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November 28, 2012

Sobsequy

How to Think Like a Major-League Manager

by Adam Sobsey

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I’ve got a power pitcher who can’t throw enough strikes because his mechanics are unrepeatable and I doubt he’ll ever be able to fix them. I have a DH with prodigious power but chronic and severe plantar fasciitis, so I can’t really use him in the outfield at all, which I had planned to do a few dozen times because I’ve got two guys out there who can’t hit righties. Now I’ve got to hope that they manage to hit them anyway, and also that they don’t break down under a 150-plus-game load since I can’t use my DH to spell them.

We’ve got what appears to be a viable second baseman just up from Triple-A, but you never know how kids will adapt and adjust up here. My solid no. 2 gap hitter has a great compact swing, never gets hurt, and shows up to play every day—but doesn’t get on base enough to take advantage of his speed (and isn’t a good bunter). My no. 1 starter is a superb control artist who’s finicky and will get surly if left alone during practice, which affects his performance. The season gets underway in three days and I still don’t know whether my slow-starting center- and left fielders will be ready for big-league action. They’re just skipping to their lou through spring training. The front office is supposed to be acquiring a lefty groundball specialist for me to use situationally, but I haven’t heard from the GM whether that deal has been green-lighted by ownership, and in any case we’re not even sure if his current club even wants to deal him.


***

What do managers do, and how do they use their personnel? This is a question of increasing interest lately, with more wood added to the fire here at BP recently by C. J. Nitkowski, who argued that people like you and me, non-players, don’t and can’t appreciate the value of coaching. At the top of the coaching pyramid is managing.

It’s too late for me to be a ballplayer, but I could theoretically manage a game, or come pretty close. I do think non-baseball people can learn about how baseball works through our own analogous experiences.

I’m co-directing this play that opens in two days as I write this, and we’re all kinds of unready, although I think we have a good show on our hands. The first paragraph of this piece was all metaphor and analogy, but it pretty accurately described the strengths and weaknesses of our cast and crew. Theater is pretty near to baseball—especially this particular piece of theater, Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which is structured a bit like a baseball game is: lots of repetition with slight variations, resulting in a narrative that develops by accumulation and differentiation rather than linear build and climax. The play is a game.

Directing a play is quite a bit like managing a ballclub, as I imagine it—or anyway, I feel like I appreciate what managers do a little more while I’ve been directing the play. I want the production to be good as much as the players do, but I’m not going to say a single line, or even really do one thing during the course of the performance other than watch and take notes. A baseball manager is more involved than I am, of course, in that he calls some plays and makes substitution decisions; things like that.

But what leads up to the games themselves—rehearsals for us, spring training and practices for them—is rather similar. The theater rehearsal period is less like spring training, though, than it is like the first half of the season. I feel like we’ve just completed everything up until the July 31 non-waiver deadline. We’ve seen what we’ve got, worked with it, adjusted it, had some stumbles. Once the show opens, it’s basically too late to change the roster, or much of anything else, really, barring an emergency or extreme circumstances. You’re gonna get there with what you’ve got. It’s around August 1, the beginning of the stretch drive, when the fans start getting serious about their rooting interest in their teams. It’s similar to how no one pays attention to what we’re doing in the theater until opening night.

We hired a very good production designer who mysteriously disappeared—simply stopped answering emails, phone calls and all other means of communication—with about three weeks left until the first performance. Even when we told him we were replacing him with other personnel, we got no response. We think he’s probably clinically depressed. We basically put him on the 60-day DL.

This was the equivalent of losing our ace starter, or maybe our cleanup hitter, and replacing him with three supplementary players (a costumer, a set designer, a lighting designer).

Meanwhile, I discovered the strengths and weaknesses of the actors. More importantly, I’ve discovered how each of them needs to be directed. I think the thing we ought to appreciate more is the way a skilled baseball manager speaks in 25 different voices to 25 different players. It’s far beyond “keeping the five guys who hate you away from the five guys who are undecided,” as Casey Stengel famously put it. It’s more like making each player—in baseball and in theater—feel like he’s the most important guy on the team, at least while you’re talking to him. It’s also finding the balance between listening to him and dictating to him, between praise and critique. One must never really be all that sympathetic to one’s personnel. One must manipulate without being manipulative. In sport and on stage, these are fragile egos. They’re out there performing for an audience that demands to be pleased. That is an anxious thing to do for some, a hugely egomaniacal thing for others. As a director, as a manager, you have to figure out which part of each player’s psyche needs to be fed.

No one is really going to see much of anything I do. Or if they see it, they’ll be at a general loss to describe it. Which is one of the strange things about directing—and, I imagine, managing: It is my job to oversee the manufacture of pleasure for the audience, yet once the lights go up (or the first pitch is thrown), there is little I can do to participate in that manufacture. I notice that most theater critics don’t get very specific about whether they like the direction, or even about what the direction is or isn’t doing. For example, John Lahr, the senior theater critic for the New Yorker, often writes “well directed by [x],” but he rarely elaborates on how it’s well-directed. It’s difficult to quantify that, just as what managers do is hard to assess. “The game,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said last season, “drips with intangibles.” That seems an odd thing for an enlightened skipper to say, but it makes more sense if you apply it to his own role in the game. What do managers do? What do directors do?

Maybe it’s less what you do than how you do it. First, you have to be unsentimental. This is the hardest thing for most of us. We’re overseeing people, hardworking people, talented people, people who are sensitive and often emotionally volatile—in the arts and in sports—but we can never allow ourselves to empathize with them. This skill is what sets the best managers apart. You have to be entirely invested emotionally in the outcome (winning games, satisfying an audience), but entirely divested emotionally from your players. They are pieces to be played on the diamond, on the stage.

I recall, for example, a postgame interview I once conducted with Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo. We were going back over a late-inning sequence in which Montoyo had made multiple pitching changes in a game in which he had a very limited supply of relievers available to him. A sticky situation. I no longer remember exactly the scenario about which he said the following, but it had to do with choosing another pitcher over Winston Abreu, who was at the time the Bulls’ best reliever and was also warming in the bullpen alongside the pitcher Montoyo brought into the game. Had the circumstances been different than they were (probably a Durham lead rather than deficit), “I was gonna use Abreu,” Montoyo said.

That word “use” has always stuck with me. Montoyo loved Winston Abreu—loved him; said that Abreu was the MVP of his 2009 Triple-A Champion squad—yet in the thick of a close-and-late tactical battle, the very unloving word Montoyo chose in relation to probably his favorite player was “use.” Ultimately, Abreu—and everyone else—is just someone to use. A tool in a chest. In 2010, following off-season surgery for an aneurysm, Abreu couldn’t go more than one inning anymore, and he couldn’t pitch on consecutive days. Montoyo used him differently.

And it’s on those guys you use, not the manager—although a manager can be held responsible anyway, often for things that have nothing to do with him. Same with directors. If the acting is bad in our show, I could very well be blamed. If the technical stuff is clunky, that could fall on my shoulders, too. But ultimately, it’s on the players. In 2011, the Bulls suddenly had a bunch of Double-A guys called up and immediately in the lineup and the bullpen. One might have assumed that Montoyo and his coaching staff would be massaging and coaxing the newbies, breaking them into Triple-A as gently as possible, refining them, honing their skills with them and so forth.

Surprisingly, though, Montoyo was sink-or-swim about the kids: They have to prove they can play at this level, he said a couple of times. If they couldn’t, back to Double-A with them. And if they had to stay in Triple-A—if there was simply no one else to take their place—he still ran them out there every day. If they failed, they failed. The manager watched, impassive, his frustration more theoretical than lived in. It’s like that when you direct. You have to experience what you feel as simply another force to be managed, integrated, sometimes just discarded altogether.

