Thursday, March 18, 2010

She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie

The big news yesterday and today, of course, was Ron Washington’s surprising revelation that he had tested positive for using cocaine during the 2009 season. New details have been leaking out over the past 24 hours, including the possibility that Washington and the Rangers may have been blackmailed by a former employee (who is also the probable source for the original report). The reactions, of course, have come fast and furious, including this report by ESPNDallas reporter Jim Reeves,
Yes, the Texas Rangers should have fired Ron Washington on the spot in July. That, I suspect, is what most teams or companies would have done. You or I probably would not have survived such a transparently self-serving confession of "one time" cocaine use….That doesn't excuse his behavior. This goes beyond stupid. This begs the question: How can Washington manage others when he can't manage himself?

Reeve’s opinion here is by no means outside of the mainstream. Many scribes have called for Washington’s firing and questioned his ability to manage his players “when he can’t manage himself.”
Look, what Ron Washington chose to do was wrong, was stupid, and was potentially career-ending. The Common Man has absolutely no interest in defending Ron Washington’s actions last summer. Ron Washington screwed up, and while firing him would have been a justified punishment, The Common Man is glad we live in a world where a man with no prior history of bad acts can get a second chance. The truth is that we don’t know how or why Ron Washington chose to do cocaine last summer, we don’t even know if it was his cocaine he was using (perhaps he was out with a friend), nor does TCM think we have any real right to know that information. TCM has no bone to pick with Ron Washington, nor does he particularly like him.

So with that out of the way, let’s lay to rest the entirely stupid notion that Washington can’t manage his players because he “can’t manage himself.” None of us is perfect, not even The Common Man, and we all have problems successfully managing ourselves from time to time. Have you ever had an extra drink, even though you knew it wasn’t a good idea, saying “I’m going to pay for this tomorrow?” (TCM is guilty) Did you ever punch a wall in frustration and either break some fingers or dent the drywall? (TCM is guilty of the latter) Have you skipped class, even though you knew that you’d catch hell? (Totally guilty) Have you ever driven while you’re exhausted, eaten an extra pop tart at breakfast, smoke a cigarette? (yep, yep, yep) Did you ever smoke pot, try pills, pull fire alarms, or pick a fight? (alas, TCM never rose to this level). Congratulations, you have at least at one point in your life not been a good manager of yourself. Now, the degree to which these things are “bad management” is debatable, but the test is the same as the one Ron Washington failed. From the outset, you know that what you are doing to yourself is not healthy, yet you do it anyway.

So Ron Washington is really no different than the rest of us, except to the degree that what he did was inappropriate. And while that degree is relevant, we have no evidence he did it more than once or that he put anyone in danger; there is certainly no disturbing pattern of behavior with Washington, after all Reeves goes out of his way to say how much he likes Ron and says he generally does a good job. And baseball history, after all, is filled with successful managers, Hall of Fame managers, who succeeded in spite of their personal failings and bad decisions, just like the rest of us.

John McGraw was a notorious hothead and drinker, who would fight his players, opponents, and umpires. Until Bobby Cox came along, McGraw held the record for the most times ejected from a game, and by all rights he deserved it (particularly since the threshold for umpire abuse was much higher then). McGraw also was touted as the single best judge of talent in baseball, won 2763 games, finished with a .586 winning percentage, won seven pennants and three World Championships.

Billy Southworth had another incredible managerial career. He helmed the Cardinals and Braves for twelve consecutive years beginning in 1940, won 100 games three years in a row, two World Series, four pennants, and retired with a .597 winning percentage (behind only Joe McCarthy for 20th century managers. Like McGraw, Southworth was a tough manager for players to love, his rules were often seen as oppressive and angered his players. Southworth was also an alcoholic whose systematic abuse of alcohol finally caught up to him…after twelve years of almost unparalleled success.

Leo Durocher won 2008 games across 24 seasons as a skipper. He won three pennants and a World Series as a manager. He was apparently also disliked by almost everyone in baseball at one point or another. He feuded with Larry MacPhail, his commissioner (whose name was Happy, how hard do you have to antagonize a man named “Happy” before he dislikes you), and the most beloved Cub of all time, Ernie Banks. He got himself suspended in 1947 because of his association with gambling and gamblers. His inability to keep his personal life from impinging on his team may have cost his team Durocher for the ’47 season, but it didn’t cost them anything on the field. Burt Shotton guided the team to the NL Pennant, before they fell in seven games to the Yankees.

