Everyone has a personality. Some want to show it in public, incorporate it into their job and then live, enthusiastically, with the consequences. Successful big league managers, with a few exceptions, fall into this category. They show who they really are to their players, their opponents and the public. And, over time, their teams come to resemble them in positive ways.
Some people, such as Matt Williams, aren’t interested in being known beyond a certain point.
Williams was fired by the Washington Nationals on Monday, in part, for standard reasons: poor building, handling and protecting of his bullpen. A dugout fight showed he was out of his own team’s information loop. He has the lousy luck to get saddled with injuries or rotten years from key stars.
But Williams also was fired because whoever he really is, whatever that private person might be like, that guy never showed up. Williams hid inside his job. He barely impacted his team, never inspired (or scared) anybody, seldom made a player more confident. And he certainly never built a team personality, in part because he never risked showing or sharing his own.
Williams was handed a talented team known for average fundamentals, poor situational hitting and defense, plus a gifted lineup without chemistry or a collective offensive style. Also, foes thought the Nats, as a group, faded, perhaps even folded, under pressure.
That description still fits the Nats after two years under Williams. They didn’t change, in part because he didn’t force them or inspire them to change. His failure was the first item in his job description: leadership. It’s not enough to know who you are. A baseball manager also has to show who he is — openly, proudly, specifically — then make his team want to follow.
Whomever the Nats hire as their next manager, and we’ll touch on some options, let it be a force such as Davey Johnson, Frank Robinson or Buck Showalter who doesn’t manage an entire game without changing expression, or only go on the field when his internal Manual of Proper Managing tells him “it is time to take 11 steps toward the ump to keep my star from being ejected.” Don’t let it be a man who protects himself after every brutal loss with the same evasive non-accountable emotionally defensive cliches about “another game tomorrow.”
Can you imagine Johnson, Robinson, Showalter, or Joe Maddon not knowing about a fight in his own dugout? Only someone who is emotionally isolated himself, who is hard to approach with bad news, can be so cut off. Surely, that’s the opposite of leadership.
Who might be better? What about Cal Ripken, you ask breathlessly?
Cal’s done everything except ask, “What day and time is my interview for your job?” There’s no one in baseball I’ve talked to more often or like and admire more than Ripken.
Around people he knows, he’s funny, profane and sarcastic. He’s a semi-cynical story-telling smart aleck, wise to the world, who could do a baseball late-night talk show if he let that guy out. But he has a private component to his self and likely would arrive boxed inside a public persona erected since he was 1982 rookie of the year.
If all of Cal could manage, he might be great. But is That Guy available?
We now know that Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo blundered in hiring a manager with no experience to run a World Series-ready club. But there was another problem: Rizzo himself has had little experience in picking managers. His first big hire was a grab for a comfortable simplistic archetype that’s been around for a century. I’ve called the type The Peerless Leader — the nickname for handsome, tough Frank Chance, a successful Cubs manager a hundred years ago.
Long before Matt Williams ever signed a pro contract, I wrote: “The Peerless Leader is the most one-dimensional and most widespread of the [managerial] breeds. They can be identified by their profiles. Any manager who folds his arms, clenches his teeth, stares profoundly into the middle distance and looks like a recruiter for a Marine Corps poster is a pure-bred Peerless.
“These imposing fellows, some of whom are unable to speak, are usually [sluggers] of statuesque batting stance. These men of stoic imperturbability all have reputations for volcanic but restrained tempers that erupt only a handful of times in their lives — usually to the detriment of proximate inanimate objects.”
Rizzo has worlds of experience in spotting talent and temperament — for playing baseball. But in hiring Williams, he fell hard for the oldest cliche: the stiff, high-character Peerless. Now, two years of the Nats’ World Series window are gone.
On Monday, Rizzo said he probably would want experience in his next manager. That means we’ll hear about brainy, classy Bud Black, a prototype tactician who’s good with pitchers. Also there’s fiery former infielder Ron Gardenhire, with 72 ejections, six division titles in Minnesota and in his last four grim years 383 losses and a record of 78-148 after Aug. 1.
There’ll be time for more specific candidates. What’s needed now is a general profile that suits the Nats. Baseball usually looks for four qualities in many successful managers: passion (competitiveness), character (discipline), brains (strategy) and wisdom (empathy). Perhaps no manager (or person) ever has had all four in large amounts. You look for a dominant suit that fits your team’s weakness, then hope to get one or, by luck, two of the other qualities.
The Nats, as soon as you dump Jonathan Papelbon, have enough character in their room. A good bench coach can help any manager with strategy.
The Nats need a manager whose character will rub off on the team in two key ways. First, after four straight seasons of coming up short under pressure, the Nats need someone with a confident, competitive passion. That doesn’t mean a former great player — just someone whose attitude says, “Bring on the bright lights.”
However, the Nats also need wisdom with young players because so many of them are arriving through their pipeline. Passion and empathy are a rare baseball combination. Davey Johnson had both, until the birthdays and back pain that sometimes kept him from walking up the dugout steps to change pitchers caught up to him. But that’s the hard-to-find type.
Any GM can blow his first big managerial hire. But Rizzo can’t afford to whiff again. He has a team that needs a manager who’ll run the risk of revealing himself, inside and outside the clubhouse. In other words, the Nats need a leader. Not just someone who looks like one.