Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Brewer of the Sierra Madre:
In Which Lou Piniella Channels Fred C. Dobbs  

One mistake I've seen made in every single organization I've consulted to or worked in is managers' too-quick judgement of a contributor when the manager is unwilling to change her mind. Sometimes it works to the benefit of the judged -- someone becomes a Golden Boy and in spite of any failures, he just gets promoted away from doing work. Usually it's the opposite -- someone gets a bad reputation for good or not-good reasons and no matter how well they do, they are always going to be overlooked because of the unexamined assumption that they are not useful.

Outside of baseball as well as inside it, managers make personnel decisions under pressure, usually the pressure to perform and produce now concurrent with attempts to train and exvaluate young contributors. Most managers (about 85%) fail.

One obvious lesson is Lou Piniella, by all measureable guidelines, a very successful manager. He's managed teams to the playoffs in both leagues, won a world series in a 4-0 sweep against a significantly superior opponent, led a team to the highest regular season gross win total in 90 years, and has been in more highlight film clips throwing post-ejection tantrums than any other manager.

But Piniella has a big hole in his management "game". He's not a very good judge of talent. Many managers neither recognize talent nor get the most of the talent they have. Some slightly better ones (and Piniella's one of 'em) are good at getting performances out of certain specific types of contributors. The really good managers (and Piniella's not one of 'em) squeeze contributions out of whoever's on their roster.

Last week, David Andriesen of the Seattle P-I wrote an insightful piece about a particularly costly mistake Piniella made when he was managing the Seattle Mariners: giving up on outfielder Scott Podsednik too soon (reference courtesy Steve Manes). As he reports:

Last season, Podsednik became one of four rookies in major league history to hit .300 (.314), steal 40 bases (43) and score 100 runs (103), joining Jimmy Barrett, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ichiro Suzuki.

[snip] "He'd have been hitting second for us," said one Mariners executive. "He'd be the guy we've been looking for all this time to hit second and steal bases. But Lou didn't like him. Lou made a big mistake."

Piniella, while a master of in-game managing and motivation, is sometimes a less than astute evaluator of talent. His distaste for inexperienced players contributed to the departure of several players who went on to solid major league careers, including Boston catcher Jason Varitek, Minnesota pitcher Joe Mays and outfielder Raul Ibanez, who starred in Kansas City before being re-acquired by the Mariners last winter.

The manager does not have absolute power in personnel decisions, but executives say privately that when Piniella decided he didn't like a player and didn't want to manage him, there was little hope that player was going to be much of a contributor in the future.

"(Piniella) didn't care for him," Pat Gillick, the Mariners' general manager at the time, said of Podsednik. "We thought he had a bit of a long approach, a long swing, and we thought at the major league level he was going to have trouble on balls (pitched inside) on him.

I'll take issue with Andriesen's valuable piece on a couple of small issues: Varitek stunk up the minor league system and played totally uninspired baseball for the Mariner organization -- he had plenty of chances to succeed, and the organziation couldn't make him successful; another one could and did. Ibanez is a parallel story; he had plenty of chance to succeed at the major league level, and didn't produce. Ibanez ended up on a team that played in a hitting paradise, and his success at home the last couple of years juiced his apparent production. Ibanez is not a bad ballplayer, and moving on to another organization improved him (organizations tend to be able to teach certain lessons and not others; a smart player and turn this into advancement by addition -- not forgetting what he was taught previously and adding the new to his base knowledge). This is not a knock on the Ms; all organizations fail with certain players because of the org.'s innate pattern of strengths and weaknesses, what they can teach & what they can't.

It's not, btw, that Podsednik is an All-Star player. He's not. Value is relative to context. Podsednik's a really good, really inexpensive player who plays a position at which the Mariners desperately needs help. And his particular set of aptitudes, getting on base (struggling a little the last eight weeks) with great basestealing (both quality and quantity) and speed on the bases and in the outfield, are exactly one of the two ingredients the Ms are swooning from a lack-of. Podsednik is worth mroe to the M's than his appraent value because that's what they're needing specifically.


The only man in history with a permanent 5 O'Clock shadow as devastating as Piniella's was Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, based on the great novel by B. Traven. Against the backdrop of a gold rush, Humphrey Bogart plays the average guy who degenerates under pressure into an id monster.If you haven't read the book, do so; Traven was one of the 20th century's remarkable talents. Or see the movie if you're lazy -- Alfonso Bedoya's performance as the sensitive New Age and Yoda-wise bandido is a must-see, as is Robert Blake's pre-indictment thespianism.

┬┐Why do I bring up Dobbs?

Because Dobbs, like Piniella, is not only the five o'clock shadow king, he's existentially doomed in the work to not be able to recognize gold when he sees it. He goes nuts when he sees fool's gold (pyrites, a mineral that when embedded in rock gives off a golden glitter), but doesn't recognize gold ore when he's standing on a rich vein. It takes his partner Howard to identify gold, but Dobbsy doesn't like to listen to Howard.

Too many managers are like Piniella about their talent. They like what they like and trash the rest. Sometimes they need something they don't like or already have enough of what they do like. Some learn. Most don't. And the more success a manager has in spite of this hole in his game, the more intractable he's likely to be about not evolving to get better at it.

It will come back to haunt you. Just like when Piniella said to Gillick:

"Podsednik? I don't have to play no stinkin' Podsednik".

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