“Generation Y will be more difficult to recruit, retain, motivate and manage than any other new generation to enter the workforce. But this will also be the most high-performing workforce in history for those who know how to manage them properly.” – Bruce Tulgan, author and expert on young people in the workplace
Yep. That’s us, all right: high-maintenance but, on measure, pretty awesome.
I’m no management guru, but, like most major leaguers, I was born during the 1980s. And after countless conversations with them, I’ve arrived at a theory on the contemporary baseball workplace:
The cooler the boss, the happier the players, the better the team.
Is that true in every case? No. All things being equal, talent wins.
But a manager with exceptional communication skills can turn a team from average to good — or good to great.
Look at the clubs in this year’s postseason. Most of them are led by someone considered a “players’ manager.” Ron Washington in Texas. Dusty Baker in Cincinnati. Bobby Cox, even as he retires in Atlanta.
And San Diego’s Bud Black came within one victory of turning a no-hit, $40-million roster into a division champion.
But Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon may be the manager par excellence in the realm of player relations — and not just because of the Rays’ recent Loudmouth “Pants” Rowland Trip. (More on that later.) Teams looking for a new skipper this winter would do well to look for the next Maddon, rather than simply chase the most accessible big-name candidate.
The Rays ranked in the bottom half of the majors this year with an Opening Day payroll of around $73 million. By that measure, they have no business competing with the Yankees or Red Sox, both of whom outspend Tampa Bay more than 2-1.
Yet Tampa Bay enters the postseason as the American League’s No. 1 seed, after edging the Yankees by one game in the East. The Rays open the playoffs Wednesday against the Texas Rangers, who in Washington have their own Manager of the Year candidate.
So, how did the Rays do it? The front office, led by general manager Andrew Friedman, is one of the best in the majors. Despite the financial disadvantages, the Rays have abundant talent.
But without Maddon, this would be a very different team. It wouldn’t be as good. It wouldn’t be as entertaining, either. At 56, Maddon hasn’t forgotten how much fun baseball is supposed to be. Also a wine connoisseur, he tweeted during spring training that he found a particular pinot noir to be “stupid good.”
“The younger players learn from the other players that, ‘OK, this is how Joe treats us. I like that. I don’t want to do anything to screw that up,’” said Lance Cormier, the veteran Tampa Bay reliever. “He trusts a clubhouse full of men, and no one’s taking advantage of it. That’s the biggest thing. … I believe everybody plays better as an individual, as a team, the more relaxed you are.”
The hiring of a manager is one of a baseball team’s most crucial decisions — but it doesn’t need to be an expensive one. Maddon earned $500,000 in 2006, his first season with the Rays. By comparison, the league minimum salary for players is $400,000; many utility infielders earn considerably more.
Maddon did receive a significant raise in his new contract, which continues through 2012. But the moral is clear: A manager’s ability to engender confidence in his players is far more important than his Q score or playing achievements. And Maddon understands the psychology of the modern player as well as any manager in the game. He realizes a hitter might spend a grand total of five minutes at the plate on any given night — leaving 23 hours and 55 minutes to eat, sleep, prepare and ruminate.
That isn’t always a good thing.
Maddon, whose playing career topped out at Class A, can only do so much for the players when they are standing in the batter’s box. So, he focuses on the other hours. He empowers his players by encouraging them to take risks on the field. He believes strongly that “fortune favors the bold,” the saying he cited before a recent game against the Yankees.
Above all, he wants players to be themselves.
“That’s it,” reliever Grant Balfour affirmed. “You get more out of the player when you are that way, you know? You’re not putting pressure on a kid when he’s just coming up.”
“Players are more relaxed when they know they have the confidence of the manager,” said Jason Bartlett, in his third season playing shortstop for Maddon. “They don’t want to worry about making a mistake, going into the dugout and having to explain something.”
Classic case: Carl Crawford made the final out of a one-run loss to the Yankees last month when he tried to reach third base on a fly out to shallow right field. Traditionalists frowned. Maddon didn’t. Rather than berate his star for the heinous act of making the final out at third, Maddon praised him. “I was all for what Carl did,” he said the next day.
Crawford went against The Book. But Maddon doesn’t own The Book. The canon of conventional wisdom, he said, includes rules that “have been pounded into generation after generation by some people who aren’t very forward-thinking.”
“It’s a mind-set,” Maddon said at the time. “When you’re passive mentally as an athlete, you don’t win anything, man. You might put some nice numbers up, go home in the offseason and say you play MLB. But you don’t win anything. I don’t want passiveness. I don’t want our guys — ever — to be worried about making a physical mistake. Ever.”
Maddon’s philosophy is no more radical than it is practical. It wouldn’t work the same way in Boston or New York, where the teams are too rich to be seen as scrappy or contrarian. For the Rays, gumption is a necessity.
But then there are the Maddon traditions that, at first glance, have absolutely nothing to do with the games themselves. Witness the Rays’ themed road trips; in September, they eschewed the normal suit-and-tie code for neon-colored, John Daly-esque golf attire. It was an homage of sorts to the aforementioned Rowland, whose 1917 Chicago White Sox were no-hit twice (as the Rays were this year) but won the World Series, anyway.
Goofy? Of course. Good for the soul? You bet. The sort of thing that builds unity among a disparate group of Millennials? Absolutely.