Rays manager Joe Maddon loves the smell of bread baking in his clubhouse. So he decided to spring for a bread maker last spring. Actually, it makes all kinds of sense if you stop and think about it. How can the Rays expect to enjoy their piping-hot slabs of roast without warm, fresh bread?
Oh right, you don't know about the roaster, do you? Yeah, Maddon snagged one of those over the winter from a late-night shopping channel. He was awfully pleased with himself, too.
It was a fancy thing, one of those that cooks the meat from the top down. Who comes up with this genius stuff anyway? Fast forward to last spring when the Rays reported to their clubhouse and were greeted by the sweet smell of roast cooking. When Maddon saw how much his players enjoyed the roast, he decided to spring for a bread maker, too.
Now you're probably rolling your eyes and wondering what in the wide, wide world of Casey Stengel cooking roast and baking bread has to do with winning baseball games.
Actually, quite a bit.
To understand this part of the deal, you have to understand how much managing a Major League Baseball team has changed over the last century. In fact, the most dramatic changes probably have come in just the last decade. These days, a manager's job has changed so dramatically that it's barely recognizable from another era.
Baseball's smartest teams -- the Rays might be the smartest -- have changed the position. Front offices generate reams of data to assist managers with formulating lineups, defensive alignments and bullpen match-ups. Coming up with this information used to be a big part of the manager's job, which means we must change the way we evaluate skippers. Managers must still be able to manage bullpens, make smart decisions on the fly and put players in position to succeed. Beyond those things are the large, vague areas of attitude and effort.
In an era when lineups sometimes change by the day, when players are moved up and down and when match-ups often dictate who plays and who doesn't, a manager's job is to convince players to put the team first.
In plenty of ways, we've always judged managers by the wrong things. We've wondered why they pinch hit Joe instead of Sam when every right-thinking fan knows Joe is a bum. In truth, the statistical difference might be a few percentage points, but second-guessing the manager brought so many of us such great joy.
Now, though, the human touch is more important than ever. It has always been important, but never more than now. Doing that means creating the right environment. Players must have fun, but they must also buy into the sometimes tough-to-accept idea that what's best for the team is best for everyone.
Thus, Joe Maddon does things plenty of managers through the years wouldn't get. For instance, the Rays have this crazy routine after every victory. They have a party. A loud one. An intense one. They make some noise and scream some, and then after six or seven minutes, they quiet down and have some dinner. Maddon would call it a bonding experience.
"We are never going to take winning for granted," he will say.
When the Rays won the American League Wild Card game in Cleveland last October, Maddon stuck his head through a plastic curtain separating his clubhouse from a hallway where reporters waited.
He was drenched in champagne and wearing ski goggles. Actually, he looked pretty silly.
"I'll be right out, guys," he said. "The thing is -- I'm sure you understand -- I'm going to enjoy this with my guys."
One of the reasons almost every player has heard that playing for the Rays is such a great experience is that Maddon doesn't let things get boring.
"When you're dreaming of playing in the big leagues, you dream it'll be a certain way," former Rays reliever Wesley Wright said. "With the Rays, it's that way. It's incredible."
In the toughest of times, he may order his players to forget batting practice and show up an hour before game time. He may also bring penguins through the clubhouse and hold team meetings to discuss, say, the best cities in which to get pizza.
Or a roast beef sandwich.
Through the silliness, there's a message. That is, let's have some fun and hang together.
On the first day of spring training, he essentially lays down two rules: 1. Run hard to first base. 2. Play defense. Winning baseball is way more complicated than that, but it begins there. Maddon is no soft touch. His players know this side of him, too.
He has pulled players from the game for not hustling. He's tough on mental errors. But he does not hold a grudge and is willing to turn a page.
Bobby Cox was like that, too. During his final years with the Braves, his players held him in such high esteem that he didn't even have to announce the team rules. His players took care of those, passing them from generation to generation and also enforcing them.
They knew Cox had their backs with umpires and the media. They also knew that in return, they were expected to play the game a certain way. As a result, his teams played hard and were consummate pros. Leadership is a difficult thing to define, but Cox was absolutely brilliant.
Among Red Sox manager John Farrell's post-game constants is one that seems mostly unimportant. That it just might be vitally important to being a successful big league manager speaks volumes about both the complexities and subtleties of the job.
After Farrell has checked in with his medical staff and chatted with reporters and maybe visited with his coaches, he makes his way across his team's clubhouse. As players shower and dress and chat, Farrell steps over equipment bags, winds around lockers and ends up in front of the postgame food table.
There, he surveys the spread, fills a plate and makes his way back toward his office. Most nights, Farrell does this quickly and quietly, speaking to almost no one. And that's not the point.
