Didi and Gogo, those lost souls awaiting the mysterious, never-to-arrive Godot in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy have nothing on Reds’ fans, abandoned for yet another Fall, left out in the playoff cold, waiting for our Godot—Post-season Relevance—to finally bless us with his presence. Now, as the wait goes on for the next manager to be chosen and perhaps deliver a pint of hope as the encroaching winter looms, a theatre of the absurd is playing out in the media, threatening to make a mockery of the entire managerial search process. For if the Reds fail to understand WHY 2013 came up short, they may very well hire the wrong man for the job.
The narratives outlining the 2013 Reds’ shortcomings have been primarily the provinces of the local media. They have largely centered on the nebulous and hard to define. Qualities like leadership, grit, chemistry and heart. All of which can be summed up in that favorite cheap sports appetizer—the ever-popular “Will To Win.”
Following the insipid inspiring speech by Adam Wainwright just after he’d summarily disposed of the Pirates, I couldn’t help but wonder why Don Mattingly and the Dodgers would even bother showing up in St. Louis. Of course, by the next morning, the local media had gobbled up the sermon like so much received wisdom:
Yes, this is what’s wrong with your Reds, Cincinnati. A lack of Klubhouse Kumbayah. Let’s gin up speculation about Paul O’Neill, a man with not only no managerial experience, but no previous discernible interest in leading a team before this Hope Diamond of an opportunity arose. But hey, he’s fiery. He’s a competitor. He holds the currency of the moment.
Oh, Talk Radio. You’re a vixen, you are.
When baseball teams lose, conventional wisdom and the media head straight for the “intangibles” like Homer Simpson heading for a box of donuts. Baseball being the romantic game that it is, it lends itself to the mystical, to great players walking out of cornfields. As fans, we’ll eagerly bite. Why can’t the players want it as much as we do? We are fans. If you strike out, do we not bleed? And if you wrong us in the clutch, shall we not revenge? Our hearts, broken like so many mistreated children’s toys, leave us bereft. We turn to bargaining with ourselves. We vow to step back a distance for fear of heartbreak. It’s perfectly understandable. You do it. I do it. We all do it.
Here’s an essential truth: ballplayers want it more than we ever are likely to admit. They just do. The game is their livelihood, the crucible in which their young lives are defined. Every player who ever got to the major leagues got there not because they were simply extraordinarily gifted, but because they were extraordinarily gifted AND worked tirelessly for years. After a tough elimination series, we wake up the next day, fill our lunchboxes and head to work. We move on. We do something else, like turn our rage on Andy Dalton. Players live with their failures—team and individual—the same way we suffer with ours. To suggest otherwise is to diminish them as human beings. And who doesn’t want to do that? I mean, they make so much damn money.
When the firing of Dusty Baker finally took place, the national media chimed in. Ken Rosenthal insisted Baker’s team “stopped playing for him.” Tom Verducci claimed it was a combination of bad luck and a need for a “new voice.” Whatever that means. Neither has the time to sift through 162 games of managerial decisions. Neither has the interest in examining the impact of a lineup that was shockingly devoid of right-handed hitting for an entire season. All-you-can-eat instant analysis is the only item on the menu.
Perhaps my favorite funky narrative is the “It Factor.” It’s post hoc sophistry at its best. The local media in particular is just in love with this scruffy little meme. Soon after the Reds were eliminated, a local drive time radio guy surmised there was something missing from this team. And while he couldn’t put his finger on IT, IT most certainly was missing. The It Factor also shows itself in the form of a pivotal game that essentially changes the chemistry and thus the course of a season with all the speed of a Mentos dropped into a liter bottle of Coke. Remember the Reds’ September 10-0 beatdown of Adam Wainwright? This was surely the It Factor game of season, right? Coming on the heels of a much needed “us-against-the-media” clubhouse venting at the expense of C. Trent Rosecrans, followed hard by the taking of three out of four from the Cardinals mere days later and the sweep of the Dodgers in front of a national audience—and then, suddenly, whoops, it wasn’t an It Factor moment at all. False alarm, people. Carry on.
A very misleading and damaging narrative of the Dusty Baker Era (and therefore the one that might have the most ill-effect on the choice of the next manager) has been the claim that Baker is a great 162 game skipper, who simply cannot adjust to the hot caldron of the playoffs, where URGENCY is all. This one holds the most currency among many Reds watchers.
I offer the following novel idea: that Game 34 in May and a game in October deserve essentially the same managerial scrutiny save for one important element: resource management. I would even go so far as to suggest that the more difficult of the two jobs is managing regular season games. Allocating resources on a daily basis, keeping an eye on the future while continually adjusting the view according to the whims of injury, player regression and the Baseball Gods, all taking place as the calendar relentlessly turns from April to July and beyond, would seem to be the equivalent of juggling chain saws. In the post-season, one should never confuse the heightened emotion, intensity or the consequences of the game with the intellectual aspect, which becomes more prosaic. Decision-making is more straightforward. Resource management becomes far less important. “Now” is all that matters. Roles, which can straitjacket a manager in the Big 162, become distilled down to one simple, identifiable job for each player in October: be willing to do what it takes to win today. Worry about tomorrow—well, tomorrow.