The theater where I’m working is approximately the equivalent of Double-A. Plenty of artists fall flat on their face here. They might get a couple more chances, but after a while it becomes known in the community of theater artists that you shouldn’t work with them—shouldn’t use them at all unless no one else can pick up a glove and play the game. Art, like sports, is a meritocracy. It can be cutthroat. You can rise quickly, however, and to do that you have to want it bad, because there are more players than places to play, and the money is awful here.

Mostly what I’ve come to admire in managers, from the point of view of a director, is that you must be deeply attached to the effort without really investing at all in the result. I have to control everything I possibly can while knowing that I have no control whatsoever over what actually happens out there. I must have a bifurcated attitude: I must be more involved in the total play/game than anyone else, working harder at the global level to achieve the desired outcome, but entirely accepting of my inability to actually do anything at all to affect it. I can give my notes; they may not be taken. I can tell a guy to keep throwing his slider when he’s ahead in the count; he might ignore me, or take the advice but throw a bad slider. The director, the manager, watches that equably, distantly.

Do Not Be a Fan is the last and perhaps most emphatic of Joe Maddon’s five points of managing: "When the game's in progress, you can't be wishing and hoping that something good's going to happen. It's either gonna happen or it's not gonna happen. All this wishing and hoping like you do in the stands does you absolutely no good in the dugout. Manage the game, know what's going on. Stay two or three steps ahead of schedule."

You can’t wish, hope, or root. Relying on magic is not a strategy—I’ve always detested that phrase, “theater magic.” You have a job to do. If you do it well, something good might happen, some great and improbable drama. After Dan Johnson’s instant-legend, ninth-inning homer in game 162 of the 2011 season, Maddon turned to one of his coaches in the dugout and said, simply, “Holy shit.” His face was totally calm. He was not freaking out, not cheering, not reveling in a hope or wish come true. He was, rather, expressing controlled and plain amazement that his staying-two-or-three-steps-ahead approach—he was certainly saving the Great Pumpkin for precisely this moment—had actually worked. And then he went right back to his task.

I thought, too, that Buck Showalter had turned some kind of corner this past season. He had long been known as a total sourpuss, controlling everything down to which belts his players could wear with which uniforms. But with the Orioles in 2012, he seemed to have lightened up. He appeared to absorb a roster change just about every single day yet barely seemed to blink. He had any number of starters get hurt or go bad, and simply used whomever Dan Duquette called up for him, scooped up off the waiver wire or trading block, or reinstated from the DL. Lew Ford from the Atlantic League? OK, sure. Can you play a Jim Thome? Fine, close enough. It’s on you to convince ’em. Bill Hall, you here again? Good luck out there. He joked with TV broadcasters during in-game interviews.

When Ron Washington was seen bickering on camera with Josh Hamilton after Hamilton muffed an easy fly ball in a crucial game against Oakland, Washington dropped himself down to the level of one of his players. You have to stay above them. And yet you also have to defend them to the public, as I will do with my actors even if I wind up privately finding them underproductive. Ozzie Guillen lacks the necessary political acumen. Other managers simply refuse to adjust, and with all the changes we’ve made during rehearsals—essentially adapting the play to the players we have—I’ve come to respect managers who tinker and trial.

Managing is a weightless art. You maintain no presumptions. You have habits of preparation, but each day you prep for is different. The goal is something beyond your reach; others pursue it for you. You must value winning above all, but never be attached to the winning itself. You can only be attached to the moment as it comes and goes, and try to foresee the one approaching. What has just happened no longer exists. The immediate past is going to repeat every night—another fifth inning, another Scene Fourteen—but it will never repeat the same way. You can call on your closer like you always do, but even he will blow some saves. Rest no weight on anything. There is no firm footing. The walls are made of muslin, the window of cellophane. This is all perishable, evanescent. What the audience is rooting for will never happen again if it happens at all. A manager and a director are both all-in and above it all. They are floating above the scene of their own accidents, their own success, their own lives, as others attend to the circumstances. The only thing equal to our commitment is our detachment.

Oh, but there’s one difference between directors and managers. You never tell a manager to break a leg.

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

Related Content:  Managers,  Managing,  Coaches,  Intangibles,  Coaching

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