Leadership

Mike Salk · June 22, 2010 at 9:50 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Salk is a co-host of Brock and Salk, which you can listen to weekdays beginning at 11 am on ESPN Radio 710. We’ve agreed to contribute to each other’s sites this year, and he brings a perspective to the game that we don’t generally write about.

When the Mariners decided to call a players only team meeting last week, it got me thinking about the importance of leadership. It may be the hardest trait to quantify. There is definitely no stat for it. It’s a label that gets applied typically to veterans, disproportionally to Caucasians, and usually to guys that hustle and speak well to the media. But that doesn’t mean we label the right guys.

So… who are baseball’s leaders? What to they do to help a team? And, why is leadership so different in baseball?

To start with, it seems to come in three forms.

-Quiet leadership by example.
-Vocal leadership in front of the team (team meetings)
-Vocal leadership behind the scenes, where the leader pulls another player aside for a quick talk.

The quiet leadership is easy to spot but harder to accept by those outside the clubhouse. Teammates point to Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez as “leaders” because they arrive early to the park and conduct their business the right way.

“You see a lot more guys who lead by example,” explains Ryan Langerhans. “It’s much tougher to be a vocal leader. But Guti is a good example of a quiet guy who leads by example. He is always prepared. Always. He knows how to play this game the right way.”

That’s fine, but does it help a team through a tough spot? Does it help a young player eliminate mistakes or correct bad behavior? Does it offer encouragement when someone needs it?

That often takes a vocal leader, which are a lot tougher to fjind. That’s partly because it takes a certain type of personality to lead, but also because the culture of baseball tends to try to silence players. I figured players were reluctant to speak up because of a fear of standing out, but Josh Wilson explained it much more clearly.

“It’s maybe a little tougher to lead vocally in this league because it’s a game of failure,” reasons Wilson. “It’s hard for guys to stand up in front of their teammates and say ‘do better,’ especially when they know they could be in a slump next. The ups and downs make it so hard. And you have the split between the pitchers and hitters – guys don’t want to start blaming anyone or else the finger could get pointed right back at them. It’s real tough to play the blame game in this sport.”

That seems to be the central problem with leading in baseball and why it’s so hard to find a truly great leader. Football, basketball and most other team sports have an accepted level of consistency. Good players can, for the most part, play at a similar level throughout a season. Even more, their level of play can often be traced directly to their in-game hustle or pre-game preparation.

But baseball has slumps. Slumps unlike any other sport. And if you happen to be in a trough rather than a peak, it can be very tough to feel like a productive member of the team, let alone an authority figure.

It’s almost as if baseball players are too self-conscious to stand up in front of their peers.

But there are guys who have been through it before and know that someone needs to pass on words of encouragement or advice to the younger players. That’s why many leaders simply take a teammate aside for a quick conversation.

“Being vocal isn’t always about speaking at a team meeting,” offers Langerhans. “Often it’s just pulling a young player aside for some advice. Sometimes it’s baseball related, sometimes it’s how to deal with management, or the media or whatever.”

Ah, the media.

Baseball players worry about the media so much I sometimes wonder if they would need all the leadership if they could simply play without us buzzing around them.

“Having a leader is even more important now in the era of the 24 hour news cycle,” according to bullpen coach John Wetteland. “Guys have to know that they’re protected. In an era in which anyone with an opinion can say whatever they want and have access to an audience, there is something even more than a microscope. Guys need a safe place and a good leader can help foster that.”

Ask a few Mariners about leaders they’ve been around and some of the names won’t surprise you. Coming up in the Florida system, Vargas was immediately exposed to a trio of young leaders when he first came up to the big leagues and was confronted with Josh Beckett, AJ Burnett and Dontrelle Willis. He says all three commanded respect and were excellent resources for all of his questions.

