Somewhere near the middle of a 1999 episode of Friends (“The One With Ross’s Teeth”), Chandler—a character written, throughout the series, as a somewhat effeminate heterosexual man—happens upon his traditionally masculine roommate, Joey, arranging flowers. He promptly accuses Joey of “turning into a woman.” Joey, horrified, defends himself: “No, I’m not! Why would you say that? That’s just mean!”
Chandler: “Now I’ve upset you? What did I say?”
Joey: “It’s not what you said, it’s just the way you said it.” Beat, glance upwards. “Oh my god! I’m a woman!”
Hold that scene in your mind for a moment.
This weekend, I talked to John Baker about baseball. Baker is a former big-league catcher—he spent parts of seven seasons with the Marlins, Padres, and Cubs—and retired from the game after the 2014 campaign to join the Cubs’ front office as a Baseball Operations Assistant. Our conversation ranged widely—he’s a smart dude—but the part I want to share with you today is about clubhouse leadership.
I want to share that part of the conversation with you because “clubhouse leadership” has long been a term that’s driven me slightly insane. It refers to something valuable—we know that, because just about every person who’s spent time in a clubhouse tells us so—but it’s very hard to put a finger on exactly how valuable it is. That’s because, at least to my mind, we still don’t have answers to some more fundamental questions: why it’s valuable, and the means by which its value manifests itself.
So it’s those last two questions (the why and the means by which of clubhouse leadership) about which I talked with Baker. Let’s begin by getting a handle on the problem that clubhouse leadership solves. Once we know that, we’ll have a better sense of why it might be valuable to find players who can solve it. Here’s Baker:
One of the things that we fail to talk about is that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on people in the big leagues to perform. Like, a tremendous amount of pressure. Every day you walk out—and this isn’t something I’ve said in the past—but your terrible record is on a gigantic board next to a huge picture of your stupid face.
And it says, ‘Look, here’s John Baker, here’s what he’s doing: he’s batting .196 with no home runs right now, doesn’t he suck?’ And then you walk up to the plate, and you hear like ‘Oh, yeah, you know, you can’t even hit your weight, you’re terrible,’ blah blah blah. And so that can wear on people.
Guys get paid a lot of money, and then they underperform, and they generally feel bad about it, but you can’t go out and say that in the media, because then that player looks like he’s weak, and there’s a code that you keep: you stick to the clichés like Bull Durham.
So, there’s the beginning of an answer to the why is this valuable question: The problem that’s solved by clubhouse leadership is, according to Baker, the damaging effects of intense pressure.
That, by itself, is a helpful insight for those of us who haven’t played the game at the highest level. We’ve all, to one degree or another, experienced pressure that hindered our ability to perform adequately at whatever we were trying to do. Major-league baseball turns that pressure up to 11 for its very human players, and Baker’s assertion (which I have no grounds or willingness to dispute) is that that’s the problem that’s solved by good clubhouse guys.
But how do they do it? What is the means by which their value is created? That’s the second question we’re trying to get at. Baker again:
A really good clubhouse guy relates well with everybody, and can talk to anybody on the team. He sets an emotional example of how to act based on a certain situation. So, if there’s a shitty four- or five-day run in a row, maybe he’s a little bit quieter and everybody starts to kind of follow that behavioral pattern.
So guys that have an influence on the emotions of the group, those are the real leaders that guys look to. And it manifests itself in different ways. You know, you have guys that are a bit louder, guys that are a bit more aggressive, and then you have guys that are sillier, and then you have kind of that Yankee school of seriousness all the time, like ‘We’ll celebrate when we win.’
I think fundamentally it’s the people that can understand the emotional climate in the room, and always bring it back to positive, and understand how to release some of that pressure that all these young people face.
Baker had specific examples in mind:
You know, the Red Sox were lucky, I think, to have the kind of clubhouse that they did the last time they won a World Series. You think about David Ross, and [Jonny] Gomes, and [Mike] Napoli, and David Ortiz—all those guys that were great in the clubhouse. And why are they great? Because they understand how everyone else feels, and they’re willing to talk about it.
In short: good clubhouse leadership, according to Baker, requires emotional intelligence. Thus, we have a working hypothesis: that one of the key means by which clubhouse guys generate value is emotional intelligence, and the reason why that’s valuable is because it relieves, to one degree or another, the intense pressure big-league players feel as they go about their day-to-day business.
Although there are of course other dimensions to leadership in a big-league clubhouse, even the limited element of the role identified by Baker is fascinating to me, because emotional intelligence is not something that’s typically selected for or valued, except as a secondary skill set, in the world of professional baseball.
Why? Think about the Friends scene that led off this piece. Let’s set aside the whole host of other issues that arise from it, and focus instead on one issue in particular: the still-commonly held notion that emotional intelligence—which includes, among other things, the ability to understand not just what’s being said but indeed “the way” things are being said—is first and foremost a feminine quality, and that men who express themselves in primarily emotional terms are less than masculine.
Baseball is a macho game. Not as macho, perhaps, as American football, and certainly not as macho as professional wrestling, but I suspect that it’s still not a game whose players generally take kindly to praise that singles out their more feminine qualities. So I’m guessing not a lot of guys are patting each other on the butt as they pass each other in the tunnel, shouting, “Great emotional intelligence work today, bud!” as they do so. If they are, I haven’t seen it.
Yet, here’s a line of thinking that suggests that emotional intelligence—and the empathetic listening and understanding skills that come alongside it—is a critical component of team success at the big league level.
I suspect, therefore, that teams could generate some marginal value (as some already are) by selecting players in larger part for their emotional intelligence, by teaching it thereafter in their minor-league systems, and by creating and nurturing clubhouse atmospheres where other possibly helpful “non-masculine” qualities have room to grow and make a difference to the team’s bottom line. An environment, in short, where referring to a man’s “feminine” qualities isn’t understood as mean.