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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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Blowouts…The Days (or years) you want to forget…But Need to Learn From

not a happy camperHow I feel after a blowout

It’s no fun to get blown out in any game or life.  Losing sucks no matter how you try to cushion it by saying, “well we almost won” or “gee if only we had…” or “they got lucky, we should have won.” Blowouts on the other hand leave you little to console yourself with.  You lose and you lose badly.  In baseball this usually means that the other team has shredded your pitching staff and that your defense stinks as fielders make fielding and throwing errors, your pitcher throws wild pitches with men on 3rd and your offense dries up like a West Texas lawn in July.   This happened to the Tides Thursday afternoon as they were ripped by Indianapolis 11-3 and it wasn’t that close.  Starter Andy Mitchell who entered the game at 9-2 gave up 8 runs in 4 innings work.  The Tides hitters didn’t come through after a series of comebacks the previous three games.  This happens in the Major Leagues as well. Back on July 22nd the Athletics beat the Twins 16-1; the 18th the Braves beat the Mets 11-0 and back on the 6th the Phillies beat the Reds 22-1.  Being on the receiving end of such a whacking is painful.  The key is what you do with it.  As teams, organizations and individuals everyone will get beaten up once in a while and it takes character and strength to get back out the next day and give it your best when the temptation is to give in to go through the motions and just hope to make it through.

Blowouts in life can come in many ways, health, finances, work situations and relationships.  Sometimes they are our own doing and the results of our choices.  The times I have had the most problems have often been self inflicted because I couldn’t keep my trap shut when I should have either shut up or found a safe place to vent.  In my years in the military and watching baseball I have seen a lot of this.  Likewise there are people who live on the edge and consistently do things that are known to be illegal or unethical within their organization or sport and eventually get caught.  Unfortunately these are not usually the untalented and unmotivated people whose contribution to their team or work environment is to suck up band width and perfectly good oxygen that others could be using to better effect.  The sad thing is that those who push the envelope are often the most talented who have natural ability as well as well as an almost pathological need to be the best.  One only has to take a look at Pete Rose who though his “sins” were not on the playing field, was things that no Manager should ever do.  His attitude about getting caught was an arrogant display of idiocy which disrespected the game that he contributed so much to and soiled his name and reputation.  I hope that he will find redemption in baseball, but the onus is on him to make things right.   Likewise with the myriad of players from the steroid era whose names and reputations are ruined by playing this kind of game.  I am fortunate in that my outbursts did not cost me my career.  There are some I am sure that think little of me because of some of the things I have blown up about over the years and if I could do them over I would do them differently.  But I can’t go back and change them now; they are a part of the tangled tapestry of my life just above the Mendoza Line.

Tuesday night I had the overnight duty and because we were short staffed due to injuries and people being out the duty pager went off incessantly throughout the day.  It was like a day at Parkland without every call being a code, death or trauma.  By noon I felt like a pitcher who was having every batter get a hit, every time I turned around I was rushing off somewhere else.  It is funny when you have a feeling about how a day is going to go.  By noon I knew that this day would be long and painful, just like a game where the opposition scores early and often.  By early evening I was tired, but the hits kept coming and by now almost all were cases out of my comfort zone.

I am by nature a Critical Care, Trauma and Emergency Medicine type of Chaplain.  I am just wired that way.  I will never be a shrink.  I have people all the time ask me or even suggest to me that I get a degree in Counseling or even a Doctorate in Psychology.  Now I do think that I would be a good diagnostician, but I couldn’t handle what my friends who are shrinks have to deal with on a daily basis, give me carnage and traumatic tragedy any day of the week, but not persistent pitter-patter of psychological problems.

