what a mess.  Fortunately after they looked they knew where to go to fix the problem, now I only have some residual drips from the insulation around some ductwork.  Thankfully that is done and hopefully by tomorrow my ceiling is fixed and I can arrange to have my carpet cleaned by our housekeeping folks.  Praise God for Grace the lady who cleans my office and waters the plants that would die if not for her great work.   She found a second garbage can to put in the middle of the room to contain the residual drips from the ceiling and vacuumed the crap from my floor.  It appears that the Deity Herself ensured that things broke my way in what could have been a nasty mess.

The past week was also interesting as I have two opportunities to do some blogging as a Sports blogger.  Maybe it will be a step to being on ESPN’s Around the Horn, sitting next to Woody Page. Who can tell right? Evidently my stuff is getting seen and at least some folks like it.  I have been invited by the Virginia Pilot, our local Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake newspaper to have a blog dealing with Baseball, general sports and life.  I was approached last week by the Most Valuable Network an independent sports network located at www.MVN.com to do something similar for them.   I received approval from my boss and legal to go ahead.  These blogs will be up by the end of the week or maybe the weekend.  I will post the links to the stories on these sites to this site.   The blogs will primarily focus on baseball and life and will likely on MVN be entitled The View from 102, The Church of Baseball. The Virginia Pilot will likely be Padre Steve’s View From 102Baseball Life and Faith. Once they are set up I will post the links here.  The articles will all be sports and life related and will occasionally delve into the heretical sports of football and basketball and will not be located on this site which will remain fully up and running as it does now.

Peace, Steve+

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The Most Exciting Play in the Game- The Electricity of the Inside the Park Home Run

three run homer by fiorentinoJeff Fiorentino Connects in July against Charlotte

There is nothing in the world like a home run.  From the crack of the bat there is a sudden silence and then, if you are the home team a deafening roar as the crowd reacts to the ball sailing over the fence.  Now home runs like this happen every day in baseball, but the “in the Park” home run is something special.  You don’t see many of them. Thus when they occur, the effect on the team and the crowd is electrifying.   I saw my first inside the park home run tonight as Jeff Fiorentino of the Norfolk Tides hit a tailing line drive to left field which eluded Syracuse Sky Chief’s Left Fielder Jorge Padilla. The ball then went to the wall where it was picked up by Padilla .  Fiorentino raced around the bases nearly overtaking Tides Second Baseman Justin Turner and easily beating the relay in to catcher Jhonatan Solano.  Fiorentino also scored a run in the first and singled in a run and later scored what turned out to be the winning run in the 8th giving him 2 hits, 4 RBIs and 3 runs scored and took his average up to .330 on the year moving into third in the International League.  The Tides won the game against the Chiefs 8-6.  The highlights of the game including Fiorentino’s home run are here:

http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/media/player/mp_tpl.jsp?w=http%3A//mfile.akamai.com/14668/wmv/mlb.download.akamai.com/14668/2009/aaa/nor/video/080109_syrnor_august1.wmv&type=v_free&_mp=1

In the park homers are rare and most of the ones hit in baseball history came during the 19th Century Era or the “Dead Ball Era” between 1901 and 1919 during which ballpark outfields were much deeper and more spacious than today’s parks meaning that if a ball got by an outfielder there was a good chance that a batter could get around the base paths and score.  In the modern era Hank Aaron had only one.  A few players have hit them, but they are so rare as to be called “the most exciting play in baseball.” Just to give an example of players in the “500 Club” who have hit inside the park homers, Babe Ruth has ten, Willie Mays six, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Junior three each, Sammy Sosa two while Harmon Killebrew and Hank Aaron each have one.  Other players to have hit them in recent years include Emilio Bonafacio who hit one on opening day,  Howie Kendrick of the Angels who hit one on May 9th and Carl Crawford hit one in Tampa Bay on July 20th.  Only one has been hit in an All-Star game and that by Ichiro Suzuki in 2007 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.  Roberto Clemente has the only “walk off” inside the park grand slam.  The last by a Norfolk player was in 2005 by Anderson Hernandez.

Here is a video link to Tigers Curtis Granderson’s 2005 inside the park homer against the Yankees:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcRaYNtbANA

As I said this was the first inside the park home run that I have ever seen and it was simply an amazing thing of beauty to watch. Patently the Deity Herself ensured I got to see one of these just as I had seen a no-hitter back in 1975.  I had been up talking with Elliott the Usher about strategy, players and baseball trivia when Jeff Fiorentino came up to the plate in the bottom of the 6th.  I told Elliott that I had to go down to get a picture so I went down by my seat and crouched down in a good catchers stance to stay low and balance myself behind the screen at home plate as I always do when talking my shots.  The first pitch was a ball so I readied myself for the next. When Fiorentino hit the ball I knew it would drop for a hit, when it got by Padilla I knew that it was extra bases and when I looked up and saw how fast Jeff was running I knew this was something special.  I went back up to Elliott the Usher and we did our high five.  We had a scare in the 7th when the Sky Chiefs score two that were charged to starter David Pauley, but somehow, despite losing the lead I knew that the Tides would come back.  In the 8th they did. Blake Davis had an infield single and advanced to second on a throwing error by shortstop Ian Desmond.  He advanced to third on a passed ball.  Fiorentino came up again and singled to drive in Davis to tie the score.  With Brandon Snyder at the plate Chiefs pitcher Jack Spradlin attempted to pick off Fiorentino but threw wide of the base, Fiorentino alertly advanced all the way to third.  Snyder then doubled to score Fiorentino to give the Tides the lead.  Melvin Dorta hit a sacrifice fly to right field scoring Snyder.  Alberto Castillo came in to close the game sealing the Norfolk win.  Sunday evening Radhames Liz (0-2, 6.00) will make his first start for Norfolk since being promoted from Double-A Bowie where he had been sent down to work on control issues in June.  Liz has the distinction of being the only current Minor Leaguer to be in the Major League Baseball 100 mph club having done so when called up by the Orioles in 2008. It should be an interesting game.

Peace, Steve+

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