The most obvious example of out of control managers, of course, is Billy Martin. Martin’s vagabond managerial career took him from Minnesota to Detroit to Texas to Oakland, and to the Yankees five separate times. And Martin’s personal demons are well-documented. He was an alcoholic and was violent. He baited umpires, opponents, his players, and his owners into fistfights. His roudiness, drunkenness, and borderline criminal behavior cost him every job he had, except Oakland (and there it probably didn’t help any). Billy Martin is the very definition of not being able to manage himself. The irony, of course, is that he could manage baseball teams, and Martin presided over 7 teams that won more than 90 games, including 5 and a half that would finish in first place (Martin was fired in the middle of the Yankees Championship season in 1978). He won two AL pennants and one World Series. And many of his teams, particularly the Oakland A’s in the early ‘80s, improved because of his presence. Indeed, Martin managed others just fine despite having almost no control over his own addictions and demons.

Of course, Martin’s an extreme example, and ultimately his indiscretions kept him from continuing to manage in the major leagues. However, Tony LaRussa was arrested for drunk driving during spring training in 2007, the year after he won a World Series. LaRussa had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car, and was idling at a green light when police woke him and gave him a breathalyzer. Clearly, this is an example of a man who was not, for one night at least, managing himself. While LaRussa endured a public flogging for his crime, very few questioned his right or his ability to continue managing the Cardinals. One month later, Cardinals’ relief pitcher Josh Hancock would kill himself in a drunk driving accident. Again, almost no one thought to question whether LaRussa’s personal mismanagement had led to a culture of excess and lack of regulation, a thesis perhaps supported by his players’ extensive history with steroid use.

Bobby Cox is generally regarded as one of the greatest managers of the last 40 years. His steady hand guided the Braves to 14 division titles, 4 pennants, and one World Championship in a 15 year stretch, and he led the Blue Jays into the playoffs in 1985. But for one night in 1995, Bobby Cox’s hand was not so steady. Police called to his home in Atlanta arrested Bobby Cox and he was charged with simple battery against his wife. She told the officers that Bobby had punched her and pulled her hair. Cox was ordered to complete violence counseling and an alcohol evaluation and the charges were dropped. No one thought to wonder whether the man who holds the all time record for ejections and who once punched his wife was the right man to manage the Braves.

Indeed, when managers like Cox, Lou Piniella, or Ron Gardenhire fly off the handle and get run from a ball game, it’s often fair to question not only whether they are fit to “manage people,” but whether they are in possession of all of their faculties. The tirades performed by these pudgy, red-faced buffoons does nothing to improve the immediate fortunes of their team (for almost all arguments are lost), and instead only serves to deprive his team of the leadership and expertise the manager was supposedly hired to provide. Do these tirades help in any way? Sure, there are instances where teams come back against their opponents and credit their manager with rallying them, but it’s hard to see these as credible, and The Common Man is sure that some enterprising soul out there, looking at win probability data would find that, in games where a manager is ejected, teams win exactly or almost exactly as often as we would expect them to if the manager had stayed in the game.

So what’s The Common Man’s point? It seems that there are any number of ways that managers have been historically “out of control” either in one-time instances or in a disturbing pattern of behavior that belies serious substance abuse or anger-control problems. Managers are, after all, human and subject to our imperfections and lapses in judgment (except, of course, for Connie Mack). Even the wise King Solomon sinned in the eyes of the Lord, and had his kingdom taken away.

However, many of these same men, who have had so little control over their own demons, have not only “managed others” without incident, but have thrived. Indeed, what will doom Ron Washington as a manager is not whether his use of cocaine last year makes him “fit” or “an example for young men to follow,” but whether he wins more often than he loses, and makes progress toward winning the AL West in 2010 and 2011. As it should be.


BikeMonkey said...

yeah but those are white guys, dude. do I have to spell it out for you?

olderholden said...

I'm at a loss as to why this is a story.

The only issue is illegality.

If Amy Whitehouse or Lindsay Lohan were managing the Rangers, the PATTERN of abuse would be relevant.

And, yeah, sure, if anyone believes that this was a one-time thing, I have some great dirt in Florida on which to build a premier spring training site - available for a song.

But, sheesh, let's at least let Washington implode and become incompetent as a result before we pillory the man.

Anonymous said...

All the guys you mentioned all did/do something that Washington cannot: manage baseball games.

The Common Man said...

@ Anonymous
Evidence for that is...what exactly? Washington won 87 games last year and has finished 2nd twice in 3 years.

@ BikeMonkey
You have to spell out nothing, friend. That thought has occurred to TCM.

BSK said...

BikeMonkey for the win.

Matt D said...

Nice take on the issue. But I thought Martin tearing apart a room was what cost him the Oakland job? (I know his friend said it was orchestrated to free him for the Yankees gig.)

Anonymous said...

@olderholden winehouse and lohan have had issues multiple times. wash has a clean background. is it illegal? yes. does he seem sincere? yes. to everyone who is doubting washington's ability to win ballgames, look at the stats. he took over a bad team, and has won more and more games every year since taking over.