Everyone liked Martinez, many a great deal. Me, too — as I said before adding that he should be pushed off the roof, under a truck and into the sea.
With a 101-111 two-year record with a team built to contend, conventional wisdom was approaching unanimity. But the Nats had no available managing alternatives, inside or outside the team. They just had to wait and hope.
Only one person told me I was dead wrong: General Manager Mike Rizzo. He said Martinez was not only a good manager but an exceptional one and that I would eat my words. Rizzo wasn’t mad, but he was serious. He saw the inside of the clubhouse, talked to every player, knew every internal twist. I couldn’t. And I was guilty of an old sin: looking at the wins and losses rather than the baseball and the people.
Rizzo makes mistakes. He’s the one who built and presented Martinez with one of the five worst bullpens in Major League Baseball in the past 50 years. A GM might as well hit his manager over the head with a bat every day. Maybe Rizzo, a stand-up guy, was so strong for Martinez because he knew how much of the blame was really his.
But I was wrong about that, too.
By Matt Williams’s second year as Nats manager in 2015, Rizzo knew he had made a bad hire, getting a good man but a fretful introvert who withdrew from his team in bad times. By Martinez’s second year, Rizzo believed he had a resilient extrovert with an innate, genuine optimism as well as a solid in-game manager who constantly studied to get better and used front-office and analytic input.
Beyond that, Rizzo could see that, despite rotten times, Martinez was an excellent, intuitive handler of people — a gift that’s hard to evaluate before you hire a rookie manager. Rizzo thought Williams had that quality, too. To the degree possible in an awful slump, Martinez stayed positive, calm and consistent.
Then, as the Nats got healthier and started winning, Martinez’s strengths suited the moment. He was a joyful daily tone-setter who encouraged others with the same quality. It’s a rare manager who can — on his own but even more by empowering veteran leaders — help build the invisible, often-mocked clubhouse bonds that are so vital during every hour when a game isn’t in progress. Martinez didn’t create chemistry. He catalyzed it.
A Nats executive (not Rizzo) once told me, “Dusty Baker is the best manager in baseball — 21 hours a day. We’re at the [win-now] point where we need all 24.”
Since then, I have reevaluated the importance of those 21 hours relative to the three hours of an average game. For years, I thought the balance was vaguely 50-50 with “in-game” more important. After watching the Nats last season, I’m at 75-25 and rising. And Martinez is the main reason that I now suspect the “other 21 hours” are most of managing.
For a century, John McGraw, Earl Weaver or Tony La Russa could be “ahead of his time” in innovative strategy. Billy Martin — “they all want to stab me in the back, so I’ll stab ‘em first” — proved that paranoiacs can be great tacticians.
However, in recent decades, the sport has been pureed through so many game simulations that there’s just not much room left for the outlier innovator. Now a big in-game edge is getting a matchup in which you think you have gained 50 points of on-base-plus-slugging percentage advantage. That’s not much. If your manager wins two such matchups per game (unlikely), that may add one or two wins a year.
With everyone singing from the same analytics hymnal, where can managers still add value? Cynics say managers are now cruise directors, low-ego middle managers and check-the-tablet analytics guys who also can pat you on the back.
Because no one can define leadership, few want to base a managerial search on a quality that comes in many forms. In World War II, generals George Patton, Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower were known for leading in entirely different ways.
Often you can’t identify leaders until they’re under fire. Last season, the Nats praised Martinez because he never changed — from 19-31 to Game 6 of the World Series when he was wrestling umpires. He spoke straight to their faces but also had their backs. He believed in them and didn’t micromanage.
In a quality lacking in some star managers, such as Weaver and La Russa, Martinez never infected his team with a fear of losing a big game, not even Game 7 of the World Series. Instead of “I, the great manager, may fail,” it was “we, the very good team, will fight together and enjoy it.” Or let’s go 1-0 today, if you prefer.
Oh, Martinez admitted to sleepless nights, replaying every move. Losing bothered him — a lot. But by the next day, he somehow would find an optimist’s way never to lay any of it on his team.
Unlike many teams, the Nats barely had to give a thought to Martinez. He would never explode at them or rip them in the media; he would just have firm meetings in his office. His reaction to my column was typical: none, except maybe a sly expression. New day, clean slate. Not a bad way to be.
His modest presence in planes, buses, clubhouses, card games or cabbage-smashing celebrations made him seem as if he were still a joke-loving, needling utility player nearing the end of a long career — not a manager at all.
Many Martinez questions remain, though a World Series championship buys a lot of slack and good will. Who knows whether he is good at managing a bullpen? He still has never had one — unless you think waving for $785 million worth of starting aces in the late innings of October constitutes “handling your relievers.”
What we do know, on the anniversary of the low point for the Manager Who Put a Coach on a Camel, is that in 2019 Dave Martinez got about as high a grade for 21-hour-a-day managing as can be given.
As for the other three hours, there is an 86-43 record after May 23, a dozen winning strategic moments from October and a World Series flag that will be raised at Nationals Park someday that say Dave Martinez is good in those hours, too.
Sometimes nothing feels as good as being wrong.