Monday, May 24, 2010

Firing of Hillman Begs the Question: Does the Manager really Matter?

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When he took the Boston Celtics head coaching position in 1997, Rick Pitino had a reputation for resurrecting the downtrodden fortunes of every basketball program he had ever chosen to lead. Fresh off rescuing Kentucky from the scandalous depths of NCAA purgatory and restoring the program to its rightful perch among the titans of college basketball, Pitino seemed like the perfect choice for an NBA resurrection of similar stature. But after 3 ½ seasons, 146 losses, and zero playoff appearances, Pitino ended his tumultuous tenure as the prime example for a long-standing archetype: the successful college coach who couldn’t make the transition to the professional ranks. Pitino’s inability to reignite the “old Celtic flame” was compounded by the relentless suffocation he faced from the Boston fans and media; many of whom still had visions of the franchise as both a perennial champion and a lofty cultural touchstone. Pitino’s frustration reached a crescendo in March of the 1999-00 season: “Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us,” he pleaded in this now symbolic press conference outburst. On the surface, it became a figurative metaphor for the “storied franchise” that unfairly uses it’s glorious past as a measuring stick for its sobering present. Beneath the surface, it became a sobering reminder that underscored our often bloated perception of a professional coach.

Make no mistake, in the coaching universe, to compare Trey Hillman’s position as manager of the Royals with Rick Pitino’s position as coach of the Celtics would be like comparing the CEO of Microsoft to Ronald McDonald. Yet, after being canned 35 games into his third season, few would have blamed Hillman had he reacted in similar fashion. Managing the Royals is like promoting celibacy at the NBA All-Star game: regardless of how well you get your message across, the results will always be a reflection of the toxic wasteland you find yourself surrounded by. In addition to their 24 season playoff drought, the second longest in any of the four major sports, the Royals have posted just one winning record in the last 15 seasons. Only an 83-79 campaign in 2003 can elevate them above the Pittsburgh Pirates as the second most futile franchise of the post-modern era. In the 2000’s, they racked up four 100 plus loss seasons, the most by a major league franchise in a single decade. They’ve drafted poorly (Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, etc.). They’ve signed mid-level players to cash-strapping, multi-year contracts (Mark Gruzielanek, Scott Elarton, etc.). On the rare occasions when they’ve actually had a few star quality players, they’ve traded them away for almost nothing in return (Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, etc.). Since the beginning of the Wild Card era in 1995, the Royals have had nearly as many managers (7) as all-stars (10). So is it really Trey Hillman’s fault that he can’t win with a team that features David Dejesus and Billy Butler as its 3 and 4 hole hitters?

Professional coaches operate under a two-fold sense of responsibility. In addition to implementing a stylistic strategy based on the physical strengths of the players at hand, a coach must set an emotional tone that allows him to successfully preside over a locker-room’s worth of type-A millionaires. Both concepts are linked by a cause and effect relationship. When a coach lacks a certain intellectual sense of strategy, he’s bound to lose the respect of his frustrated subjects. Once a coach “loses the locker room,” any sense of strategy is rendered meaningless. Baseball managers, on the other hand, operate under a different strategical dynamic that forces them to place more of an onus on establishing an emotional identity. While all sports feature a series of individual battles, baseball is an individualized version of a team sport. When preparing for an opponent, instead of focusing on the larger body of work as a sum of it’s individual parts, baseball managers focus specifically on those individual parts. As a result, while strategy still comes into play within the flow of a game, baseball decisions are more of a crapshoot than any other sport. For example, when a basketball coach switches to a zone defense because his players are continuously getting beaten off the dribble by a more athletic opponent, he’s making a strategic decision based on the athletic capabilities of both units. On the contrary, when a baseball manager brings in his lefty specialist to face the opponent’s left-handed power hitter, he’s making a strategic decision based on the assumed capabilities of a specific individual. There’s no scheme. It’s basically the equivalent of hand-picking a foil to play against the neighborhood one-on-one champ and then gambling on the outcome.

