By R.J. Anderson //
Criticizing Joe Maddon over his gut usage. It’s an area thing, perhaps a national thing. Michael Lewis conveyed a thought in Moneyball that smells right (paraphrasing): “Nobody tells a scientist what to do, but anyone who has ever picked up a bat thinks they know the damn game.”
At some point in the history of baseball, thinking became taboo. Not for players, because being a heady player is a good thing – unless someone thinks you overthink then you should think less because otherwise they will think less of your thinking, yeah – but thinking for managers beyond flipping the mental rolodex until arriving at whichever baseball cliché or tradition most likely gets you off the hook is to sin. Appealing to tradition is a great way to shed criticism and allusions of original thought alike.
Maddon does not appeal to tradition instead you could say he masters at creating tradition. After the Rays implemented a plaid hat on DJ Kitty (what a weird collection of words that is), Jonah Keri observed that Maddon is the only manager in baseball who essentially guides the team’s marketing team too. The Maddon glasses, the 9=8 adage, the hair dye, the 09>08 math, and now the plaid, it is all Maddon’s doing. Creation means change, though, or at least intrusion on pre-existing ideals. After all, there’s a finite amount of matter in the universe.
The introductory articles about Maddon loved to focus on how his book of choice at the time was Blink. Reading about social science, man he is so quirky. Malcolm Gladwell is a master propagandist; a useful skill for a manager and writer alike. Gladwell’s articles are noted for ignoring the other side or minimizing their arguments. And you know what, Maddon does that too. Folks go batty when Maddon talks up a player who had a poor game. Jae Weong Seo pitched horribly and here Maddon is, talking about how he made a few mistakes but mostly showed potential. Alternatively, how Shawn Riggans went hitless but showed good face. The fans are mad and they want Maddon to be mad too. They want his stomach to roar with violence like a homicidal lion.
If everyone in the Tampa Bay area was asked which vital organ they liked the most, I think they would choose to heart the stomach. People love stomachs despite limited ranges. Acidic stomachs can burn like the angriest volcano. Tumbling stomachs toss everything in their path. Stomachs are boring and usually predictable. You know what a stomach does after you eat food. Of course you do. You know what stomach does if you do not eat for an extended period. Of course you do. The stomach is the most predictable part on the body. You know it for a week and you know it for life.
Upset stomachs usually leave messes, yet people love when a stomach is their manager. Nobody wants an upset stomach as their boss or spouse. Heck, nobody even considers the stomach the most important part on potential mates. If their best attribute is the stomach, then either that person is ugly (and thus, skinniness is the only worthwhile characteristic) or you have cannibalistic tendencies. But baseball managers have to be stomachs. Have to be.
Lou Piniella is the ultimate stomach. Whenever there is a controversial play against his team you know that acid is about to run over. People love it when Lou goes batty because it shows he cares. It shows his team he is serious. Lou don’t take no crap – which might explain his irritated state. Lou trusted his stomach. Lou trusted his veterans. Lou trusted baseball convention. Lou is a baseball man through and through. If Jae Whoever Sewed threw that garbage on a Lou team – ha, as if Sewing Boy would ever be on a Lou team to begin with – well, he would not be there for long.
Maddon is the exact opposite. He understands how baseball is a lot of luck. How being good at the fundamentals is useful because the marginal performances are not always under control. You can’t control if the hitter is looking for a pitch in the zone you toss it into, you can control your preparation. Maddon’s preparation is probably amongst the best in the league. He goes into depth about what he looks at here, but the takeaway quote is that he spends a lot of time on lineup construction and poring over the packets sent to him by his front office.
Maddon understands you can try hard and fail. He understands that being a field general is useless. His interest in psychology and economics is no surprise. Would Maddon become a screamer if he chose a career in the military or police academy? Probably, but lives are not on stake in the game of baseball, so Maddon’s reserved personality plays fine. His players trust him, he trusts them. They understand that while attempting to avoid mistakes is important, mistakes are not always avoidable.
After the Rays fell behind 0-to-2 this series, folks expected their attitude to change. Yet, there they were, joking around and playing music like the calendar read April. Why? Because Maddon allows them to be their own people and to feel like they are playing a game. He’s not breaking in cadets, he’s managing baseball players. His ability to work with players of all ages is remarkable and commendable. To manage the Rays, being able to relate to players in their early twenties is of vast importance. Maddon has done it well.
Yet still, people want the gut-trusting old yeller dinosaur of yesteryear. Is it because baseball players are rich and folks want them treated horribly in the public venue so as to bring them down a notch? Have the people who want this so bad ever attempted to work while on eggshells? Doing so could lead to an increased state of awareness, or it could lead to an increased state of stress and probability for physical (or mental) errors.
It goes back to the gut and it goes back to intelligence and perceived arrogance. People love to assign characteristics to public figures without proper evidence. Maddon spouts off a few lines of non-coach speak but not quite analyst-speak and he’s doused with arrogance, friend of pompous, and a simpler-wearing donkey. For whatever reason, people do not believe he is smarter than them, or rather, do not want to believe. This confuses me for so many reasons it’s hard to make it concise. Why would you not want the manager to be smarter than you? In what world is having a manager with the intelligence of an average person a good thing?
Maddon might not even be that intelligent, but he’s aware. He knows that his gut does not hold all the answers, so he relies on his right-hand (Dave Martinez), upon his shoulders (Mike Scioscia), upon his neck (the Baseball Operations department), upon his heart (Andrew Friedman), upon his back (the team), and yes, probably upon his legs (the town’s media and fan base) too.
Those who think he should take a Blink approach to things (essentially: roll with first intuition) are missing the larger point. That only works with the education behind it. No person in their right mind would rather have a family friend who did a semester at community college attempt to diagnosis their chest pains in a quick moment rather than allow doctors to survey and test the ails intently. Making quick decisions without all of the information is usually laziness.
I’ll end with this bit of snark. The folks obsessed with Maddon shooting from his gut are shooting from the other two ends connected to their gut – the order of which is up for discussion.