Sunday, October 12, 2003

To Bleeding Heart Readers:
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I have forsworn writing randomly about baseball topics that weren't management-related, but a playoff-mêlée yesterday triggers a couple of things that I need to say about bad human judgement. This is only vaguely related to management and significantly on the way events get spun inside all kinds of organizations.

Yesterday in the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game, several preliminary torts led to thrown ball whizzing over a Yankee batter's ducking head which triggered a dugout-emptying Man Dance. Yankee coach Don Zimmer, now that he's no longer a sub-competent manager, and has become a very useful complement to Yank manager Joe Torre's advisory team, has transubstantiated from his old press image as a mediocre Mr. Potato-head to a Lovable Old Genius. Back when he was managing, his lack of verbal acuity and total inability to manage different personalities (Torre's greatest strength) or in-game pitching decisions and beady-eyed ultra-suspicious, public nose-picking behavior made him a favorite target of the press. Now though, his personality has lightened up, he has a bit of authority and no responsibility and his greatest managerial strength, in-game tactics, comes in very handy to the organization the national press considers the most important team of all. He's colorful -- he has a plate in his head from a beaning he suffered while a minor leaguer. So he's useful for quotes, and pretty harmless, and has a lot of Bitgod (back in the good old days) stories, and everyone loves a guy with a plate in his skull who had the courage to keep playing the game though any knock could have been his last moment on earth. Reporters eat up that Bitgod stuff (they need filler all the time). And reporters love a good Made For TV Movie plotline, like good-v-evil, because it doesn't require either the writer, the editors, or the readers to do much actual analysis or thinking. Which leads us to back to yesterday's game.

Anyway, the Lovable Old Genius made a terrible mistake during the Man Dance, and got himself hospitalized. And all the national baseball press seems to think he's blameless for the mistake. Which he has to be because he's Lovable. And the person who teamed up with him in the mêlée is being held to blame. Which he has to because he's Irascible to the press and English is his second language anyway. And he's pretty swarthy, which might be a contributing factor in the gestalt of Lovable Old (White) Guy As A Victim Of These Terrible Times.

When the Man Dance started, the 72-year-old Zimmer charged the mound, inhabited by one Pedro J. Martí­nez. Zimmer weighs in at about 235 or 240, Martí­nez at about 160 (though he claims 170). Martí­nez, charged with adrenaline, sees a guy who outweighs him by 45-50% bearing down on him at a (slow) rate, and pushes Zimmer away in a judo-like way that was relatively gentle (no fist) though definitely intended to put him down on the ground and out of the picture. Not nice.

Press reports have jumped to the Lovable Genius' defense. He's 72! He's Lovable! He Was Justified!

Baloney. What's a 72-year old lardbutt with a plate in his skull doing charging the frelling mound with his fist raised during a heavily-populated mass-rumble? What's wrong with that guy? Did he think he could tackle/hit/pummel/push/spit-on/whatever an opposing player and not be messed up in the process?

For those readers who are binary-thinkers (there has to be a good guy and a bad guy so if Angus is saying Zimmer was being a moron, he must believe Martínez was justified and "good"), I don't think Martí­nez was "good". But think through the problem. What are his choices?

Run? That video would play on every opponent's scoreboard screen for the rest of his career. Everyone who saw Max Alvis run from a giant rat all the way from his defensive station at 3rd base and completely off the playing field of Cleveland's Memorial Stadium never let Alvis forget that for the rest of his career. In fact, if you say "Max Alvis" to any fan of the 60's Indians, their first thought is always "chased like a sissy out of Memorial Stadium by giant rat"

Let himself get hit by a charging guy who outweighs him by 70 pounds? Uh, irresponsible to his teammates, since he's the best pitcher in baseball, and his team's second-best pitcher is unpredictable.

Recruit Jimmy Carter to get a mediator and negotiate their differences?

What the pitcher did was not "good", but there were no available "goods" once Zimmer was allowed to complete his charge to the mound.

The national TV and sports press were uniform in their excoriation of the Boston pitcher, though none suggested an alternative approach to resolving the mound-charging that didn't involve someone getting hurt. One New York reporter, Newsday's Shaun Powell, had the wisest assessment of the situation. It's interesting because Powell, even as a member of the Yankee press crew, and apparently too young to have interviewed Zimmer in Zim's beady-eyed, public nose-picking days, was able to look at the situation in a clear-eyed way.

Beyond baseball, this happens, too, and for a reason I haven't isolated yet, most often in academic and military settings. A teacher (non-com) who is a troubled man or woman who has made life miserable for consecutive waves of students (soldiers) for many years announces retirement, and suddenly everyone gets dewy-eyed about their past antics, romanticizes their leadership and performance.

It isn't necessarily a bad thing to institutionalize the good things that bad ex-managers have done, because most bad managers will have done some good things. But it's equally important that the organization remembers what the outgoing teacher/non-com did that was dysfunctional, and call it that, because the opportunity to replace that miapproachppraoch with a more functional one must hindered hinded in a dewy-eyed lovefest for the Lovable Old Genius. Rites of passage are important in changings of the guard, and you should always tear aside the veil of predictable cultural responses and simplistic emotional folklore to analyze the real fabric of what the outgoing boss did and what needs changing.

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