This is fairly long, so read when you have some extra time.
Team, simply defined, is "a group of people forming one side in a sports competition". But, it is more than that. More appropriately, a baseball team, a football team, a soccer team, a hockey team and, to a lesser extent, a basketball team would be defined as "a number of people organized to function cooperatively as a group".The simple definition of a team is sorted out for us in the style and colors of their laundry (the uniforms). These days, with the movement from team to team of the members of the collective pool of athletes within a sport, you may find that rooting for individual players can be a difficult thing. Imagine all the Texas Rangers fans who loved the BlueGloveLefty, C.J. Wilson. It gets to be tough to root for a guy who is now out to torpedo your team rather that work within your team to help in its success. Wish him well, but hope that your team crushes every pitch he throws when he takes the mound against us.
So, we root for the laundry. Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, et al, determine who will wear the laundry of the local team – in their case, the Texas Rangers. They are responsible for filling out the various rosters (25-man, 40-man and each Minor League franchise contractually obligated to provide the supervision and training for those athletes who, individually, are contractually obligated to perform for the Texas Rangers franchise). For athletes to qualify to take the field in our laundry, they have to qualify for one of those rosters under a process dictated by the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
But, team, in the more complex sense, encompasses more than just dressing a bunch of guys (or girls or both) in your laundry. At least, it does if you want to be successful. There has to be someone in charge (or a hierarchy of decision makers as the level of play increases). For your Little League team, you have a team coach and you may or may not have a couple or three assistants and a team mom or dad. Parents present their child to the League for assignment into their particular age division and are allocated through whatever process is used onto the various teams. Then, it’s up to the coach to determine the team name, colors, slogans, etc., to prepare the kids for competition and to assign players' positions on the team. Some coaches are better at the preparation part than others.
A Major League Baseball team has a CEO, President, General Manager and Manager (along with a vast array of departments responsible for scouting, conditioning, travel, coaching, etc.). Ditto NFL, MLS, NHL and NBA teams. Each level of management is defined and has certain responsibilities. In the case of the Texas Rangers, Nolan Ryan functions as both the CEO and President. Jon Daniels is the General Manager and Ron Washington is the Manager. Most other sports refer to the "manager" as the "head coach"; however, in baseball, the Manager is not only responsible for the Major League team and the coaching there, but also is responsible for the development and execution of many levels of competition within the ranks of the team’s Minor League affiliates (Round Rock Express (AAA), Frisco Roughriders (AA), Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High A), Hickory Crawdads (Low A), Spokane Indians (Short Season A), Surprise Rangers (Arizona Development League aka Rookie League) as well as developmental teams and an academy in the Dominican Republic).
The Manager and his Major League staff works in conjunction with the General Manager and his staff to design the basic baseball training and indoctrination to the team’s concepts and direction, to distribute those plans and processes throughout all of the Minor League operations and to delegate the responsibility for executing those plans and doctrines to managers and coaches assigned to each affiliated Minor League club.
The General Manager’s chief responsibility is the assessment of which talent is to be assigned to which level of play (in conjunction with the Manager). The Manager places particular emphasis on which players will be assigned to the Major League team’s Active Roster (25-man). This determines who he has available on a nightly basis to put on the lineup card to start the game and who he has "on the bench" to enter the game as a replacement as the game goes forward.
These players are made available to him by the General Manager and his staff. And, Jon Daniels has put together one of the finest collections of talent the Major Leagues has seen in many years.
And, the Manager (like the Head Coach in other sports) is responsible for teaching those 25 men the precepts which the team determines it will use (cheat or play fair; attempt to advance an extra base or be cautious; go for the strikeout on every hitter or pitch to contact; dare the runner to go or get the ball to the infielders quickly; fight or be passive). The Cheat or Play Fair precept is one many teams side heavily one way or the other. The Tom Landry Dallas Cowboys thrived on crushing the opposition, but within the rules. The Oakland Raiders are notorious for "Just win, Baby" whether it’s playing within the rules or not. Hooking the tight end (New England’s Russ Francis) crossing the field late in the game so he is out of position to grab the pass is one example. In Francis’ case, the Raider linebacker so egregiously hooked him that the ball actually hit Francis in the back with the linebacker still locked onto him. No flag, no foul. Other examples of Raider misconduct (the fumblerewski, etc.) are well chronicled.
The manager is also responsible for the mindset (how each player will approach the competition each day) of his roster. For Ron Washington, this appears to be: Take the roster Jon Daniels gives him and run regular drills and, otherwise, just throw the team on the field and expect them to do their job. Pregame preparation as to what the other team will likely try to do during the course of the game is usually left up to the coaches under the Manager’s supervision. Wash and his staff are generally good at game planning - not so good at managing mindset or player substitution.
