Friday, October 26, 2018

People persons and managers

Rocco Baldelli, 37, is the youngest manager
in baseball. Derek Falvey, background,
who hired him, is younger.
Rocco Baldelli's introductory press conference as Twins manager on Thursday played well with this audience of one.

I particularly liked his fencing with Patrick Reusse about his former team's innovative pitching strategy, which Reusse said is "ruining baseball as we know it." Baldelli led into his response by observing that "openness and curiosity" are good things in any field.

But as I watched a replay of the presser later I found myself thinking about the internal tensions built into the job. Baldelli spoke at length of the need to build relationships and how much he values and enjoys that. I think it's clear that he wants to be a "people person." I also think it's clear that that's a big part of why he got the job.

I am less certain that that's a valuable necessairy trait in a dugout manager. I can rattle off a number of managers of sterling accomplishment who insisted on keeping an emotional distance from his players. Earl Weaver, who may well be my notion of the ideal skipper, would be one such. He spent years managing in the minors before getting the Baltimore job, and a big part of that experience was, in his words, "stomping on dreams." 

Guys with Weaver's background aren't getting a lot of major league opportunties right now, although Brian Snitker has the Atlanta job and Toronto just tabbed Charlie Montoya. but, having noted those exceptions, today's new wave front offices seem to prefer younger candidates who can "relate" to the players. That's Baldelli.

And that's also Alex Cora in Boston, and Dave Roberts in Los Angeles, and Aaron Boone in New York, and Craig Counsell in Milwaukee, and A.J. Hinch in Houston. To a large degree, front offices want the manager to be a conduit between the analytics department and the athletes. That's more likely to work if the manager has good people skills. And obviously, that approach is successful right now.

People skills can't mean simply being agreeable. The manager has to establish authority in some manner, or the whole thing runs aground. Conflict is inherent in sports (and other endeavors, to be sure), and no manager can long afford to try to avoid it. Baldelli, as a manager, has yet to deal with that necessity. 

Which doesn't mean he can't. Pretty much the worst thing a manager can do to his career -- and his team -- is get a reputation among the players for "blowing smoke." Managers can't shy away from honest confrontation with players. That's the people person challenge. 

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