Saturday, June 23, 2012

Happy Ball Clubs Are All Alike -- Unhappy Ones Are, Too

Think about your job. Envision about 35 of the other employees where you work, your closest peers, a couple supervisors, some people from other departments whom you seldom see. A cross-section of your human interactions in the workplace.

Now, imagine that to do roughly six hours of work, you're going to spend between 10 and 14 hours a day with those 35 other people. Every day. For six months. And you're going to do it in extremely claustrophobic spaces in which personal space is nonexistent, many of the spaces being airplanes. Twice a day a large group of annoying strangers will invade one of the small spaces to ask you impertinent or worse, banal questions. Oh, and every day is a de facto performance review, where you will be judged by both your superiors and the customers.

Almost forgot. For half of the days of those six months, you will eat your meals with some of those 35 people and they will be your only social companions -- unless you know somebody else in Cleveland who feels like going out for a snack at 1 a.m.

How do you feel about your co-workers and bosses now? How do you think you'd feel about them if they never got out of your sight? How long do you think it would take for office gossip and office politics to become the stuff blood feuds are made of?

Think about all this for awhile. Now you have approximately one-third of the picture needed to understand the baseball concept of "clubhouse chemistry" and why it's one of those sports commentator fantasies indicating my former peers and myself had an important part of our brains fail to get out of fourth grade.

The other two-thirds of the picture are the people who actually endure the work environment described above, the ballplayers themselves. Like almost all people who excel at incredibly difficult disciplines, major leaguers are supremely focused/self-centered on their own performance, extraordinarily sensitive about that performance, and most of all, have a borderline psycho level of competitiveness in a profession where one loses and/or personally fails a great deal of the time. It always kills me when outsiders say players don't care. If only. Hell, half the instruction in the sport deals with trying to teach relaxation during performance, i.e., not caring as much.

In short, baseball players exist under stress. They then spend most of their waking hours in an environment designed to create stress all by itself.  Any industrial psychologist could predict what comes next. These chaps aren't going to be a band of brothers -- not until they retire and can swap lies at team-sponsored reunions.

Any industrial psychologist could predict what defense mechanisms player use to cope with their stresses, too. The sport's cruel and wonderful gallows humor is one. So is a determined effort to protect psychic personal space. That is to say, minding one's own business is as close to a Prime Directive as baseball has.

But no amount of coping can force human beings to like each other, not even, maybe especially, when they need each other. It was a manager, utterly dependent on the performance of players for his paycheck, who said of Curt Schilling, "he's a horse every fifth day and a horse's ass the other four." Schilling was a difficult teammate, primarily due to his inability to observe the Prime Directive.

And among young men under stress, dislike can become hatred. Cliques exist in all social groups. Do pitchers and position players get along? Do Marketing and IT always see eye to eye?

All these dynamics exist whatever the scoreboard says. The only difference is, when a team's winning, it's easier to ignore them. The gallows humor trends from bitter to lighthearted. Dislike can mellow into grudging respect. The media questions become less impertinent and more obsequious. It's not all good, but it's all easier to take.

Losing of course breeds the opposite reaction. That's why Bob Hohler found so many stool pigeons in October for his story on the Red Sox collapse of September. And when, as most teams do most of the time, a club bumps along within the .480-.530 mean, you get the idea everyone in baseball has undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

David Ortiz took considerable umbrage this week at a report that the 2012 Red Sox had a "toxic" clubhouse. Ortiz is an old hand, and should have known better than to go off. Writing that stuff is what baseball scribes do, and have done since before the American League came into existence. The fantasy that group dynamics influence performance, the exact opposite of reality, will never go away.

Yet at the same time, one sympathizes. Ortiz looks around at the 2012 Sox and almost surely thinks, "there's nothing REALLY different about this clubhouse." And he's right if he does.

Buster Olney, who wrote the report, is another old hand who should have known better. Teams that believe they are contenders who are scuffling to stay above .500 are newsworthy only when their interpersonal relationships AREN'T somewhat toxic. If there was a specific inter-Sox beef Olney knew about, he owed it to ESPN's vast audience to provide more information than a pointless generality.

As someone exposed to the Oakland A's of the 1970s, a dynasty that won three straight World Series with a clubhouse whose internal dynamics bore a striking resemblance to the politics of Lebanon, I have never really bothered to follow the "dissension" stories that make up so much of baseball (and all sports) commentary. Guys who had fistfights in August looked happy enough at the victory parades.

And since no team, not even the champion, wins all the time, or even 75 percent of the time, I'm never surprised when players don't get along with managers, coaches, and each other. They may be strange human beings, but they are human beings all the same, and humans weren't meant to live in the world known as the baseball season.

There's never been a murder in a clubhouse. In some ways, that's the most remarkable record in the sport's long history.


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