Dusty Baker manages his resources in the post-season the same way he manages them in the regular season. Dusty Baker was a poor post-season manager precisely for the same reasons he was a poor regular season manager. Baker’s decision-making could be papered over to some extent in the regular season because player performance over six months will do that. But an uncharacteristically cold Joey Votto or a Mike Leake who suddenly cannot find his control in an isolated post-season game has a tendency to put a harsh premium on game management. But, Dusty Baker knows only one way. Why? The answer is simple and leads into another familiar false Baker narrative, the one that portrays him as a players’ manager. Yes, Baker was that. But, to leave it at that misses the more important destination. Sure, he felt a kinship with his players and yes, player needs sometimes appeared to be placed ahead of team goals. And we’ll never forget that visible symbolic link right there in the dugout—the ever-present wristbands.
Nevertheless, every Baker act (or non-act) was there in the furtherance of one overriding goal that had less to do with clubhouse harmony and everything to do with insulating himself from criticism. According to the Code of Baseball Dusty Baker lives by, do things the “right way” and you live without regret. And the right way in Baker’s world revolves around a simple idea: ROLES.
It’s why Chapman couldn’t pitch in high-leverage situations. It’s why aging vets play instead of their younger, potentially more productive counterparts. It’s why the swift of feet bat at the top of lineup even as they display a head-slapping inability to get on base. The conventional wisdom of ROLES was Dusty Baker’s holy grail.
When Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle appeared to be burning through his bullpen in June and July, some lauded Baker for keeping his powder dry, holding back young Chapman for the stretch run, when the Reds would overtake the Pirates and possibly the Cardinals, who were riding an impossible run of luck with young pitchers. The night Broxton had to come out in the eighth because of injury and Chapman was brought in for the four-out save, I thought Baker had finally turned his 100 mph stallion loose. But postgame, Baker announced that he had been “forced” to bring Chapman in, who was warming for the ninth, and he had hated doing it. He had, to his own chagrin, violated a sacrosanct ROLE.
We were never going to see Aroldis Chapman used effectively. Summon him in the 8th to put down a rally, only to lose the game in the 9th with J.J Hoover in to close and you are doomed to being second-guessed in tomorrow’s paper. Allow the game to be quietly lost in the 7th or 8th inning but preserve your best pitcher for the ROLE that never materializes and you can always say the “pupils” simply didn’t get it done.
In one of the great ironies of the season, it was only when the bullpen was compromised with injuries, when Baker had no other choice, did we discover that players like Manny Parra could excel in critical non-LOOGY moments, that Sam LeCure could actually save a game, that ROLES once reserved for a select few, could actually be filled by others once deemed unworthy.
Just as Baker’s proclamation a year ago—that Scott Rolen would start in the playoffs ahead of Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier because it was “Scotty’s last rodeo”—left me cold, so did the PNC Park crowd’s mocking chant of ”CUE-TO, CUE-TO,”—as Baker left his “ace” to twist in the wind, a lonely figure on a hostile bump of a stage—leave Bob Castellini barren of support for his once handpicked choice to lead the Reds to the promised land.
It’s surely second-guessing to say that Johnny Cueto should never have pitched Game 163 in Pittsburgh. And yet it must be said: Johnny had barely contributed for most of the year. He was rushed back with 80 and 100 pitch-count games against two weak-hitting teams. His health was an uncertainty. In contrast, the Reds had a pitcher in waiting, a bat-missing guy whom was healthy, enjoyed great success pitching against the Pirates and was having a superlative year. But Homer Bailey could never have pitched that night for Cincinnati. Because, you see, he wasn’t the “ace.” That was Johnny’s ROLE.
I wonder if that’s what Bob Castellini saw from his seat in PNC Park. Perhaps, as I wondered not long ago, he was finally weighing Votto and his massive contract against Baker’s $3.5M and his open disdain for Joey’s approach to the game. It may be neither of those. Walt Jocketty said, “we appreciate and respect what Dusty did the six years he was here. But we just felt that the way things went toward [the] end — that it was evident we needed to make a change.”
You may think Castellini won’t make an emotional decision. You might be wrong. You can make an argument that the owner of the Reds gave Votto the house because he knew this smaller market team needed a signature player to build a winner around; that a message needed to be sent to the fans—many weighing the choice of coming through the turnstiles or spending their discretionary income elsewhere—that he meant business. But the subsequent overpay of Brandon Phillips was purely emotional, just as the decision to hire a high profile manager was six years ago. And as Paul Daugherty has said, Bob Castellini is a fan almost every bit as much as he surely is the owner.
With a rapacious media bellowing in Bob Castellini’s ear that it’s all about a lack of leadership, players who quit listening, and emotional zombies, with a belief that the losses at the end of the season were a tipping point, how easy will it be to choose the next manager for all the wrong reasons? Accountability is important. But, let’s not lose our way here. The Reds don’t need a new voice. The Reds don’t need a loud voice.
They need the right voice.