Every baseball season, you hear about it as if it's supposed to tell you something.
It comes wrapped in tidy little axioms, like, "The team is really getting along, and that's why it's winning." Or, "The team is toxic, and that's why it's losing." Most journalists report it straight from the player, who in turn doesn't really understand what he’s saying but assumes enough fans will accept it on the premise that happy teams should be more productive.
If only that were true. More MLB clubs would hire comedians. Spring training would be full of icebreakers, trust falls and bonding exercises. Coaching staffs would expand to make room for team counselors.
The Boston Red Sox organization is the perfect example. The "Idiots" of 2004 were all about chemistry, growing beards, drinking alcohol, having fun and being different. Yet those same characteristics are viewed as problematic when a team starts to lose, as Boston did at the end of the Terry Francona regime.
Has the 2013 title-winning team, one filled with incredible chemistry, suddenly lost it all just one year later with a very similar roster? There is much more to winning and losing than that.
I've played for teams that, off the field, got along like teeth in a gear. Good men who genuinely cared about one another but couldn't win together on the same field to save their lives (or their careers). I've also played with some of the meanest SOBs to wear the jersey. Guys who were one step above rabid animals and would have killed one another had they not been thrown fresh opponents to tear to shreds every night.
In my experience, it's much more apt to say that prolonged winning or losing makes for good or bad team chemistry. Then, once that chemistry is in place, it can either keep a good thing going or stand in the way of getting a bad thing turned around.
To be clear, team chemistry does exist. It may not be quantifiable the way modern baseball likes everything under its dominion to be, but it is most certainly a factor in a team's development. How big a factor depends on the personalities the team is composed of.
In 2008, when I first came up with the Padres, the club was on pace to lose 100 games. Even if you didn't know the team's record, you could feel it in the locker room. The atmosphere was grim, no one cared about anyone else's success or failure, and the guys going into free agency had long since jettisoned any notion of "team" in favor of self-preservation.
I was scared out of my mind to be a rookie in the bigs, and all I wanted to do was fit in. All my team wanted to do, on the other hand, was check out.
One night in September, we won after a particularly long stretch of losing, and as we were walking into the clubhouse, someone sarcastically quipped, "Did we really win, or did we just run out of time before we could lose?"
For a young player trying to find his footing in the majors, that 2008 Padres club had one of the worst atmospheres one could be in. The prolonged failure had worn them down to the point where failing was accepted with a general sense of apathy, winning felt ironic and no one was interested or committed enough to pick a teammate up.
Just six months previous, that same team—the one I joined as a backup player during spring training games—was a joking, jovial, optimistic club, excited about its chances.
When things start to go bad, tempers get short. The effort needed to win isn't put in on a regular basis, and the players who are still invested get upset with the ones who aren't. Older players take their frustration out on younger ones. Locker rooms start to divide. An atmosphere of losing takes over.
Then, even when young, capable reinforcements arrive, their budding confidence is choked out. The talent is still there, of course, but talent is only as good as the confidence wielding it.
Organizations know this can happen to their clubs. It's one of the reasons they leapfrog prospects over Triple-A—where players can often be bitter about not being in the bigs—straight to the majors. Environment is a factor.
There is such a thing as positive team chemistry, and it can be fostered. It’s not the end all, be all, but it’s better than the alternative.
Though positive team chemistry often gets pointed at when a team is winning and goofing off a lot while doing it, locker-room shenanigans are a low-hanging fruit. Even among the teams that fight, there can be good team chemistry, just like losing teams can have bad chemistry.
A team that values execution, confidence and the belief that it has something to prove over how much fun it's having in the locker room will win more, and for longer, than a team that just gets along. It will also right the ship faster when it starts to turn toxic.
Oftentimes you'll hear about how a team has a "way"—"The Cardinal Way" or "The Yankee Way." It sounds cliche if you're losing, but it's gospel when you're winning.
It's not that these "ways" ensure a result or hold some mystic baseball strategy that other teams don’t use. It's that when a team starts to become self-aware—of its poor effort level, its sense of apathy over losing, its frustration with how things are going, its general lack of luck—instead of dwelling on the meaning of it all, there is a simple, instilled belief it can revert to. A default.
Things like pride and passion, preparedness, professionalism, hustle, attitude and so on—even the ambiguous "playing the game the right way"—are useful tools for keeping a team focused on a larger objective, instead of the granularities of self.
In college at Kent State University, my pitching coach, Mike Birkbeck, used to tell us the mantra he played under when in the Atlanta Braves system: Prepare yourself for the opportunity that may present itself. I can't tell you how many times that quote rattled around in my head when I was in Triple-A, tired of the minors and hoping for a call-up.
The manager also plays a major role in positive team chemistry. He is a facilitator of sorts. A good manager can spot the creeping in of bad chemistry and interject with distractions.
Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon is often cited as one of the best player managers in baseball. It's not because he fills lockers with animals or knows the math of player interaction. It's because he's good at distracting a team from focusing on its shortcomings long enough for its inherent talent to string a few wins together and get things back on track.
Despite a player's understanding that baseball is a chaotic game in which anything can happen, it's also their lives. This means that while they accept bad outcomes as part of the process, prolonged stretches will still leave them frustrated. Those frustrations will eventually turn into destructive behavior. No one can quantify exactly how it will happen, but you can at least be sure that a team will go into slumps. When they come, a wise course of action is to find something to keep things positive.
After all, if you can't get a team to focus on winning, you can at least make sure it's not focused on losing. And sometimes that's enough.