“The most important thing about leadership on a team is having veteran guys to ask questions of,” he says. And all three helped in some way. Being around Beckett myself, I would guess his advice was dripping with sarcasm and more than a little cynicism. But the best advice Vargas got was from Willis who warned him, “Don’t be nice! Not on the mound.”

Wilson has been in six organizations and can point to a handful of guys. Todd Helton stands out to him as does Mike Sweeney, Todd Jones and Mike Lowell. Langerhans came up with Atlanta where I expected veteran Chipper Jones to run the clubhouse, but he mentions John Smoltz as the true leader of that team at the time.

Going back a little deeper, Wetteland points to Kirk Gibson as one of the best leaders.

“Gibby was a great leader because although he was purposeful, he also kept it fun,” remembers the quirky Wetteland. “Those lemonsuckers get tiresome over 162 games. There is a time and a place for being serious, but you have to have some fun in this game or you’ll go nuts.”

And here we are back to the nature of baseball. It wasn’t a goal of mine to prove that baseball is different from other sports but the theme seems to be carrying over from my last piece to this one. Because baseball is played every day with lots of downtime and even more travel, chemistry becomes more relevant than in other sports. Because baseball is a game built around dealing with failure, you need leaders who can help you through the bad times.

I was the first to scoff at the Mariners team meeting last week. It seemed like it was too little, too late. I wondered why any young player would possibly buy in when it was being conducted by a pitcher about to be traded, an infielder who had just complained about being dropped to ninth after not producing, and an outfielder who had abandoned his team just a month earlier.

I stand by comments. But maybe I missed one aspect.

“Team meetings are to make sure everyone still cares,” Josh Wilson explained to me. “I’ve been on teams where at the end of a long year where we are way out of it, people just play for themselves and their own stats. Guys get selfish. We don’t want to be that team – especially not now. Not this early.”

It’s about staying together and playing hard even when you’re out of it.

“And staying together and gutting out the end of a year can have a good positive effect on the next season. If you know that as a core team you fought together and battled and refused to give up, it really does help.”

I don’t know if Wilson is right. I don’t know if it caries over to next year. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. If the players believe it helps, then it will help. And if there is any chance that it has a positive effect on the team, then it was probably worth everyone’s time.

I just wish they had tried it a little sooner.

Comments

33 Responses to “Leadership”

  1. Carson on June 22nd, 2010 10:14 am

    Great post, Mike.

    I liked a lot of what Josh Wilson had to say. I think any of us who played any sport at any level (or heck, even in any job really) can relate to what he’s talking about with why some guys are reluctant to lead vocally.

    I know I’ve had my share of teammates and co-workers who lead at the wrong times and in the wrong way, then were not pleased when they began slumping and someone returned the favor. It also makes them less likely to be vocal again when they’re doing well.

    The one thing in this that bugged me, which may not have been intentional was:

    I’ve been on teams where at the end of a long year where we are way out of it, people just play for themselves and their own stats. Guys get selfish. We don’t want to be that team – especially not now. Not this early.”

    This is what we saw in 2008, and Ichiro shouldered a lot of blame in the clubhouse by doing his thing. I’d really hate to see this club disolve to that again.

    Again, though, great insight from the players on how they view this subject. Keep it coming, Mike!

  2. patl on June 22nd, 2010 10:21 am

    Good work, Mike. Thanks for your perspective!

    One thing that confuses me about your argument here and on-air is the “I wish they’d have tried it sooner” part. This isn’t the first team meeting they’ve had this year, is it? A quick web search shows that they had team meetings on 4/13 and 5/11 (this is the one where Mike Sweeney shows his leadership by challenging the kids to a fight), and perhaps others.

    The team meeting ‘tactic’ WAS tried, but didn’t really help.

    However, I like that Wilson says that the meetings are basically about making sure that the players still care. I can imagine that a lost season is hell, especially this early, and especially if the guys around you have quit.

  3. erikec on June 22nd, 2010 10:38 am

    When you put together an international team as the Mariners have, communication and leadership becomes more difficult. Different languages as well as different cultures can create a lack of unity.