As for mindset, the Manager should also know what his guys are thinking when they walk on the field. What is their purpose? What are their goals? How should they respond to situations that should and do arise as the competition progresses. If the Manager hands a starting pitcher the ball, the Manager should know how that pitcher is going to approach the game and be able to communicate to that pitcher what is expected of him – specifically and definitively. So, for Ron Washington to give the ball to Justin Verlander to start the 2012 All Star Game without knowing Justin’s motivation and directing that motivation was an atrocious failure on the part of the Manager. To Verlander, the All Star Game was an exhibition and he was going to put on a show. He immediately brought out his 100+ mph fastball and challenged Major League hitters to hit it. Of course, they get paid as much as he does to do just that and he got slammed. But, Verlander was not concerned. What did it matter to him?
To Ron Washington and his Texas Rangers, who had been to the World Series the last two years, the All Star Game was an opportunity to secure home field advantage for his American League and, hopefully, for his Texas Rangers. But, this was not the case with Justin Verlander. Imagine Tony Larussa’s delight as the Manager of the National League All Star Team in the other dugout seeing his hitters prepared and beating the brains out of the American League pitching.
Team Player Dynamics
Now, each player on a team is assigned responsibilities. On a baseball team, defensively there is one man to cover each base and home plate, one to cover the space between second and third bases, one to throw the ball (pitch) to the hitter and three to roam in the "outfield" to catch any fly balls that might come their way and to get the ball back into the guys defending the bases to stop the offensive players from running around willy-nilly. The guy manning home plate is also responsible for receiving the pitch from the pitcher in the event the hitter doesn’t execute his responsibilities correctly.
On other sports’ teams, responsibilities are delegated differently according to the sport.
But, there is more to manning a defensive position than just catching any ball that goes through their area or, with the ball in hand, tagging any offensive player that happens by. The Manager is responsible for determining when the "infielders" manning the bases should play closer to the hitter to, potentially, be able to get the ball to the catcher at home plate to stop a runner from scoring from third base; when those infielders should play back farther to be able to cut off ground balls and get the ball to the second base to turn the "double play" and what plays will be executed in the event the hitter should just lay the bat on the ball and bunt it (among many other things).
But, the individual players are responsible for recognizing where the offensive runners are, what they are doing, anticipating what they might do and executing in the most efficient manner plays that have the greatest probability of obstructing the attempt of those runners – all under the guidance of the Manager and his coaches.
As offensive players, the members of the team are responsible for doing everything they can to enable the team to score as many runs as possible. If they have successfully reached base, they are to (1) do whatever is necessary within the rules to not get tagged in the baseline, forced out at the next base or unable to return to their previous base before a caught fly ball is ushered to that base by the opposing team (i.e. try to NOT make an out – you only get three).
Hitting is the more complex (and egocentric) responsibility of the offensive player. Not only does he have to swing a cylindrical device so that it strikes squarely upon a round object hurtled at a great speed (or lack thereof), he has to insure he does so in a way that does not provide the opposing team an opportunity to register an out against his team. To squarely strike the baseball with his bat, the hitter must, in fractions of a second, determine the trajectory of the ball, the speed of the ball, the English (spin) on the ball and whether or not he could reach it with is bat or if it would require something more akin to a crane to be able to reach the pitch as it passes by on its way, ostensibly, to the catcher.
If the ball passes through the zone the umpire determines to be within the legal area that it SHOULD have been struck by the hitter with his bat, it is considered a strike against the hitter. Or, if the hitter does swing and does not manage to connect his bat with the ball in a manner that puts the ball within the lines determining fair or foul, that is also considered a strike against the hitter. The hitter is only granted 3 strikes in an appearance at the plate. If that third strike is tallied and the ball has not been put fairly into play, his team is registered with an out. Between batter outs and runner outs, a team is only granted a total of three before that team’s portion of the inning to bat is considered concluded and they must go out into the field to play defense.
Great players have tremendous egos. These egos fuel the amount of responsibility they are willing to assume and the amount of risk they are willing to take.
Josh Hamilton is one of the greatest pure power hitters of all time. Not only does he successfully hit the ball more often than most, he hits it greater distances and with greater frequency than most. And, he is told how great he is with regularity. So, he is more inclined to take risks than most other players and is granted the latitude by his Manager to take those risks. This includes swinging at those pitches that are not necessarily within the zone for which an attempt SHOULD have been made to hit the ball (strike zone) as determined by the umpire. Those pitches, to mere mortals, that do not cross within the bounds of the strike zone are considered balls that do not count as strikes. A pitcher is only granted four such pitches before the hitter is granted a free walk onto the first base and he becomes a runner. The majority of Major League hitters consider this a fortuitous event; however, the most powerful hitters are more dangerous to the opposing defense with that stick in their hands than they are with the bag under their foot. So, they take risks endeavoring to hit pitches that are not within the strike zone.
