Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dodger Team Chemistry: Is This Finally The Year?

Not the Dodgers. Sigh.
It's painful to admit for Dodger fans, but the last time the team really displayed great team chemistry was in 1988. Yep, Ronald Reagan was president, ping-pong became an Olympic sport, and like, totally, the Dodgers won the World Series for the last time. I don't know if it's fair to draw a direct correlation between the two, but one does have to wonder: All things being equal, is a chronically weak clubhouse chemistry holding the team back from achieving the ultimate goal?

1988 Dodgers. The last time
they liked each other.

I would answer this question with a resounding yes. The 1988 club overcame a long list of shortcomings on the field to beat a "Bash-Brothers"-led powerhouse Oakland A's team that was far superior on paper. Little-know, cast-off-types like Mickey Hatcher, Franklin Stubbs, Jeff Hamilton, Mike Marshall, Alfredo Griffin, etc., who would have ridden the bench on any other World Series team, were thrust into the starting line-up by manager Tommy Lasorda, and they flat-out thrived. The literally unstoppable Orel Hershiser and his take-know-prisoners battery-mate, Mike Scioscia, led the way on the field, and their famously injured star hitter and resident ass-kicker, Kirk Gibson, cheered from the bench for the entire series after his famous home run set the tone in Game 1. This squad defined team chemistry. Gibson hated the media and detested the spotlight, while their young pitching stud, Hershiser, carried around a low-key, awe-shucks persona. In other words, ego was not a factor on this team at all. The big guys were humble, the little guys were overjoyed to be starters, and they all played together as one cohesive team.

Lasorda didn't take crap,
and the players loved that.
And let's not forget Lasorda, because the manager plays a key role in fostering or screwing up team chemistry, without a doubt. Some people might remember Lasorda as Mr. Hollywood or the old guy who sometimes napped on the bench during games in his later years, but when the Dodgers were on top of the N.L. West in the 1980s, he exuded just the right amount of relentless positivity along with the willingness to take on cruddy umpires and visiting "Beat L.A. Fans" (Remember those days at Candlestick Park where Giants fans rained batteries and f-bombs upon Dodger players?). The team played hard for Tommy and each other. Beautiful team chemistry.

As the saying goes, "the fish stinks from its head to its tail." Yes, Donnie, I am talking about managers like you. Former Dodger manager, Don Mattingly, was well-liked by his players for his laid-back demeanor. But having players like the manager doesn't necessarily create an environment for players to like each other. It's great that Donnie wasn't a jerk, but I contend that former star players don't make the best managers/leaders, in terms of fostering clubhouse chemistry. Instead, the genetic makeup of the manager who can attain and maintain a team that feels like a family is this:

Catchers can take anything.

  • Worked hard in the minor leagues, but fell short of a real major league career (Lasorda).
  • Played a leadership position on the field, usually catcher (notable guys in this category include, Giants manager/San Diego Padre catcher, Bruce Bochy, former Dodger catcher/Angel skipper, Mike Scioscia, St. Louis Cardinals manager/catcher Mike Matheny and, of course, Joe Torre, another backstop, who won more-than-I-can-count championships managing the Yankees). 
  • Fought like crazy to make it to the majors but was never a star (this list is long, but a recent example is K.C. Royals manager, Ned Yost, who was, yes, a back-up catcher for a few years).
What's not to like about this guy?
While new Dodgers manager, Dave Roberts, is not a former catcher, he was a scrappy outfielder who spent most of his first 8 seasons in the minors developing his fielding, base running, and slap-hitting approach, and was never a star. After his MLB debut with the Indians in 1998, he was sent back to the minors, and bounced up and down until he was traded to the Dodgers in 2001. It wasn't until the next year that he became their starting centerfielder and lead-off hitter. He was your classic grinder who worked hard and eventually played a vital role in helping the Red Sox win their World Series in 2004 (stealing the key base against Yankee star closer, Marino Rivera, in Game 4 of the ALCS). His teammates loved playing with him because of his positive attitude and willingness to do anything it took to win. He earned huge respect when he was a coach with the Padres and beat Hodgkin's Lymphoma and came back the next year. It also doesn't hurt that the guy knows how to make friends with everybody since he grew up a military brat, moving around his whole life. He is also half Japanese, which should help with integrating new pitching acquisition, Kenta Maeda. 

The Roberts list of positive attributes goes on and on.
Can Puig make nice with his teammates?
So the players will love playing for Roberts, and he seems to have all the right tools from his past to bring them together. But what are the chances the other things needed to have great team chemistry will fall into place this year? Well, they have their star pitcher to lead them in Clayton Kershaw, their understated star position player in Adrian Gonzalez, and their unsung guys who have earned respect with their hard-nose play, such as Justin Turner, Enrique Hernandez, Howie Kendrick, and Andre Ethier. Throw in back-up catcher, A.J. Ellis, who fits the I'll-do-anything-for-my-team mold, and a happy family could finally be formed. Oh, but wait a minute, what about that chemistry-killer, Yasiel Puig, you say? Crap. You know this is keeping Roberts up at night, because it might be the key to the whole season. I think this is why Roberts won the managerial job--I believe he convinced the Dodger brass that he can bring the polarizing Puig into the fold. And if Roberts is able to do this, the Dodgers just must be partying like it's 1988 at the end of this October.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! I think the Dodgers have long been missing that elusive team chemistry component which, begrudgingly I must admit the Giants seem to have and it's been the difference between the success the two teams have had in recent years. Since the O'Malleys sold the team, the revolving door of ownership have tried to buy good teams (á la the Yankees & Red Sox models), and let the farm system fall apart. The four consecutive Rookies of the Year were the last of the home-grown talent that came just before the string of terrible owners ruined the team. But while the new regime initially spent big, their long-term strategy clearly is about rebuilding the farm. And now, after Donnie ran out of the rope the new owners gave him, we have a manager I'm hopeful will finally create the chemistry we need to take it all the way. Maybe not this year, but in the years to come.