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.