If those pitches end up being beyond their reach (extended even by the length of the bat), they have taken a strike against themselves and increase the danger that they will instead cost their team one of their three outs for the inning. If they do this with consistency, they are giving away outs simply for the sake of the possibility that the pitch might, perchance, bounce or otherwise bend in such a way as to be reachable. Higher intelligence will admit that is possible, but not likely.
Success vs. Failure
A hitter should always take into consideration that he is part of an overall team that is trying, in concert with each other, to advance each other around all three bases and to home plate to tally a score (called a run in baseball). Each of 9 hitter positions, in turn, take an opportunity to succeed against a pitcher's attempts to cause him to fail.
But, they have to go in the proscribed order and they have to depend on each other to collect enough individual successes that the overall effort for the game becomes a success. Imagine the starting member of a relay race determining the member in the next leg just isn’t good enough and running past him up to the third member of the team and handing the baton directly to him. First off, the team would be disqualified as this is not allowed under the rules of relay racing. But, more importantly, what is that second runner thinking as he is passed up? What is that third like thinking about as he is taking the baton and undertaking his leg?
So, what happens when the ego of a player gets so great that his risks result in more failures than his successes can overcome? The team suffers because there eventually isn’t enough success to bridge that huge chasm of failure in that spot in the lineup. Josh has two choices when he recognizes a ball is outside the strike zone: (1) he can assume the risk that his abilities are great enough and his reach is long enough that he still, reasonably, has a chance of success; or (2) he can pass the baton on to the next member of the team in the lineup. Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers only have Adrian Beltre as the next up in the event Josh doesn’t drive in twelve runs with his one swing of the bat. An extremely facetious statement as, of course, Adrian Beltre is also one of the premier hitters in the game of baseball. If Adrian does get the opportunity to bat with Josh on base, two good things have happened: (1) Josh got on base and there is another opportunity for a run; and (2) Adrian has one fewer outs tallied against his team resulting in a less pressurized situation - his failure (or less than total success that comes with a home run) only passes the baton one more spot and the relay race continues unabated.
Other sports have their share of egos, too. Sometimes, those egos prevent their teams from actualizing what SHOULD be the goal of every competing organization: winning a Championship. In football, some examples of "those great egos" would be John Elway, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Tony Romo and others who man the quarterback position. For his part, John Elway was one of the greatest players in the game. He threw for as many yards and touchdowns as anyone ever had. But, he had no Championships upon which to hang his Hall-of-Fame-bound helmet. He was a great passer and all the numbers were there to prove it. But, his team just didn’t win "when it counted".
Then, he hurt his arm and couldn’t pass at the prolific rate as he always had in the past. That very year (1998) and the year after (1999), he led his team to Super Bowl wins. No longer was he "doing it all himself", he was handing the ball to a great running game led by Terrell Davis and, by doing so, leaving his defensive team on the sidelines long enough to rest and analyze what the other team was throwing at them. No longer was he a great passer (he was still a good passer, but his super-human-appearing abilities to do so were behind him), but he became a great quarterback.
Brett Favre would be considered a great quarterback. He had great passing stats and a lot of touchdowns, and his team won regularly and even won one Championship. What kept him from consistently succeeding (and winning multiple Championships) was his propensity for the Big Mistake in the Big Games. In essence, he shot himself (and his team) in the foot and cost them games that would have put them into the next level in the playoffs. His failures, although not as frequent as mere mortal passers) were Those Failures that ended their seasons before the Final Goal could be reached. But, Brett had to be the one to win the game – he couldn’t just "not lose" and trust that the other half of the team that provided those great Green Bay Packer defenses were up to the task of accomplishing their goals of keeping the other team’s offense from outscoring their own. Many times, Brett’s mistakes directly led to points eliminating his own defense’s participation altogether. Tony Romo is Brett Favre Part Deux. Great Passer, poor judgement.
Again, use your imagination: The goalie on your favorite soccer team (how about FC Dallas?) takes the ball as is often the case when the ball enters his zone. But, instead of passing the ball to one of his defensive mates or booming the ball into the other end of the field, he takes off dribbling through the other team’s defense. Keep in mind, when a soccer team is behind and it is getting late in the game, they have been known to pull their goalie (hockey teams do this much more frequently) and send in what is called a "sixth attacker". So, the goalie may have some of the greatest offensive skills in the game, but the need for him is in goal because, quite frankly, it takes a different kind of personality to play goalie. But, on his own, he has suddenly decided that the team needs a sixth attacker.
If his teammates are aware of his offensive prowess AND if the head coach has explicitly and publicly (within the team, at least) granted this goalie the latitude to do so under a set predefined circumstance, then the team as a whole assumes the risk of not having a goalie in the box. The defenders will automatically shift into a defense to account for the lack of a goalie and everyone is prepared to do everything they can to mitigate the risk they will have collectively undertaken. However, if the team is not aware and the coach hasn’t granted that latitude, the goalie is assuming a role that is not defined and is outside the parameters of the team – no matter how great he is and how much risk his ego is ready to accept. Playing within the parameters and in a predefined role within the team is paramount in a team sport.