  4. rcc on June 22nd, 2010 11:49 am

    I call B.S. on this…I get bored with references to what a “great clubhouse guy” so and so is. You don’t see this in football or basketball….only baseball. So if it is so important then how many wins is it worth? Does a great clubhouse equal 5 wins, 10 wins, or even 1 win?

    Griffey Jr. was supposed to be such a great clubhouse guy and what does he do…leave in the middle of the night without a goodbye. Is that what makes a good clubhouse guy…someone who runs away as soon as the adoration stops?

    Everyone has had a job where you thought/think the boss is a jerk and a know nothing, or co-workers suck, but you still do the job. Baseball is still a game, and played by individuals in a team setting….so man up, quit your bitching, and play to your potential.

    Players get paid big bucks to make money doing what few can do, and many would love to do.
    You don’t need a clubhouse good guy who answers all your needs, makes jokes, and is great to hang out with in order to play baseball well.

  5. killer_ewok18 on June 22nd, 2010 11:53 am

    “Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don’t mean [anything]. He’s up here because he’s good. That don’t mean [a hill of beans]. They got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy.” – Jim Leyland

  6. pgreyy on June 22nd, 2010 11:56 am

    Managers don’t go into slumps.

    I mean, this team thought it would have veteran leadership from Junior and Sweeney–but with Junior not being able to perform at the level he was accustomed, and Sweeney not being able to be consistent (either with his performance or his availability)…what could they offer that shouldn’t have been expected from this team’s coaching staff?

    These players are professionals. They’re getting paid to produce at their best. They have coaches who are being paid to make certain that they can perform at their best. They have a manager who determines when they will best be able to help the club.

    I wonder if player leadership, like chemistry, is something that is a result of success…not a measurable “cause”. (Rhetorical question: Has there been a bad team with great leadership?)

  7. Westside guy on June 22nd, 2010 12:15 pm

    “Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don’t mean [anything]. He’s up here because he’s good. That don’t mean [a hill of beans]. They got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy.” – Jim Leyland

    Jim Leyland is great!

    But I don’t understand… why are some words inside of square brackets? ;-)

  8. Chris_From_Bothell on June 22nd, 2010 12:17 pm

    Why is it ok for Ichiro to be a quiet leader by example here, when it was obvious during the World Baseball Classic that he can be a vocal leader too?

  9. georgmi on June 22nd, 2010 12:22 pm

    Because the measure of a leader is whether people follow you, and who. And I submit there is a huge difference between leading a group of people who share your language, culture, and professional background and leading a group of people who share none of those things.

  10. spankystout on June 22nd, 2010 12:41 pm

    Great post Salk.

    I believe in chemistry, but I’m not a die-hard-believer that it should be a main focus point in any FO. Winning cures all…..

  11. spankystout on June 22nd, 2010 12:53 pm

    Chris-Bothell

    I don’t understand Ichiro’s difference in personality between the MLB and WBC. I don’t want him to get another ulcer, but the best player seems indifferent.

  12. gloo on June 22nd, 2010 12:54 pm

    …Why is it so hard for people to understand how difficult it is to be a vocal leader when you are not a native speaker.

    The All-star game speech? That is more George Carlin than Patton. It is tough to be taken seriously when you have a tough time pronouncing words and butcher grammer.

    WBC is a bit different since everyone looks to him as his ‘Senpai’.

    Ichiro in that regard is not the same humble player you see as a Mariner when he plays with his NPB ‘Kohais’.

  13. gloo on June 22nd, 2010 12:55 pm

    Oh and why is it not okay to be a quiet leader by example?

  14. gwangung on June 22nd, 2010 1:09 pm

    Oh and why is it not okay to be a quiet leader by example?

    Wasn’t Edgar a quiet leader by example?

  15. Chris_From_Bothell on June 22nd, 2010 1:11 pm

    Why is it so hard for people to understand how difficult it is to be a vocal leader when you are not a native speaker.

