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October 20, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

A League of Their Own?

by Adam Sobsey

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Adam Sobsey has been the Durham Bulls beat writer for the Independent Weekly since 2009. He has also won numerous awards as a playwright, and his work has been staged in New York, California, Austin and North Carolina. His most recent play, WESTERN MEN, or OPPOSITE TO HUMANITY, was a comparative intertextual weaving of Shakespeare's TIMON OF ATHENS with the lifelong friendship between the poet Ezra Pound and the painter/author Wyndham Lewis, commissioned and premiered by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern at the Nasher Museum of Art in October 2010. As a journalist, he has won the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Award for Arts Criticism, and two North Carolina Press Association Awards. In 2012, Adam will collaborate with writer Sam Stephenson, creator of the Jazz Loft Project, on a season-long documentary project about the Durham Bulls.
 

If the 2011 postseason, and the improbable races that led up to it, proved anything, it’s that equal measures of weirdness can be found on either side of the increasingly thin line between the American League and the National League: Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, falling to pieces; Ron Washington’s intentional walks, Tony La Russa removing Jaime Garcia after 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball with a three-run lead. No, neither manager paid the price for these odd choices, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t odd.

As we all know, designated hitter aside, Major League Baseball’s two leagues are nowadays mostly a mere courtesy that allow a postseason to happen. There is really nothing wrong with that at all (it was sort of symbolically settled, once and for all, when the Brewers switched leagues a few years back), but one does lament the attrition of difference over the years. It was always nice to think that it mattered. Somehow, the new (and stupid) use of the All-Star Game as league-rivalry kindling—by giving the winner home-field advantage in the World Series—only emphasizes the extent of the merger. Many of the leagues’ best players aren’t even playing. The thing supposedly at stake isn’t at stake.

League affiliation is like blood type. It could make a difference down the road, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So it has been fun to watch these playoffs, because they have in fact evinced some faint traces of difference. The Cards and Rangers are the best representatives of that difference—which is not to be found so much in the quality and style of play. Both managers make weird decisions and seem like weird men. Both teams’ bullpens have been important. Both teams have a slugger hitting the ball with extreme prejudice.

No, it’s really in demeanor—a demeanor that starts with the manager— that the teams seem like they’re still representing league differences.

Now it may be that Ron Washington calls every single thing from the dugout, although I haven’t seen that. But what the networks kept doing, all through the NLDS and NLCS, was showing us La Russa doing just that. Every sequence, it seemed, went like this: shot of Yadier Molina looking into the dugout for a sign. Poker-faced La Russa, giving one, after a moment’s sage contemplation. Molina dropping and waving fingers at pitcher. Pitcher making pitch—or picking off runner!

Repeat sequence.

Tony La Russa: unsmiling genius, gnomic mastermind. And La Russa’s words helped add to this characterization. In one of the between-inning interviews managers do with the broadcasters—Game 2 of the LDS against Philadelphia—LaRussa carped that home plate umpire Jerry Meals (oh, that Jerry Meals!) was calling “two different strike zones” for Chris Carpenter and Cliff Lee. He got fined by the MLB Commissioner’s Office.

Compare that with Ron Washington. The predominant, repeated image of Ron Washington this postseason, to my eyes, has been this replay: camera planted on Washington as his guy(s) come(s) around to score or hits a homer. Washington watches the event unspool, rapt, and then breaks into unabashed “Yeah!” Ron Washington is like a diehard Rangers fan who won some ill-conceived contest called Manage Your Rangers for a Day! Only, because of some combination of bad weather, four-point contractual print, and the threat of legal action by a watchdog lawyer, the Rangers were forced to allow the contest winner, Ron Washington, of New Orleans, to manage a playoff game.

So maybe that explains the unsound intentional walks—and maybe it doesn’t—but for me these tactical moves are not really all that interesting. Managers make their managerial moves, some of them breathtakingly bad ones, and sometimes they seem to work anyway. (It helps to have Nelson Cruz.) Sometimes they need a rain delay to absolve them. Sometimes they need every single guy in their bullpen to be unhittable for a few games.

I cover the Triple-A Durham Bulls all summer long. Their manager, Charlie Montoyo, takes little tactical action. He seldom makes mid-inning pitching changes; he doesn’t pinch-run for catchers; he practically never pinch-hits. He doesn’t call pitches or pickoffs from the dugout. His baserunners steal on their own. Yes, that’s part of developing minor-league players—throw ‘em in the pond and see how they swim—but I would be willing to bet, in the context of wins and losses, that Montoyo’s general lack of in-game “managing” ends in just about the same season-long record as would La Russian puppet-mastering. Does a manager really win or lose games for his team? Maybe a couple, and perhaps that’s why La Russa (and Joe Maddon) deserves to win Manager of the Year; but it seems that the mood he sets in the clubhouse, the way he manages personalities and egos, has more to do with his team’s performance than whether he calls for a pitchout on 1-2.

Which is where LaRussa and Washington not only differ the most, but seem to represent their leagues better. The American is the younger, the woollier. The National is the old-school. These are perhaps cliché descriptors, but they do have some support. Take 1973, where New York Yankees Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson were swapping wives in the preseason, and then in the post-season the NLCS saw a brawl triggered by Pete Rose and New York Met Bud Harrelson. Later that decade: the Bronx Zoo in New York, the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. The Red Sox finally broke their World Series drought with “Idiots” and “Cowboy Up” under the same live-and-let-live manager who presided over this year’s lost-focus collapse in Boston. The White Sox broke theirs under Ozzie Guillen, who I’m fairly sure is legally crazy.

Meanwhile, in the National League, the Chicago Cubs are still trying to break the streak, glumly stepping on just about every rake lying in their pathway. They should have hired ultimate National Leaguer (and Cub legend) Ryne Sandberg, didn’t, and paid for yet another bad hire (but will get another chance to hire him, probably). Their most prominent player is Carlos Zambrano, a loose cannon who belongs in the American League yet was rumored to be talking partnership with his pal… Ozzie Guillen, who wants Zambrano to pitch for him in Miami. Maybe it’ll work, as long as they move the Marlins to the AL East. (And maybe they could swap them for the Rays, who would no long feel the effects of their dismal DH production over in the senior circuit.)

The players reflect their managers. There was all-smiles Adrian Beltre, goofing off with Miguel Cabrera on the basepaths during the ALCS. There was (and will be) the claw-and-antler silliness. You even got the sense that, even though Josh Hamilton has cleaned up his act, he was only a misstep away from turning up on TMZ. The Rangers are, like Ron Washington, expressive, animated, excitable. The Cardinals are Terminator Albert and do-the-right-thing Lance Berkman, who actually apologized for saying that he signed with St. Louis after 2010 because he didn’t think the Rangers were going to make it back to the postseason. Apologize? To the whole state of Texas? You know what C. J. Wilson thought of that? He basically just called Berkman old. Old like the National League. So Berkman apparently went to Wilson himself and apologized again, and now the air between them is clear, and I hope Wilson sticks a pitch in Berkman’s ribs the next time the two face off.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

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