Saturday, July 05, 2008

Not-Julie Andrews Hears The Sound (of Bad) Music:
When Devoted Mentoring Fails  

I apologize for this long un-announced hiatus. I knew this blog's refresh would be getting less frequent - but not on this geological-eon basis. Too much work that uses the same fuel cells this requires, too much flux, too many half-axed thoughts, not enough useful insight to produce. I'm not sure I have a kiloton of insights this year and I don't ever want to be one of those bloggers who posts-just-to-post; if you're going to invest 6+ seconds in starting a piece here, I want to know there's a chance it's going to be of some practical or at least entertainment value to you.

Having gotten that off my rippling, Ted Klusewski-like chest, I'm kicking off some essays about mentoring and coaching. I'm excited because someone I respect a lot, Joe Vonder Haar, is going to share a his thoughts in a guest essay here, and as an exhibition match before that one, I'm giving you my thoughts on an adjacent issue: What happens when mentoring doesn't work, and why.

¿What happens when a serious, mentoring-minded manager fails to get the learner to deliver?

When Pittsburgh Pirates' starter Matt Morris had a lousy Spring Training this year, and came out of the gates on the regular season bearing out, it didn't take long for him to break down completely. Frankly, while I loved watching the guy pitch, he hadn't been himself since a June 11, 2007 start, and after a while, it felt like witnessing Mike Cuellar's slow-mo implosion.

Here's Michael Geffner's Hudson Valley (NY) Times Herald-Record story about Bucs' pitching coach Jeff Andrews' collaboration with Morris to get him out of his funkadelic nosedive.

Jeff Andrews failed Matt Morris.

Failed him big time. Failed him right into retirement.

Or at least that's the way the Pirates' pitching coach feels.

"It's going to follow me," Andrews confided to Rundown this week. "It'll be there forever. Because when it doesn't work out, you take it personally."

Andrews felt bad enough after the team released Morris, who had dropped to 0-4 with a 9.67 ERA after yet another ugly performance, but upon hearing the 33-year-old former ace had suddenly called it quits, he said he was so shocked he went positively numb.

{SNIP} "It's taken a while to sink in. And it bothers me in two ways. One, I liked him so much, a great guy to be around. And two, that together we couldn't get it done, couldn't figure it out."

Not that Andrews didn't try everything.

The two worked together for weeks on keeping Morris' fading fastball safely down in the strike zone and, like what Rick Peterson did with Tom Glavine, Andrews attempted to reinvent the one-time Cy Young award candidate by adding something to his repertoire — a changeup.

"And Matt took everything with such acceptance, understood what we were doing," he said. "But when the juices got flowing he did what he was used to. I can't blame him. That's his competitive nature. So, when he needed to go back a bit, he tried to go forward, and I think that caused location problems.

"Problem was, he'd look in at the batter and say to himself, 'Oh, I can make this pitch,' because he had made it so many times in his career and always had success. So his mind knew where the ball needed to go and how hard it needed to get there and what it needed to do. But then when he pushed the button to do it, it just didn't come out the way his mind had shaped the pitch."

The results were grim: too many three-ball counts, too many lifeless pitches barely registering on the radar gun, too many balls hit hard.

"Mostly, his arm strength was gone, and that affects everything — velocity, command, the quickness of the break on your breaking balls," Andrews said. "I knew (the lack of success) was beating him up pretty good. But he still approached everything so enthusiastically. Even in his last start he went out there like it was his last start of the season and he was going after his 20th win.

Andrews noted here what the pitching coach for the 1808 Prussian Olympic baseball team, Georg W.F. "The Stüttgart Striker-Öuter" Hegel, noted two centuries ago: That the things Matt Morris did that had made him successful (his bulldog, bear-down, take-no-prisoners approach) were also the seeds of his destruction. In his cerebrum, Morris wanted to change, to help his team, but the habits and practices that made him who he was, baseballistically, didn't work anymore in 2007-8. Try as he might, try as Andrews tried to end the trying time, they couldn't reach practices the starter knew he needed to succeed.

What happened to pitching coach Andrews has happened to me. In fact, it's happened to every successful serial mentor I know.

Every failure like this is bitter, but not every failure is a knife to the heart like this kind. For me, anyway, the ones that are merely bitter have a few attributes that make it easier to suck up.

  • The learner just doesn't get it. We've all had collaborators who just can't internalize enough context to succeed. Usually one can teach people in this cluster a single act to repeat, a simple If-Then trigger to follow. Not useless, but so frelling limited.
  • The learner doesn't care whether she gets it or not. The learner isn't trying hard enough, though he could learn if he could be inspired to. A frustrating failure in another way, but not a knife to the heart.
  • The learner does get it, but doesn't care whether that new ability sees the light of day. Let's call this The Oliver Pérez Syndrome. In the post-modern, ultra-ironic nowness of now, this is an increasingly present condition. An intelligent learner who likes the act of learning, capable and able to synthesize with the mentor, but in the moment of delivery, doesn't consider delivery as important as the experience ("It's the journey, not the destination; and what difference does it make anywhoo."). Sometimes you can turn around a pitcher, like Rick Peterson turned around Oliver Pérez, and he reverts, not because he wants to fail, but because he'd rather march to the beat of his own drummer than win.

The Morris Miasma may seem, on the surface anyway, to be an Attack of Oliver Pérez Syndrome, but there's a critical, massive difference. Pérez knows the new stuff works better than the old but isn't passionate about winning; Morris lost his edge and his intensity about winning blocked his execution.

It's heartbreaking, usually as much for the mentor as the manatee.

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