There is no concrete formula to building a World Series-caliber team, but there are a few things a would-be world champion baseball team simply must have.
Above all, you've got to have a solid starting rotation, preferably one with more than one ace to tackle those pesky short series in the postseason. Second, you've got to have a multi-dimensional offense that has both power and speed. Thirdly, you've got to have a deep bullpen with an array of different options. Lastly, you've got to have a good manager who knows how and when to push all the right buttons.
If a team has all these things on paper, it should go on to win the World Series. However, there's that little something extra that all World Series winners seem to have. Perhaps because nobody can think of a better term for it, we've taken to calling it "clubhouse chemistry."
What is clubhouse chemistry? It depends on who you ask, really. I personally think the best way to define it is as a Star Wars Force-like thing that brings all the individual pieces of a baseball club together and makes them an actual team as opposed to merely a collection of individual pieces on a baseball club.
Yeah, sounds like a good definition. But just like the definition itself, whether or not clubhouse chemistry is a bunch of overblown nonsense or not varies depending on who you ask.
By far the best treatise on clubhouse chemistry I've heard came from Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. In June of 2010, he opened up to a group of reporters about what a bunch of BS clubhouse chemistry is, resulting in one of the great quotes in recent baseball history.
Courtesy of Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk:
Take all that clubhouse [bleep] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [bleep] for years. Chemistry don’t mean [bleep]...That don’t mean [bleep]. They got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy.
In short, talent makes a team, not all that other crap that writers like to run their mouths about.
Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said pretty much the same thing recently, as he said to a group of reporters last month: "You're talking about talent. Without talent, it don't matter what kind of chemistry you got."
So if winning is about the talent of the players and nothing more, this calls into question why exactly teams need managers to run the rabble. If talent is enough, why not just let the talented players police themselves?
Hall-of-Fame manager Earl Weaver once famously said that a manager's job is pretty basic. All he has to do is stick around and make sure the talent doesn't fall apart.
"A manager's job is simple. For one hundred sixty-two games you try not to screw up all that smart stuff your organization did last December," said Weaver, according to Baseball-Almanac.com.
The late Sparky Anderson held pretty much the exact same mindset, and he pointed out that a successful manager doesn't make successful players. Successful players make a successful manager.
His quote about Casey Stengel in 1974 sums it up. Courtesy of Baseball-Almanac.com:
I don't believe a manager ever won a pennant. Casey Stengel won all those pennants with the Yankees. How many did he win with the Boston Braves and Mets? I've never seen a team win a pennant without players. I think the only thing the manager has to do is keep things within certain boundaries.
For the record, Stengel won seven World Series as a manager, all of them with the Yankees between 1949 and 1958. But as anyone who has seen Catch Me If You Can will know, the Yankees didn't win because they had Casey Stengel. The Yankees won because they had Mickey Mantle.
The Yankees are as good a case study for the whole team chemistry thing as anybody. They've won 27 world championships, but it's not exactly a well-kept secret that many of the Yankees championship teams had to go through plenty of drama before winning it all.
You can obviously think back to the Bronx Zoo Yankees of the 70s. There was bad blood in the Yankees clubhouse in those days, and it extended all the way up to The Boss himself. Reggie Jackson feuded with Thurman Munson and Billy Martin, and Martin feuded with George Steinbrenner, and so on.
Despite it all, the Yankees won two World Series in the late 70s. All because, naturally, they simply had more talent than other teams.
The same is true of the Yankees teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They won because they were simply better than everyone else and because Joe Torre did a very good job of making sure nothing got screwed up.
Torre was obviously important to the success of those Yankees teams, but he wasn't around when the Yankees won it all in 2009. Joe Girardi was in his place, and he was able to lead the Yankees to their 27th world title because he was working with by far the deepest and most talented team in baseball. Their success had more to do with the Yankees' offseason spending spree than Girardi's leadership, which obviously hearkens back to what Weaver said.
There is, however, one problem with using the Yankees as an example for the importance (or lack thereof) of this thing called "clubhouse chemistry." When we think of teams with good clubhouse chemistry, we think of teams made up of goofball players who join forces to win and have fun doing it. This has never been the Yankees' style, and probably never will be.
Perhaps the most notable example of a happy-go-lucky team that was able to win it all is the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. They famously adopted "We Are Family" as their theme song, and they enjoyed a 98-win season and a victory over Weaver's Orioles in the World Series.
Willie Stargell was at the tip of the spear that year, winning the NL MVP and the World Series MVP. It was also him who suggested the Pirates take after "We Are Family" to inspire themselves to win, and he went and gave his teammates further inspiration with his play out on the field.
The Pirates weren't the first team to have so much fun on its way to a World Series title, but we know for a fact that they certainly weren't the last. Several recent teams come to mind.
Take, for example, the 2010 San Francisco Giants. They were a collection of oddballs, misfits and castoffs who barely got into the postseason in the first place. Next thing you knew, they were celebrating their first World Series victory in over 50 years, and characters like Brian Wilson, Tim Lincecum, Cody Ross and Buster Posey all became the toast of baseball.