In doing this, he's hoping that the wall that sometimes grows between a manager and his players will not happen with his team. Farrell's making sure his players know that he's there for them, that his door is open and that if they've got something on their mind he's there to listen.
He does something similar before games as he lingers around the batting cage or in the outfield, approaching players with small talk about kids, travel, etc. Mostly, he's there to listen, to learn, to offer a place to vent. And if there's bad news to deliver in terms of playing time, the lineup, etc., Farrell delivers it himself, directly and straightforwardly.
This ritual is repeated all over baseball in various ways by the game's best managers. In Baltimore, Buck Showalter is absolutely genius at this sort of thing. He knows the names of family members. He knows aches and pains. He knows the things players like and don't like.
Showalter's players know he has their back, especially with the media and fans. He can turn a negative performance into a positive message and a positive performance into a prediction of greatness.
Once last season when the Indians were going badly, manager Terry Francona called a post-game team meeting that lasted about 90 seconds.
"I really liked how you guys went about your business when we were going good," one of his players, Michael Bourn, recalls Francona saying.
At the time, the Indians had just lost their seventh straight game, and Francona worried that the ghosts of past failures would begin to slip into the hearts and minds of his guys.
"But you know what?" Francona went on. "Now that we're struggling a little bit, I like you guys even more. I appreciate your effort. I know this thing is going to turn around."
"That he believes in us," Bourn said. "When a manager says something like that rather than show he's all tensed up, it just takes the tension right out of the room. You can feel it lifting."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi is criticized for going by his "binder" of statistics. That's silly. That binder represents facts. Why ignore them? Why trust your gut when there's much more reliable data.
A manager's job begins with getting guys to buy into the whole of the team being greater than any single individual. To do this, a player must be open, honest, blunt and accessible.
Baseball's best managers have always had the ability to touch people. More than two decades ago, I was sitting in the visiting manager's office in Pittsburgh when Orel Hershiser stuck his head in the door and asked for a word with his Dodgers skipper, Tommy Lasorda.
Since I was tucked away in a corner of the office, Hershiser had no idea I was eavesdropping.
"I owe you an apology," he told Lasorda.
"How's that, bulldog?" Lasorda asked.
"I've been thinking about last night's game, and I made some real poor decisions on pitches," Herhiser said.
He went to point out specific situations where he felt he'd thrown the wrong pitch or executed the pitch he did throw poorly.
Finally, he said, "I just wanted to let you know I owe you one. I feel terrible about last night."
When Hershiser departed, Lasorda turned to me and asked, "Now do you see why I love that guy?"
Baseball people sometimes sold Lasorda short because he seemed to be more a cheerleader than a manager. In the end, that's exactly what he was.
No manager was ever better at instilling confidence in his players. Lasorda's guys busted their tails for him because they loved him. Lasorda held loud, profane team meetings in which players laughed until their sides hurt. But the message was consistent: "We're Dodgers. We have fun. We play hard. What a life."
When the Dodgers acquired Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray before the 1989 season, Lasorda knew Murray had been bitterly unhappy during his final Baltimore seasons. He set out to change Murray's attitude immediately.
"Eddie," he told him, "remember what it was like when you were a kid and running around your neighborhood playing baseball with your friends? It was great, wasn't it? Eddie, that's how it's going to be with the Dodgers. You're going to be a little kid again."
Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle and Texas' Ron Washington have some of that same enthusiasm. They constantly tell their players they believe in them. They find a silver lining in every situation.
They're honest, too. But to play for them is to understand that they simply want what's best for the entire team. They have no other agenda. If you can't understand that, then you might be the one with the problem.
One of the best parts of every spring is to stand near the Angels clubhouse door and listen to Mike Scioscia hold his morning team meeting. It's impossible to know exactly what Scioscia is saying.
But the reaction from the players tells the story. There's laughter and catcalls and general rowdiness. Scioscia is setting up a schedule for the day and announcing what he hopes to accomplish. But he's also reminding his players that they ought to be having the time of their lives, that there's nothing better than playing baseball for a living. Suddenly, the drudgery of spring training seems a little less like drudgery.
Scioscia doesn't reveal this side of his personality to reporters very often. But what's clear is that his teams play hard and they play smart. What's also clear is that his players respect him.
Scioscia played for Lasorda, but he can't be Lasorda. If he tried to, his players would see right through him. But he has been one of the most successful managers in history because he's honest with players, because he's demanding of how they play the game and because he lets them know that he appreciates doing things right.
He's not Lasorda and he's not Maddon. But he's like them in plenty of ways. That is, the game must be played the way he wants it played. And -- this here may be the key -- we're all in this thing together. Genius, huh?