Rockies brass really likes to use the word ‘culture’ these days. This off-season, we’ve heard them blather about “accountability” while pointing fingers at everyone but themselves. Catch phrases have been highlighted in articles all over the web and in the papers about “changing the culture” of the team, bringing in “clubhouse guys” to help cure what was apparently “a bad clubhouse” last year, and trading away previously lauded homegrown players who suddenly lacked an “all-for-one mentality” or who “weren’t playing the game the right way.”
This emphasis on clubhouse culture or team chemistry is often juxtaposed to the traditional emphasis big league clubs place on talent. These two determining factors — talent and team chemistry/culture — have been bandied about in baseball ever since the game began. For example, the 1919 White Sox — known as the greatest team of its era — were notorious for how poorly they got along with each other, even while throwing the World Series. Were the White Sox any less successful because of personality conflicts, bad chemistry, or animosity in the dugout before and after games?
Dan O’Dowd and the Monforts seem to think that’s the reason why the Rockies “stunk” last year.
One of the winningest managers of all-time, Joe Torre, once said, “Winning creates chemistry more than the other way around.” Without getting too semantic here, it seems to me that talented ball clubs tend to win a lot more than less-talented ones. Last month, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd argued otherwise: “We certainly need to address our talent, but I think talent comes secondary if your culture is not where it needs to be.”
So what’s more important? A focus on winning games or engineering a perfect clubhouse culture? Good performance or good behavior? Ability or chemistry? Talent or character?
To some degree, these are false dichotomies. Divisions which don’t help us see the possibilities or potentialities in each and every season, in every team, and in every player. Ideally, as I see it, a good GM creates enough space in the organization for each individual’s unique personality to thrive, while encouraging team interdependency from afar. Not judging anyone or presuming to know their character. Part of the role of the manager then is to recognize up close certain qualities in individual players that, when encouraged, make all those around him play that much better.
Are O’Dowd and Tracy capable of recognizing such nuances? Are Tulo and Cargo no longer expected to be clubhouse leaders now that Cuddyer, Blake, and Scutaro are on the team? Or are they all expected to repress their personalities and perform in a boring, business-like manner which many now call “professionalism”?
In baseball, personality and character are not the same thing. The 1979 Pirates, for instance, cultivated one of the coolest feel-good stories in history: the triumph of uniquely individual personalities working together in collective solidarity to win the World Series. They might not have had what O’Dowd considers “character”, but they were a bunch of characters who knew how to win.
Some attribute the success of “The Family”, a team of average players with strong personalities, to the presence of one individual player, Willie “Pops” Stargell, who was both a father figure in the dugout and league MVP. As Phil Garner said, “we were a rambunctious sort, everybody was wild and crazy,” but Pops held them together. They were a tight-knit bunch who developed a unique closeness — something you can’t plan for or force.
They won the pennant despite not having a single 15-game winner, or a player who drove in 100 runs. Stargell was 39 years-old that year and also won the World Series MVP. Is it too early or too naive to hope this year that one of our 38 year-old corner infielders will earn the name “Pops”? Or that Tulo or Cargo might win the MVP?
I’d like to think of the ’79 Pirates as a team which this 2012 Rockies team can draw inspiration from. And with a lot of luck, all this talk about our culture club “playing the game the right way” will gradually fade away as Fowler glides in for another triple, as Betancourt records another save, while Tulo and Scutaro turn eye-popping double plays, and after the Family finally wins the NL West.
Born and raised under the big blue skies of sunny Colorado, Kevin grew up admiring Tony Gwynn, the Zephyrs, and then the Rockies once big league baseball finally came to Denver. He turned away from the game after Gwynn & co. lost the ’98 World Series, then read some Nietzsche and set off to experience the world. He lived in Ireland, fell in love, moved to Denmark, taught at a university in China, and moved back to Copenhagen in 2007. He began playing competitive fast-pitch softball that year and coincidentally started following the Rockies closely again. And what a year! Rocktober meant sitting in front of a laptop alone until 5am every game night, cheering in muted roars and flailing arms so as not to wake his girlfriend. He’s dabbled in gainful employment, earned a master’s degree, learned Danish, played some home run derby in the local park with Nordic drunks and bums, seen some awful times at Coors Field, and currently clings to the pipe dream of publishing some of his own weird short stories some day soon. Hosting green chile cook-offs and brewing oatmeal stout gets him through the dark and dreary off-season. Coaching and playing shortstop for the Copenhagen Urban Achievers during the summer helps keep his mind limber and his spirit young.