The one word that will forever be connected with that Giants team is "Torture." It described their style of baseball perfectly, and the team itself took it to heart. But as third-base coach Tim Flannery pointed out, the Giants didn't win because they rallied around a word. They won because they rallied around each other.
Courtesy of MLB.com:
You get tired of hearing all the things you can't do, and we've heard that all season. This guy's too slow, that guy's too old, this guy might be too big, that starting pitcher might be too small. But when everything is brought together, the collective intangibles -- the gifts each person brings to the clubhouse in attitude and spirit and knowing what his role is -- together, it all works very well.
Remember Jim Leyland's treatise on clubhouse chemistry? This is the exact opposite.
If we can take it from Flannery that clubhouse chemistry does indeed exist, the natural question is if it can be cultivated, or if it's something that just happens.
There's at least one team in the major leagues that actually worries about cultivating chemistry, and that's the Boston Red Sox. We know this because baseball revolutionary and Red Sox employee Bill James said in 2010 that chemistry is something the Red Sox actually worry about having.
Courtesy of The Seattle Times:
I think I was always respectful of the idea that [chemistry] existed. Maybe I wasn't. I don't know...But I know that we spend an immense amount of time worrying about it. I think the average person has a hard time relating to it, in part because: a) the amounts of money involved are so phenomenal that people think that with that much money you have no problems. And b) it's a game. It's fun to play baseball. That's what people think...In baseball, there really ain't no weekends, and you have to be around those people a really great amount of time. And if they grate on your nerves, it gets to be a really long season.
It makes perfect sense that the Red Sox would worry about having good team chemistry. They've won two World Series in the last decade, and both the 2004 team and the 2007 team had great chemistry.
The 2004 team, of course, will forever be known as "The Idiots." It was coined by Johnny Damon, who was careful to point out that the Sox were idiots because they didn't want to be cowboys anymore, as they were in 2003.
“We are not the cowboys anymore — we are just the idiots this year,” Damon said, according to the Associated Press. “So we are going to go out and try to swing the bats, find the holes, and, hopefully, good things happen.”
The 2007 Red Sox were not idiots. They were simply an immensely talented group of individuals who happened to love playing together. In retrospect, it's actually pretty remarkable how well the pieces of that team fit together considering the team was made up of a mix of young players, old players and players from all corners of the earth, including two high-profile Japanese imports in Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima.
The 2004 and 2007 Red Sox go to show what can happen when a team has both great talent and great chemistry. The 2011 Red Sox, on the other hand, are perhaps the most notable example of what can happen when bad chemistry gets a hold of a very talented baseball team.
By now, everyone knows the story of Boston's collapse in 2011. Despite all the Red Sox's collective talent, they fell completely flat in September and missed out on the postseason.
Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com said it best when she wrote that the Sox looked "invincible" on paper:
We thought they had superior pitching, enough firepower to outslug any other team in baseball, and an infield that promised to be stingy with errors and strong up the middle. The Sox had multiple base stealers (Jacoby Ellsbury, Crawford, Dustin Pedroia).
One of their own pitchers, Josh Beckett, predicted they'd win 100 games.
There were numerous reasons the Red Sox fell short at the end; among them being bad pitching and ill-timed slumps by key hitters. But the biggest reason the Sox fell short, according to MacMullan and virtually everyone else who saw the collapse unfold, was a general sense of complacency and arrogance.
It was, in other words, bad chemistry. The chicken and the beer merely aided the process.
People say we make too much of the value of good chemistry and camaraderie. They are wrong; it matters. When things get tough, teams with unified players step up. They rely on guys who believe in leadership and accountability -- and each other -- to turn things around.
Once again, we can go all the way back to what Leyland said about team chemistry. He was absolutely right about it being bred by success, but he didn't bother to mention the possibility that good chemistry can save a team when things aren't going well. Ironically, it took a writer to propose the idea.
Does this mean that good team chemistry is absolutely vital to winning the World Series? In all honesty, the answer is no. At the end of the day, all the points we've visited about talent being the key ingredient to a World Series team still ring true.
Even the Giants, who were viewed as an underdog in the 2010 World Series against the Texas Rangers, had a lot of talent, especially in their pitching staff. The same is true of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who beat the Rangers because all of their most talented players happened to get hot at the right time.
And whether we're talking about the Giants, the Rangers, the Red Sox, the Pirates or whoever, the simple truth is that it's very, very easy to have good team chemistry when you're winning in the postseason.
But it's a very long season, and it's not at all easy to get to the postseason. A lot of things can go wrong throughout the course of a 162-game season, and merely making it to the end is a challenge. A team has to be able to endure the inevitable tough times.
And that's where good chemistry is needed more than ever. In the tough times, the talent isn't working. And when the talent isn't working, there needs to be some other force to keep a team positive and upbeat and ready for the next game. There has to be something to get all that talent back on the right track.
That something is good clubhouse chemistry. It can't win you a World Series, but it is something that can make sure you at least get the chance.
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