Basketball is an exception. Michael Jordan was of such incredible abilities above and beyond the ordinary superstar NBA player that he, single-handedly, could affect the outcome of a game. He still had to play within the parameters of a team (someone had to inbound the ball when the Chicago Bulls were awarded it out of bounds). But, his greatness was such that he didn’t have to make that "extra pass" to a teammate that might have had a slightly better opportunity to score as NO ONE had a better opportunity to score than Michael Jordan when he was on the floor – didn’t matter if that teammate was alone under the basket.
There is some conjecture as to how MJ gained that stature. Danny Ainge (Phoenix Suns, Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals) might say that his having the audacity to strike His Airness in the elbow with his face was impertinent and uncalled for – or he might not. But, Michael recognized the leeway he always got from the referees and was quick to take advantage of it.
On the other hand, LeBron James, the heir-apparent to His Airness, also was granted Super Stardom by the NBA and was routinely granted a red carpet (a no touch zone) through opposing defenses to the basket. He, unfortunately for himself and his Miami Heat, was so overt in exploiting that granted leeway that, during the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, he dribble around to the left side of the three-point arc and, suddenly, grabbed the ball and jumped out of bounds indicating that he’d been fouled. He got the call.
Replays showed that the Maverick guarding him wasn’t within 2 feet of him. The officials (and the NBA) were embarrassed. King James lost his red carpet to the basket for the remainder of the Series and the Mavericks were allowed to defend the same way the Heat players were and the Mavericks prevailed. "LeFlop" had, with that one play, cost his team their golden road to the Championship.
They did win it the next year. Apparently, he didn’t assume that same level of risk he had the year before. At least not in regards to embarrassing those who officiate the League and its games.
So, in closing, each individual player either contributes to or detracts from the success of his team with every move he or she makes. If that player offers enough successes and their failures don’t occur at critical times, they can achieve the ultimate goal of winning the Championship. If the player is great enough, there will be enough success to overwhelm the failures and the Hall of Fame awaits at the end of his or her brilliant career. If those failures are frequent enough or if they are great enough at critical times, Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packer fans will still love him and his overall numbers will be great enough that he will hang his helmet in Canton, OH, but everyone connected with the Packers will rue the lost opportunities.
The environment under which a team operates is managed by the Head Coach (the Manager in baseball). If the Manager has his finger on the pulse of his team, he will know when a player is taking greater risks than is suitable for that environment and he will take some sort of action. It would seldom require benching that player, but that would, in an extreme case, be an extreme penalty that can be assessed. The ultimate penalty is release and termination of that player’s position on the team (ask Yorvit Torrealba about that one – or Brandon Inge, formerly of the Detroit Tigers). More often, just a word here or there is enough, if offered at the right time under the right circumstances. Great Managers know, by instinct, when those special times deign to show themselves.
If a Manager (or Head Coach) does not manage the environment under which his team operates, he is just taking the talent provided to him by the General Manager and tossing it onto the field and expecting that talent to figure its own way to win. Leadership within the ranks of the players can mitigate that mismanagement only so far before failure finally beckons. If a Manager is given talent that is incompatible with other aspects of his team or is inept at that level of play (Mat Millen’s Detroit Lions come to mind on both counts), then, it doesn’t matter how great the Head Coach or Manager might be. You have to have something with which to work.
A Manager (and other members of the management hierarchy above him) is also responsible for how players conduct themselves off the field. The Dallas NFL team was destroyed from within when Barry Switzer failed to corral his Cowboys and demand off-the-field accountability along with meeting their on-the-field responsibilities. What’s worse, Switzer had already exhibited that same lack of control with his Oklahoma Sooners years before. A similar implosion happened to the Dallas Mavericks under John McLeod’s stewardship.
A team can be a fragile thing. Its Front Office provides the talent and the Manager/Head Coach provides the leadership and the accountability and the players operate within the environment created by its leadership. If that environment is healthy and properly directed, great things can happen. If not, you get the Pittsburgh Pirates of the last 15 years or the Houston Astros of current times. It could be the St. Louis Rams in the NFL or the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers of bygone years. Even if that environment is healthy and directed, often one man’s propensity to create that one massive failure at a critical time can still spell doom for the season leaving that team with the bottom-feeders watching someone else walk home with the Golden Ring of Success. If that happens often enough, you get Brett Favre and Tony Romo. Let’s hope Josh Hamilton learns to pass the baton to Adrian Beltre and not try to drive in 6 runs with each at bat. There’s only 3 bases and yourself available there, Josh.