I doubt that Cubs manager Rick Renteria remembers the day that, back during his minor league managing tenure, he told my High-A team that our opponents, the San Jose Giants, bent us over and stuck it up our collectives asses.
I remember. As a matter of fact, it's hard to forget when a man as relentlessly positive as Renty loses his cool and, in lieu of the normal postgame chitchat, pounds his fist violently into his open palm screaming, "Boom, boom, boom! No grease!"
That's right, No grease, because if the image of getting sodomized by the other team wasn't stark enough to paint a picture of how you badly you've failed, knowing they didn't even respect you enough to use lube should drive the point the rest of the way. No pun intended.
Ironically, none of us thought too hard about Renty's words at the time. We didn't dwell on the symbolism or substance. The point of the lecture wasn't the words themselves, it was that we played bad, beat ourselves and that the other team had no reason to respect us because we didn't respect us. We all sat at our lockers, heads down, tails between our legs, whimpering at Renty's words, not because we necessarily agreed with the analogies used to describe us, but because our master was angry and he only gets angry when we do wrong.
Days later, when the team righted its bad play, we thought about the words more. The meaning, the implication, even the humor -- Did he really scream no grease? I mean, who on God's green earth uses grease for what he was implying? Goose grease? Axle grease? That's hardcore, bro. How could a man yell something that silly? Stranger still, how could something that silly be so impactful? I mean, we were playing better because of it.
You may find this odd, but very few managers talk to their teams on a regular basis. They much prefer to be seen and not heard. Managers represent the ultimate authority on a baseball team and, when they're yelling, it doesn't really matter what they're saying -- it's bad. If they're yelling at you, you played bad. If they're yelling at someone else, they played bad. It's a simple system.
But it's a system that can very easily break down if overemployed. The baseball season is 162 games long. That can make for a lot of yelling. A manager must pick and chose his times to put down a hard line. If he does it too frequently, the players will actually start to hear the words. They'll consider and measure them against their own feelings instead of simply taking them as a psychological whipping. They'll learn to resent those words. If a manager picks and chooses his times, however, he can call out, challenge and motivate the player and still keep weight behind his rants -- even if the rants are ridiculous.
Recently Robin Ventura, the skipper for the White Sox, said, "Baseball's tough. You've got to put your big-boy pants on and go out there and win a game. That's a fact."
Duh. Well, duh in theory. I mean, profit sharing has helped out loads of teams, amiright? And the new competitive balance option kinda rewards your club for taking a big steamy pile in your big boy pants, just to ensure the best draft picks are a possibility. But, for argument's sake, let say "yes," the goal of every game is to win.
But big boy pants, really? Strip out the machismo aspect of baseball and its loving obsession with euphemisms and you've got the manager of a multimillion dollar group of elite athletes saying that the business essentially boils down to whether his group of super humans (with Adam Dunn playing the Hulk) is willing to put on their big boy pants and win a game. Big boy pants = winning.
Which is crazier: that a manager made such a comment believing it actually said something insightful about the game, or that his players believed it said something insightful about the game, nodded their heads, and rallied around it?
If there is one thing my Kent State communications degree taught me it's that the definition of a thing is in the receiver, not the speaker. Case in point, Adam Eaton said that Ventura doesn't talk much, but when he does, players listen. Even if it's about their pants.
That's not just Ventura and the Chi-Sox, that's all managers and player. Looking in from the outside, you might think pants to passion is just another fragment of evidence in the grand case to prosecute baseball for aiding and abiding idiots. But the truth is, managers are not professional monologue givers. They don't have a glass box in their office that holds inspirational speeches marked, "break in case of team inertia." What they have is a changing mass of men, with a changing mass of motivators, at all ranges of their careers, many of whom are making more money, have more time in the game, and more success than they do. They're supposed to lead them to victory anyway!
Thus, mystery becomes a manager's best friend. It's ingrained in the player that the manager is a powerful force in his life. If the player signs a monster contract, that may change, but until then, it's in the best interest of the player to make the manager happy. The best thing the manager can do is show no indicators of what creates his happiness besides winning. The less the manager shows the player, the more the player is likely to be intimidated by the manager and do what he's told without thinking.
Unless a manager is some kind of neurotic chatterbox, they're not going to address the team every night to discuss the granularities of winning and losing. Nor should they. The more words they throw out there, the more they show their humanity and a manager shouldn't be human. He should be the kind of person who says, "Put on your big boy pants before they bend you over and stick it up your ass with no grease," and the players should all be rushing to the training room to ask the clubby for a set of custom, Majestic brand big boy pants.
Some managers get away with being more personable with their players. But these managers have shifted the ultimate authority from themselves to some other source to which they expertly control access. Joe Maddon, widely regarded as one of the best player's managers in baseball, is very personable. I went into his office once and came out with a list of books to read and suggestions on what wines and cheeses paired well. But he commands his locker room all the same because he is a master at manipulating a player's sense of pride and ego -- what it should look like, how champions behave, what young men want from the game and how to get it. He manipulates using less contrast and more paint colors than some managers, but the composition his players exist in is very much his, despite any similarities to the real world.
During a 162-game schedule, the biggest opponent a player will face is not who's on the other side of the field. It's himself. More specifically, it's the little lapses in judgment, the unavoidable loss of focus, the inertia.
One hundred sixty-two games means no individual game feels like it actually means anything at all. In fact, managers will often cite the long season truth as a reason for why a team should not care about a particular result. The number one postgame speech I heard from managers in my career, if I heard anything at all: "Get 'em tomorrow, boys." Another way of saying, "Stay calm until I tell you not to stay calm."
Perhaps it would be better to think of a team's entire season like that of one pitcher's individual outing. You can't teach a pitcher how to pitch in the middle of an outing, and you can't teach a team how to play world-class baseball in the middle of a season. They must know these things going in. All you can do is keep it on the rails. And like a pitcher's outing, you only get so many mound visits, so many calls to the bullpen, so many chances to inspire, soothe or scare, or sermonize. You have to use them well, or manage in such a way that gets you more chances.
The train is in motion, you can't overhaul it -- you can only bump it back on course with the crude instruments you've got.
In my day, it was no grease. This week, it was big boy pants. Next week, who knows what the hell it will be. But the next ridiculous meant-to-inspire speech is coming, and when it does, it will work. Because the players want it to work, because baseball is a closed circle with its own language, meaning and values. And the best managers can use the values to shape and direct team -- just not too much, lest the team starts thinking about what is actually being said.