Thursday, 3 March 2011

To be the man.....

Perhaps it is an inevitable by-product of the free agent era in Baseball, or something more representative of a change in the ethos of the professional sports locker room in general but there appears to have been a marked decline in teams sporting an individual, or small group of individuals, who can clearly be identified as “the man” on their respective teams.

The most obvious case in point being that only three Major League teams (Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox) have officially designated captains.

This in itself raises an interesting question as we head into the 2011 season: does success come from a close knit community of players which, while clearly including players with varying levels of experience, has no clear leader, or it is necessary to have a talisman on one’s team in order to be successful.

From a brief look around the league it is easy to see that there are team which adhere closely to both models. There are the ‘team-first’ teams (San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia (although this is more to due with their embarrassment of riches that anything), Tampa Bay – although the signings of Manny and Johnny Damon may alter this, Pittsburgh etc) and there are also those teams which clearly have players who we would consider “the man”.

The concept of “the man” is a difficult one to define. It is not simply about highly developed leadership skills. For example Jason Varitek is clearly no longer “the man” in Boston, his age has caught up with him and he is now a part-time player. That isn’t to say that his influence and skill at handling pitchers aren’t of value, but he clearly no longer possesses the intangibles that make a player “the man” (in fact it is highly unlikely that he ever did – Boston was Pedro and Nomar’s team throughout Tek’s peak). Nor is simply being the best player on the team enough to gain “the man” status – Alex Rodriguez has never been “the man” in New York, nor is Hanley Ramirez “the man” in Florida. Being “the man” is therefore a subtle combination of character and leadership abilities coupled with prodigious skills on the field.

The undisputed “men” in baseball at the moment would appear to be:
Texas: Josh Hamilton
New York Yankees: Derek Jeter
Chicago White Sox: Paul Konerko
Seattle: Ichiro
St Louis: Albert Pujols
Boston*: Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis
Atlanta: Chipper Jones (for how much longer who knows?)
Minnesota: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau
Cleveland: Grady Sizemore (although this is dwindling by the day)
Colorado: Todd Helton (soon to be succeeded by Troy Tulowitski)

*Boston represents an interesting conundrum and was the example (surprise, surprise) I had in mind when writing this piece. Boston has seen dynastic shift over the past two decades in terms of who its “men” were. In the early nineties “the man” was undoubtedly Roger Clemens. The Rocket eventually gave way to Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. Due to Nomar’s injuries and eventual exit from Boston I think one could argue that Curt Schilling briefly co-held the position of “the man” during 2004. Following the World Series victory Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz emerged as “the men” in Boston. Post 2007 however, with the departure of Manny (both from Boston and from his senses) and Ortiz’ decline the Red Sox have clearly been Pedroia and Youkilis’ team. The key issue for the Red Sox this year, and one that ties in nicely with the question I posed at the start of this entry is how the signings of Crawford and Gonzalez will affect this dynamic.

Adrian Gonzalez was the undisputed “man” in San Diego for several years. While Crawford was never “the man” in Tampa, he was a prominent figure in the clubhouse and, along with Evan Longoria, probably the closest thing the Rays had to “the man” – definitely (curiously along with the sadly retired Rocco Baldelli) Crawford was “the man” of the last few years of the Devil Rays.

Are we about to see another dynastic shift in Boston? Youkilis has given up his position to accommodate Gonzalez. This can be viewed either as a relinquishing of “man” status to the more skilled newcomer, or a re-enforcement of Youk’s status as “the man”, a demonstration of his team-first mentality and ability to lead by example both on the field and off.

Certainly the Red Sox have a enough star power to morph into the sort of “team” team the Phillies have become – after all Josh Beckett was “the man” on the 2003 Marlins, John Lackey was “the man” (with Vlad Guerrero) on the Angels for years. Surely all this assorted “manhood” can combine to turn the Red Sox into a $150m a year version of the 2010 Giants.

Personally I think this is unlikely. While Crawford and Gonzalez will undoubtedly become influential players in the clubhouse (Gonzalez especially amongst the Spanish speaking players) I doubt there is to be any serious challenge to the hegemony of Pedroia and Youkilis. However the pressure will certainly be on both of them to bounce-back from disappointing 2010 seasons to ensure that their authority over this 2011 Red Sox team (which has no business not winning the AL Pennant if not the World Series) continues.

Ultimately the success of the teams which can boast a “man” speaks for itself. They have clearly achieved greater success than the (typically small market) “team” team. Every term that heads into Spring Training talking about the amazing chemistry of their team (which is invariably composed of B and C grade talent) secretly wishes they had an Albert Pujols or a Derek Jeter around which to focus their amazing team-spirit. It is the hope of every GM who drafts a potential superstar such as a Bryce Harper hopes that that player fulfils both their projected talent, but also is able to emerge as “the man” on that team.

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