    Pfft. Please. He’s been playing here for 10 years, his English is fine. I’m in the software industry, I know plenty of people who have English as a third or 4th language who are perfectly fine as vocal leaders among their peers.

    WBC is a bit different since everyone looks to him as his ‘Senpai’.

    That, I can sort of buy… but 10 years experience in the bigs has to have the same cachet with other MLB players does, as being a senior player in the NPB does. MLB culture and NPB/Japanese culture aren’t that far apart in that regard.

  16. spankystout on June 22nd, 2010 1:13 pm

    Gloo

    I think it was Figgins, maybe Jr who this spring training said don’t let Ichiro “fool you” about how much English he speaks.

  17. CYK on June 22nd, 2010 1:15 pm

    Why can’t people lay off Ichiro? Of the many facets of this organization that are broken, RF/Lead-off hitter seems just fine to me. How many individuals on this team are a pleasure to watch play? Lee, but he’s gone. Guti–maybe, but I appreciate him more for his consistency than in-game heroics. Felix, when he’s on. That’s it. No other player is a draw or is captivating–except Ichiro. Maybe he’s so damned good at what he does that people forget to notice, but to this fan he is the only reason to buy a ticket. Personally I think his critics are crazy and ungrateful.

  18. firova2 on June 22nd, 2010 1:33 pm

    If players can’t figure the lessons to be learned from the guy hitting .350, then they shouldn’t have a job. He is getting the job done by coming to work early, preparing like a fiend, taking care of his body, and playing consistent baseball day in and day out over a ten-year period. What exactly is he supposed to say to them about being a professional and taking their jobs seriously that he doesn’t say by his actions each day and each game? And in this case, the best position player on the team is also making the most money. Get a clue, fellas.

  19. Chris_From_Bothell on June 22nd, 2010 1:33 pm

    CYK – Ichiro’s not broken – he’s a 1st ballot hall of famer, a premeire player, a near slump-proof hitter, whose skills and dedication are not in doubt. It’s just puzzling that in this one respect, he doesn’t do more.

  20. Evan on June 22nd, 2010 1:38 pm

    Ichiro isn’t slump-proof. It’s just that when he has a slump as his batting average drops 40 points, it bottoms out at .325.

    Even if he hasn’t had a hit in 5 games, no one points to a guy batting .330 and complains about his production.

  21. joealb1 on June 22nd, 2010 1:40 pm

    I’m with Jimmy Layland on this one.

  22. Chris_From_Bothell on June 22nd, 2010 1:41 pm

    What exactly is he supposed to say to them about being a professional and taking their jobs seriously that he doesn’t say by his actions each day and each game?

    By your reasoning, there’s no need for vocal leaders on a club at all. Or, for that matter, any coaches.

  23. firova2 on June 22nd, 2010 1:53 pm

    Chris,
    Yeah. Vocal leaders: overrated. Fine line between vocal leader and loudmouth irritant. Coaching is another matter, though I would also say that Lou’s “vocal” managing doesn’t exactly guarantee results. He had some losing seasons here with lots of talent on hand (oh, I know, that ONE bat would have done the job! And those relievers!).

    Again, what is Ichiro supposed to say to them. “See how I work and prepare? Follow me.” Ridiculous.

  24. gloo on June 22nd, 2010 1:57 pm

    Chris, why does it have to be Ichiro?

    Being a vocal leader amongst a group of devs is night and day from being a vocal leader amongst a bunch of jock types.

    10 years can be very different for someone who spends the off season not speaking or hearing the language at all, opposed to workers who live here permanently.

    Ichiro should be blamed since he won’t do more? Seems interesting that he is taking on a role that other players would gladly relinquish; team’s lightning rod for criticism.

