Friday, July 11, 2008

Secret #1: The team with the best players almost always wins

I'm in San Diego this week with my kids and picked up the San Diego Union-Tribune yesterday to see a piece from Nick Canepa, who's been writing sports columns at the Union-Trib for 20-something years, about Padres manager Bud Black.

As of this morning, my beloved Padres are in the basement of the National League West, 20 games under .500. They're six games under .500 at home. Only Washington has fewer wins than SD. And Black (pictured at left) is catching heat.

But not from Canepa, who writes:

"The Padres won 89 games in 2007, and my immediate guess – well, it's more than a guess – is that manager Bud Black didn't get credit for one of them. But the team's 74 losses? Ask our angry villagers, who carry torches for their baseball team, but not their managers.

That's how it is. Managers can't win. But they can lose.

It's ridiculous, because managers don't pitch, hit, catch or throw. They don't draft players or make trades. They only can use what they have in their kitchen, and making a good stew is difficult when you don't have meat and potatoes."

It's not often that a reporter will back a coach or manager in a rough season, something I'm sure will be mentioned by other media outlets.

Canepa contends that:

"Major league manager is the most overrated position of influence in sports, yet when a team goes bad, as the Padres have in 2008, the arrow immediately swings toward the head chef. Black is cooking with tofu, but check my e-mails and voice mails (please).

No foolin', there are folks out there who think the current Padres would be in first place in the National League West with another manager. That skipper, I suppose, when taking time off from carpentry work, was managing loaves and fishes 2000 years ago."

Look at Joe Torre's record when he first started managing back in the late 1970s with the Mets. Between 1977-1981, his clubs never finished higher than fifth. The Mets were 36 games under .500 in 1979.

Fast forward to 1996 when he took over the Yankees. Between 1996 and 2007, Torre guided his clubs to 10 first-place finishes and four World Series. NY won 90-plus games in 11 of his 12 seasons.

The fact is, Torre's talent level with the Yankees was significantly better than he had with the Mets. Plus, after four seasons with the Mets and another nine with the Braves and Cards, he was also likely a better manager than he was early in his career.

But every coach at every level of every sport needs good players to win. Writes Canepa:

"It's hard to win when you don't have enough bona fide, everyday talent to begin with. It's even harder when you must tap into your Portland barrel to hope for a good vintage."

Can a good coach help an average (or below average) team to be more competitive and win a few more games over the course of a season? Of course.

Effective coaches who know not only the strategic and technical aspects of the game (i.e., the X's and O's), but also the "soft" side of the game (e.g., how to motivate, communicate, etc.), are likely to get the most out of their players.

As a coach, knowing that you can influence your team's success -- even if only a little bit -- is what makes the profession a challenge. It's also what makes it so much fun and rewarding. [Just ask any Dad who has volunteered to coach his kid's team.]

Andy Hill, who played for John Wooden at UCLA, wrote a terrific book called "Be Quick -- But Don't Hurry." In it, he lists several "secrets" for success. Secret #1:

"The team with the best players almost always wins."