In a strategic sense, baseball managers are similar in their tendencies to follow such long-standing “by the book” norms. This is why their real value lies in their intangible ability to connect with personalities. Regardless of whether you have the horses to win the race, you must get your players to believe that there’s still a race to be won. When he was hired by the Royals, Trey Hillman had a reputation for his ability to connect with younger players. Even as the losses piled up, Hillman maintained this connection with his prideful legion of over-matched youngsters. “It’s a shame because he was a man I was proud to play underneath. He was a man I looked up to. He always gave us 100 % so we always returned the favor." stated Royals right-hander Brian Bannister on the day of Hillman’s firing. But there’s an old adage in sports that “great coaches are only as great as their best players.” In baseball, such a sentiment is the sporting equivalent of natural selection. With a sad-sack franchise like the Royals, it was impossible for Trey Hillman’s intangible qualities to overcome the perennially cellar-dwelling product he was asked to resurrect. But, like many successful managers before him, it’s these same intangible qualities that will enable Hillman to succeed once he lands the right opportunity. Joe Torre got fired three times before landing on a burgeoning gold mine of upcoming talent with the Yankees in the mid 1990’s. Bobby Cox made one playoff appearance in 8 seasons as a manager before he found three future hall of famers to headline his starting rotation. In four seasons with the rebuilding Phillies in the late 90’s, Terry Francona never managed a team that finished higher than 3rd place. After being handed the keys to the already championship-caliber Red Sox of the mid 00’s, Francona won two World Series championships in his first four seasons. It’s a concept that’s barely limited to baseball. Lakers coach Phil Jackson has more championships (10) than any other coach in the history of North American professional sports. Yes, Jackson’s an extremely sharp guy who built his reputation on the basis of his wildly successful “triangle offense.” But would the “triangle” be that successful if it didn’t consistently feature the most dominant player in the NBA? (Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe) Perhaps current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said it best in September of 2007, after his ace pitcher Cole Hamels threw a complete game shutout to catapult the Phillies past the rival Mets and into 1st place: “When you have players like Cole Hamels who can go out and dominate like that, it’s easy to be a manager. You see, I can be a good manager.” In the end, whether you’re Phil Jackson or Trey Hillman, it all depends on who’s following you through that door.

Now that we've established just how unimportant managers can be, let's countdown the 5 best in the Major Leagues today.

5. Ron Gardenhire-No one gets more out of what he has than Gardenhire, who consistently takes the Twins to the playoffs in spite of marginal talent. With the opening of Target Field, it should be exciting to see what he can do with a payroll.

4. Bobby Cox-Atlanta's remarkable run of 15 consecutive division titles remains one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history.

3. Tony La Russa- La Russa is the master at taking statistical analysis and applying it to a game situation. His willingness to experiment keeps him one step ahead of the traditional grain.

2. Joe Torre-In terms of handling both a big city pressure cooker and the egos that come with it, Torre is baseball's answer to Phil Jackson.

1. Mike Scoscia-No manager can match Scoscia’s hands-on dictation of his team’s style of play. He’s transformed the Angels into a modern hallmark of consistency similar to the 70’s and 80’s Dodgers teams he played for under Tommy Lasorda.


jasflyers said...

pure brilliance i couldnt agree with you more. i never knew torre was fired three times but that just proves how coaches are really just guides on the side

Anonymous said...

Quality and interesting viewpoint. Baseball is a different animal in so many ways. It is interesting that in your list of the top five managers, #5 contradicts, in part, your theories.

Anonymous said...

the pitino example is classic...what a great outburst that was

Anonymous said...

I agree with you very much and you said it as best it could be said. But you never talk about football where in my opinion coaching is the most important. Utilizing stregthns and weakness in football is the key to success and that is mostly on the coaching staff. In such a team sport the coach matters more in football than you give credit for in this article.