  25. firova2 on June 22nd, 2010 2:01 pm

    Actually, Chris, I would say that coaching at the major league level is also wildly overrated. Firing Allan Cockerell hardly changed the Mariner offense. Most players have previous coaches or other people they are connected with whose opinion they trust, and they now self-evaluate via video to a large degree. The great ones (Edgar, Ichiro, Rod Carew, Brett) coached themselves, changing their stances constantly. Defense? How many hours they put in along with athletic ability is really what it is about. Of course the team needs coaches, and pitching coaches probably have a greater impact, but we shouldn’t overrate their significance.

  26. Chris_From_Bothell on June 22nd, 2010 2:03 pm

    Again, what is Ichiro supposed to say to them. “See how I work and prepare? Follow me.”

    Um, actually, yeah, he’s supposed to say essentially that. Although in a much more effective way than you or I ever would, with lots more instruction, detail and authority, and more often.

    Ichiro should be blamed since he won’t do more?

    Not blaming him for 2010′s team blowing pork. I’m simply wondering why he can’t do this one thing that he should have the skills and credibility to do.

    Daring to suggest that Ichiro, icon of the Mariners, is less than perfect at one thing is not at all the same as saying he’s the problem with the team, nor is it the same as saying that everything else he does so well is suddenly moot. It’s ok to criticize Ichiro about something. Really.

  27. gloo on June 22nd, 2010 2:06 pm

    Baseball is at times less of a team sport than it is an individual one, compared to say, Football.

    I totally agree with firova2 that it great ones have internal drive with intrinsic motivators.

  28. gloo on June 22nd, 2010 2:08 pm

    No player regardless of their popularity is exempt from fair criticism. I fail to see how this is a fair criticism in light of what we discussed.

  29. firova2 on June 22nd, 2010 2:28 pm

    I doubt that if anyone asks Ichiro a question, he walks away. To expect more is actually to insult the intelligence of his teammates. No way should they need him to tell them how to be professionals. Watch, learn, ask questions. And grow up.

    It has been said many times before. When teams lose, the best player always gets the blame.

  30. Axtell on June 22nd, 2010 3:19 pm

    Chris from Bothell, why does Ichiro have to be a leader? Because he’s been here the longest? What makes you say that it’s mandatory he be a leader?

    He comes to work every day, kills it, works his ass off, doesn’t take days off, and that’s still not enough for you? Vocal leaders are wildly overrated, and if everyone came in to the clubhouse with the same attitude and work ethic as Ichiro we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    Why is leadership and chemistry only talked about when a team is losing? Because they are largely irrelevant to a team’s success.

    Chris, it’s time to ease up off the Ichiro talk. For all the team’s ills, Ichiro (and his supposed lack of leadership) definitely is not one of them.

  31. Nellie Fox on June 22nd, 2010 3:30 pm

    Salk forgot the fourth kind of leadership: The mythical propaganda that a guy like Ken Griffey, Jr. was inspirational and motivational in any way at all. Let’s see – I’m benched, so I’ll hang it up and be on a plane for Florida in five minutes. Yeah, there’s a leader.

    Or I’ll hit the clubhouse for a snooze in the fifth inning. Nice example.

    It’s one thing to be a hall of famer who gets ogled and has all his lame jokes laughed at by a fawning, clueless media. But that’s not leadership. Griffey was an intimidator, a diva, and a high-maintenance egoist. He was not a leader. Ever.

  32. gloo on June 22nd, 2010 5:08 pm

    Exactly. Vocal leaders aren’t always what they preach to be…

  33. Chris_From_Bothell on June 23rd, 2010 11:08 am

    why does Ichiro have to be a leader? Because he’s been here the longest? What makes you say that it’s mandatory he be a leader?

    Yes. Because he’s been here the longest. That’s what makes it mandatory. Baseball 101.

    Vocal leaders are wildly overrated, and if everyone came in to the clubhouse with the same attitude and work ethic as Ichiro we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    But they obviously don’t, so the vocal leaders are needed as a complementary piece to the quiet examples.

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