Saturday, May 01, 2004

The Giants & A.J. Pierzynski:
When Pepperpots Become Pariahs  

A key aspect of people management, Second Base in the Management By Baseball model, is helping to fix the aftershocks of a good employee gone wrong. Frequently, these happen when you have a new employee you hired for certain attributes and aptitudes, but who either has vices no-one noticed (or could have noticed) in the hiring phase, or has hit a stressful time that has distorted their behavior.

It appears the San Francisco Giants are facing one of those situations now in dealing with a player they acquired in the off-season, catcher A.J. Pierzynski. I use the word "appears" because you can't always trust these stories, especially when it's pitchers talking about catchers or catcher about pitchers. The interpersonal & organisational politics of the relationship between pitchers and catchers are as edgy as any marriage both partners take seriously -- and when it goes bad, well, as any divorce lawyer knows, that's exactly the kind of marriage that produces the ugliest divorces. Moreover, baseball reporters are capable of blowing up small tiffs into stories that appear newsworthy. But these kinds of incidents happen in baseball and in non-baseball organizations all the time, so let's examine some details.

According to this story in the Oakland Tribune:

Struggling Giants catcher A.J. Pierzynski was called into Felipe Alou's office for a closed-door meeting Thursday with the manager and general manager Brian Sabean before a 4-3 loss to the Marlins, and while Pierzynski said he did not ask to be traded, several teammates said they wouldn't mind seeing him shipped off the roster.

"He's the cancer in here," said one Giant, who requested anonymity. "The pitchers aren't happy with him. If they can trade him, that would be fine with me." [snip]

Pierzynski, who came over from Minnesota in an off-season trade, denied he wants out of San Francisco, and said he has worked hard to develop a rapport with the pitchers here. But several pitchers disagreed, and questioned Pierzynski's work ethic. The latest incident occurred before Wednesday's game, when two players confirmed Pierzynski ignored starting pitcher Brett Tomko's request to go over opposing hitters. Instead, the players said, Pierzynski resumed playing cards for another 20 minutes.

"I've never in all my years seen a catcher who didn't watch video before games," one pitcher said. "He doesn't watch hitters -- other than the Twins games when they're on TV."

Another disturbing story made its way through the clubhouse last week. According to two Giants players, the Padres' Phil Nevin said Pierzynski was criticizing Giants pitchers while Nevin was at the plate. "That did it for me," one Giants pitcher said. "If a pitching staff doesn't have the respect of their catcher, that's it. That's what it's all about.

"I can understand if you're a veteran who's been here six years, somebody like Benito (Santiago). That's one thing. You're entitled to do things your way. But when you're coming into a new situation, you're the one that has to earn respect. This is an established pitching staff." [snip]

Pierzynski developed a reputation as a hothead in Minnesota and was unpopular with many opposing teams who accused him of chirping behind the plate and other unsportsmanlike conduct. This spring, the Giants accepted him and several players praised his feisty, emotional style of play.

A month into the season, the honeymoon apparently is over. "You know he's an abrasive person, and you tolerate it," a Giants pitcher said, "but when you're around it this long, it starts to wear you out."

A career .301 hitter entering the season, Pierzynski has four hits over his past nine at-bats to raise his average to .236. He has grounded into a team-leading seven double plays and has become a magnet for boos at China Basin. Some pitchers wondered aloud if Pierzynski hasn't continued to sulk over his hitting slump while he's supposed to be focusing on calling pitches [snip]

As Joe Bob Briggs would say, "What you got here is your basic new employee exploding head fu".


There are two key meltdowns here, and when you see them, they can be related to each other, twin problems, like Scylla and Charybdis. But if you manage enough different new employees you can see either one alone.

New Employee Exploding Head Fu #1: Failure to Bond

In the U.S., people spend so much of their energy and life focus on work and $$ that it's common, if not totally a norm within our culture to "bond" to one's place of employment like people do to their families in other developed societies.

This can prove a problem for someone who changes employers.

Pierzynski played his whole 6 year career with the Minnesota Twins. Apparently he bonded to them (that quote in the article about the only video he was watching was Twins games on t.v.). You see this outside of baseball, the challenge of a new employee in a business conversation fumbling over "we" and "you" in referring to her new organization. Or he slips up and refers to his new organization by the name of his old one.

It can be a lot like a kid that grew up in a birth family being rolled out for adoption at a post-infant age...a mite traumatic. How bonded they felt to their old organization is a variable. But different individuals handle this with varying grace, and that's another variable. For the ones who were really bonded to their original organization, the toughest independent factor to face can be...

New Employee Exploding Head Fu #2: Pepper-Pot Intensity

In baseball, there's a certain kind of player teams, managers, and many fans just love. The (usually) white guy who isn't all that talented by classic measures but runs out every ground ball at full speed, tries to make diving catches, appears to love the game, heckles opponents from the bench and plays every aspect of the game with a manic full-tilt take-no-prisoners esprit de corps. In the old days, people called this model a "Pepper-Pot", and Leo Durocher was the archetype. In recent times, you have a bunch of them, like Joe McEwing & Rex Hudler, and more talented variants such as Eric Byrnes and token-minority Chone Figgins. (There's a reason that very few minority Pepper-Pots populate pro playfields, but that's an extra-crunchy sociological subject worthy of a couple of entries in itself.)

Pierzynski is one of these intense guys. There are clues even in the article...as noted there, he harasses opposing batters, he has a reputation as a hothead.

This kind of intensity can compound when the bearer is under stress. Pierzynski, for example, has had a terrible start to his season. Some of it had to be expected -- he was playing in a hitter-friendly home park for many years and now he's playing in a home park that asphyxiates left-handed hitters, perhaps more than any other one in the majors. He has to learn a new pitching staff, and given he played his whole career in the American League before this year, he has to learn a lot of extra hitters, too. Under rare circumstances, this would not be uncomfortable. Pepper-Pots handle discomfort less well than average people.

When you get both factors together, bonding to a previous organization and personal intensity, you can be in a rough spot as a manager, like the Giants, who are having to take a long walk off a short Pierzynski.

Remediation in these cases is difficult. I do have a couple of suggestions to try, choices baseball teams don't have.

If you can see the potential value in the employee, try to re-arrange work so she can have some successes that actually deliver some value. If you can do that, you can get some torque out of the person, she can win some brownie points from fellow employees, and her morale might come around.

If it's not an intensity problem, only a failure to bond, I suggest a one-on-one chat with the employee during which you kindly but very firmly note the failure to bond and suggest in no ambiguous terms both how understandable it was that they were bonded to their previous employer, but that they have to change their behavior, even if they have to pretend to be bonded to the new organization. Pretending is okay, by the way, because people who are bonded to their previous organization are, by definition, capable of bonding, and usually also people who are looking to bond with a group outside their family. Some of these folk, after they've been able to pretend for a while will actually start bonding authentically, because of their proven pre-disposition to bond.

There's no sure solution. Trying to buffer the shortcomings is by far the best initial approach. But overcome it you must. The effects on the morale of your other staff are serious, as well as the effects on getting your group's work done, too.

When a good employee goes wrong, manage him the way the Giants seem to have tried to manage Pierzynski: quickly and assertively, but while allowing the problem employee to save face.

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