Now by shrinks I mean Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Therapists, Clinical Social Workers and Psychiatric Nurses.  I use the term “Shrink” loosely but with great respect and I do not hesitate to consult with them or refer people to them.  I don’t know how they live in that world.  The maelstrom of mentally mangled humanity that my friends deal with on a daily basis would have me in a rubber room.  Thus when I see patients on medical floors I always read their chart and history because if I am going to go in and visit a patient I prefer to know that they are Borderline, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenic, Paranoid, Clinically Depressed, delusional, suicidal or spermicidal before they suck me into their hellish helix of hopelessness.   Knowing these things allows me to stay in my lane, offer appropriate support and actually care for them within my limitations because I do actually have a lot of compassion for the mentally ill or those suffering from even temporary emotional problems.  Heck I have PTSD and some amount of anxiety so Elmer the shrink has his work cut out.  How can I not feel some amount of compassion for those who have even worse situations?  Now there are those who may have some of these conditions who are also maniacally manipulative or pathologically putrid who are not only mentally ill but somewhat or even majorly malevolent.  These folks get to me, I have little compassion for people who even if they have issues are simply rotten people who get off on inflicting pain, emotional, spiritual or physical on those around them, to include their shrinks.

Tuesday night my blowout continued as person after person presented not only needing to see a shrink but wanting to deal with God and all they got was me.  I was beginning to have some words with the Deity Herself about this but was quickly reminded that she loved them too.  Thus my approach was pastoral, supportive and compassionate working within my limitations to ensure that they got the care that they needed without mucking it up for the ER staff or the shrinks.  So of course I was dealing with delusional Paranoid Schizophrenics and Borderline cases all night long.  By the time I trudged up to the on call room a little after 0400 I was exhausted.  My ICU pals were getting a good laugh at my expense and at least I could see the humor in it all.  The alarm rang far too early and when I made my duty turnover I felt like a starting pitcher who had been run over inning after inning for the entire start.  I hadn’t had a night quite like that since my residency at Parkland.  After the turnover I met with my Department Head for a few minutes and he simply said “Steven, go home.”  Even my normal “I can’t leave I have work to do” way of doing life had to agree.  I knew that I was a spent round.

Coming back after getting run over can be difficult and my next day at work I was rested and had a busy but not terribly stressful day and I was back in my element.  No runs, no hits and no errors and no Paranoid Schizophrenics left on base.

How teams come back is interesting. After the drubbing that the Tides took on Thursday they jumped out to an early 4-0 lead against Indianapolis.  Starter Troy Patton gave up two runs and in the 6th Dennis Safrate came on in relief. Sarfate is down on a rehab assignment for the Orioles and got hit hard by the Indians.  The Indians sent 12 men to the plate and scored 9 runs in the 6th off of Sarfate and Russ Wolfe.   Down 5 runs and looking at another beating the Tides found it within themselves to score 5 runs to tie the game in the bottom of the 7th.  Robby Hammock led off the bottom of the 8th with a double, moved to third on a Carlos Rojas sacrifice bunt and was driven in by a Joey Gathright single for the go ahead and ultimately the winning run.  Josh Perrualt got the win pitching 2.1 innings of scoreless relief retiring 7 of the 8 batters that he faced. Jeff Fiorentino had 2 hits an RBI and score 2 runs, Joey Gathright had three hits and the game winning RBI and Victor Diz had 2 doubles and 3 RBIs to help the Tides to victory.

Coming back takes work, no matter what you do. My life, especially the time in seminary until the time I entered the Navy was like a player or team who had a decade of tough seasons.  When I came in the Navy I was able to turn things around.  For the most part I avoid the things that got me in trouble in those years and I have become a lot more skilled at getting through the bumps that I still face.  Fighting back after my post Iraq PTSD collapse has been difficult but things are getting better and my life is coming back into balance.  Things that were impossible for me to deal with even a few months ago are starting to become manageable.  I am coming back and I think that is the key.  Blowouts are no fun and personally I don’t like them, but I am starting to find the takeaways that I need in order to come back.  Isn’t that the point?

Anyway, tonight the Tides start a 4 game series against the Syracuse Sky Chiefs the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals who have a 55-49 record and are in 2nd place in the International League North. The Tides are now 3 and ½ games out of 1st in the South Division and a game behind Gwinnett for the Wild Card.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy, Religion