The baseball season is down to just over 20 games. The marathon is almost over, but the grind is now fully on. In all, I counted 14 teams with a realistic chance of making a playoff spot, even if it’s only the last wild card. On the other hand, there are a handful of teams that sit somewhere just south of dismal, knowing that it might take a while before they are even mentioned as a potential playoff caliber team. What is a manager to do, knowing full-well that his team’s success or failure will often lead to a contract extension or pink slip?
When it gets this late in the season, the best thing a manager or coaching staff can do, in my mind, is remain consistent to team/organizational values. The perennial contenders have a philosophy and plan of action that keeps them respectable year after year, and often in the hunt for a post-season berth. On the other hand, if the front office is a mess, the man in the dugout doesn’t have much of a chance.
For some time now, I have referred to the baseball season as a grind. It’s not the high-impact of football or the back-and-forth of basketball. It’s a grind. There is a toll taken on the players’ bodies and minds that many probably don’t see. From the stands or the couch, the game looks so easy. And the reason it looks so easy is because of how good the players are. What isn’t seen is the time icing knees or elbows, getting wrapped up, or tending to unseen bumps and bruises. Not to mention the mental side of things, from losing five or six games in a row to going hitless for the last West Coast swing.
“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Satchel Paige
Young clubs need to weather the storm of 162 games and grow in the process. Talented veteran teams know the drill, and understand how to take the wins and losses. It might be cliché, but you can’t get too high after a win, and you can’t get too low after a loss. Focus on the task at hand is of the greatest importance. When a club loses focus, the sloppy play begins. From there, the losses tend to pile up. If a club can stick with its plan, and (sorry, but I have to say this) play them one game at a time, that team has a better chance of playing well at the end of the year.
“Try easier.” George Brett, on how to handle the tough times – as opposed to trying harder
For the teams that are in the hunt, it is certainly easier to stay on task. The problem with these clubs might be trying too hard. I hate the term “they choked” or “he choked.” That seems to say a guy doesn’t have the guts to get it done. I think quite often, it’s that he tries TOO hard. Believe me, no one wants to strike out with the winning run on third. There isn’t a player alive who boots a ball and isn’t somewhere between embarrassed and angry with himself.
I do believe that most clubs take on the personality of their manager over time. Bobby Cox always wore cleats when every other manager or coach chose to wear turf shoes. His players appreciated his blue-collar, lunch pail effort, and played hard for him regularly. Joe Maddon seems to actually enjoy being a manager, and more importantly a baseball man, and joins in with the club in hair styles and themed road trip attire. He has already reminded the club of last season, when the Rays made their improbable push and took the wild-card from the Red Sox on the last pitch of the season on an Evan Longoria extra-inning home run.
For clubs that are struggling through a sad, slow September, it remains a matter of focus. And professionalism. As long as a club is playing hard, that’s all you can ask for them. Somebody always has to finish last. But if there’s no energy, what the heck, let a few of the kids just called up take a turn in the lineup. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a team is addition by subtraction. What better time to start the clock on a young player than at the end of a season, especially a season that points to changes in the future.
When all is said and done, baseball’s 162 game season goes a long way toward making it the great sport that it is. A club can lose five in a row, get hot and run off a 10-game winning streak. A team can fall of the cliff, like last season’s Red Sox, and see its playoff hopes dashed in the last possible moment. Injuries can kill a team, or give an opportunity to a new kid just called up from Double-A.
If the manager can keep ‘em playing hard and making the routine plays, everything else falls into place. A little baseball luck, and a team that seemed out of the race can end up taking the ring. Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals of last season. And if a club can’t make it happen now, they can make a strong move to next year. And “next year” can be worth the wait. Just ask any fan of the White Sox or Red Sox!
Two personal stories:
1. When coaching at the junior college level, my boss always told the players they had to “Beat the elements.” Whether it was the wind or the temperature, a muddy infield, or a bad hop, you had to find a way to get past it.
We played in the Florida state tournament in 1989 and won, to advance to the southeast regional. It was a three-team tourney, and we swept it at the Royals’ spring training home, Baseball City, in central Florida. The infield was turf, and temperatures were probably well over 100 degrees during the day games.
To be sure our players didn’t give in to the heat, we had them well-hydrated, and loaded them up with bananas. And our coaching staff wore long sleeves for all three games. We weren’t going to let them see us bothered by the heat, and it wasn’t mentioned once in the dugout. It might have been a good idea to have laundered the sleeves at some point, but there was also a little superstition in the dugout!
Eventually, “Beat the elements” morphed into “Defeat the elephants.”
2. In 1998, our high school basketball team won the state championship. As we began our playoff run, I asked the hoops coach, Kevin Dunne, if he had any advice. After all, we were a small school, and he knew most of my players well. His advice? “Enjoy the ride.” We did, and he was right there to see us as my kids won the state title at Legends Field, the spring training home of the Yankees.
Have a baseball question you would like a coach’s opinion on? Leave it in the comments or send it via Twitter to @Aerys_MLB or @WayneTyson11.
Our coach is Wayne Tyson, who was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays.