Baseball managers have little impact on the outcome of the game. Winning is the product of talent. Baseball managers have little impact on chemistry. Chemistry is the byproduct of winning. Managers are seemingly puppets to circumstance. One could then conclude that a manager is just a placeholder, but that's not entirely true. In the wake of Seattle firing Don Wakamatsu, I offer what I think are the six qualifications of an MLB manager.
The word "luck" is tossed around in the sports world. The most common usage in the sports world might be defined as "that which is neither quantifiable nor acceptably explainable." So if we can't figure out why Cha Seung Baek gets smacked around despite tolerable component ratios, we might call him "unlucky."
Luck is most basically that which we do not control but can control us. LeBron James is lucky to be born LeBron James. Marcus Tubbs was unlucky to be born with Marcus Tubbs' knees.
A qualified MLB manager must manage a successful team, and since they themselves have little or no control over the success of their team, they must be lucky. Don Wakamatsu was unlucky and so he was fired.
Anyone with a ceremonial job must be likable. The film industry is the quintessential example of this. Most actors are no better at acting than thousands, even millions of wannabes that will never have a shot. Keanu Reeves, to take a rather stolid and high-profile example, is a worse actor than one might find at a local community theater. The sad part is that I am not exaggerating. But Reeves sells tickets, and Stewart Morrison of Shaker Heights does not. One might quip, "Who the hell is Stewart Morrison?"
Being likable can be broken into a few important component qualities.
- Familiarity: We tend to feel more comfortable with someone familiar. Familiar actors can outlive any pretense of talent by sheer force of their familiarity.
- Attractiveness: A likable person is pleasant to look at. This is not the same as sexual attractiveness, which is more particular and polarizing. Men like better looking, better groomed men just as women like better looking, better groomed women. Jack Wilson will never be a matinee star. Humans do not like looking at disharmonious things.
- Evenness of demeanor: People are put off by emotionally abnormal people. People that are quick to anger. People that mope. People that are too happy, or too enthusiastic, or too serious. The goal is not to be Seneca. The goal is to be mild. Inoffensive.
- Novelty: Reeves is lucky to enough to be handsome and also somewhat uncommon looking. He is sometimes described as "modern." This is his hook. This is why he gets cast in science fiction movies. Likable people possess something novel that is nevertheless not far from the norm.
Virtuousness but not piety: We like Derek Fisher. We do not like Tim Tebow.
That covers the major parts of being likeable, but there are exceptions. Standards change. Sometimes we like fiery. Sometimes we like quirky. Mostly we like bland. That is, our capacity to like a figurehead is dwarfed by our capacity to hate a figurehead.
In some ways, Wakamatsu was likeable. One phrase became mantra among haters: "belief system." The phrase was abnormal. It was dangerously close to piety. And though it probably never meant anything particular, it became code for "Wak is incompetent."
Be graceful in defeat
Despite three years of failure punctuated by the NFL's first and only 0-16 season, many fans and members of the media defended former Lions Head Coach Rod Marinelli. It was not his fault they insisted. He was a good head coach. Most of this belief can be traced to Marinelli's grace in defeat. He was well practiced. Marinelli did not risk being unlikable with angry tirades, finger pointing or the like. He shouldered blame.
Bearing blame speaks to one of the great ironic mechanisms of the human mind. By admitting he was the reason his team was struggling, observers decided Marinelli was more qualified to lead. Observers interpreted his admission of incompetence as indication of competence. Had Marinelli been honest, and said that the 2008 Detroit Lions were untalented and that a coaching staff helmed by Bill Walsh, Hank Stramm and Vince Lombardi would have struggled to finish 6-10, he would have appeared ignoble in defeat and therefore less capable of the job.
Wakamatsu succeeded at not pointing fingers. Mostly. Until he benched Chone Figgins.
Avoid the big, embarrassing media blunder
We will never know if Wakamatsu would have finished out the season had he not got into a fight with Figgins, but whether it's correlation or causation, the big, embarrassing media blunder always presages termination. For one, it's undeniable. Unlike murmurs of clubhouse infighting, Wakamatsu squaring off with Figgins was laid out for everyone to see.
The media blunder becomes a story, and stories beget stories. So we do not just get coverage of Howard Dean yelling like a lunatic, we get investigative pieces wondering if he is unstable. We do not just get stories about Jim Mora questioning the toughness of his team, we get opinion pieces wondering if the team has quit on him.
The big, embarrassing media blunder is chum in the water. It doesn't matter if it was on the boat all the while, only when there's blood in the water do the sharks begin to circle.
Avoid meaningful seeming coincidences
Flip a coin enough times and eerie seeming patterns will emerge. It might land heads-up 15 consecutive times. The patterns do not happen because of a mystic force, but volume of opportunity. Common sense struggles with this notion. One always attempts to find meaning. Cause. Effect. A lesson. A thread to an otherwise random series of events.
Had Wakamatsu lost 10 straight games following his altercation with Figgins, he would have been fired after the 10th game - if he made it that far. This would be the "team quitting" scenario. If the team rebounded and won 10 straight, Wakamatsu might have saved his job. He would have "rallied the troops." Instead the team won a little, and lost a little and then lost a whole bunch and Wakamatsu was eventually fired.
The altercation marked time. Wakamatsu was on watch. And when the team played worse, it became confirmation that he had lost the clubhouse. It was not coincidence. It was proof that, as we began to suspect, Wakamatsu had become part of the problem. The coincidence becomes confirmation of the bias. What starts as hunch becomes a full blown belief.
Avoid being part of the problem
This is often expressed as the "vote of confidence" or "kiss of death." The vote of confidence only happens when the question has currency. It is not the answer that matters but that the question is even asked. A reporter asked Jack Zduriencik if he supported Wakamatsu because it was possible that he might not. And he might not, because Wakamatsu had transitioned from being the face of failure to part of the problem.
A manager becomes part of the problem when they have done enough things that people are critical of and there is a problem they can be part of. Wakamatsu made himself part of the problem by favoring the wrong relievers, not pinch hitting or relying on the wrong pinch hitter, benching the wrong players, playing the wrong players, making enemies, etc.
If there is a problem, the manager is typically part of the problem. The best way a manager can avoid being part of the problem is popular consensus that the team is inherently flawed. The sense that the team itself is inherently flawed can protect even an incompetent manager for years. A team can be inherently flawed because of the players, the general manager or even the owner.
A manager can not make him team win. A manager can not make his team happy. A manager can only protect their image, but if they can, they will one day enjoy luck, one day be credited for team chemistry and one day see it all slip away again.