Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mariners and Pirates Have Leadership Issues

Don Wakamatsu, last year's superstar manager, is now the Mariners' ex-manager. It can hardly be a surprise to anyone who has been watching. The sour exit of Griffey, the public battles with Chone Figgins along with the lingering Milton Bradley issues all brought about a hopeless situation for Wakamatsu. The term, "lost his players," has been tossed around a lot by big media writers. There are two ways that can happen which we'll discuss in a moment. But there was another team that cleaned some leadership house today and that was the Pirates which fired its pitching coach and its bench coach, generally considered two of the most important coaches on any staff. The manager in Pittsburgh, John Russell, said he made the call. Interesting!

First, let's deal with Seattle. Wakamatsu had several basic problems. First, the team had 85 wins last year after losing over 100 the year before. For a first season guy to have that much improvement meant that he only had one chance, to go up. Going down was not an option. The second problem Wakamatsu faced was an awful collection of misfit players given to him by his general manager. He was given two aged DH types in Griffey and Sweeney. His brain-trust told him to move two infielders from their previous positions in something akin go wife-swapping. He was saddled forever with the "will-he-or-won't-he" career of Erik Bedard. He was given a team that needed every single move to turn out right to work. Everything worked out wrong.

The Fan's guess is that the way the Griffey thing went down was the beginning of the end for Wakamatsu. He was given this albatross and he had no choice but to bench Griffey when Griffey couldn't produce. Not only did Griffey have a problem with Wakamatsu because the manager had to do his job, but Griffey was an icon the front office brought in for another year. Wakamatsu couldn't win that one if he wanted to. He had no chance in that situation.

The Figgins deal is harder to figure out. This Fan has never heard one ounce of negativity concerning Figgins the entire time he played with the Angels. Suddenly, with Wakamatsu and with the Mariners, he became this negative force. It is obvious that the two personalities did not work together well. But what the heck, eh? Either Mike Scioscia was a stronger man who was able to keep Figgins in check or Wakamatsu might have singled Figgins out for what happened with the Griffey "leak" during the "sleep" episode. Who knows. Clearly Figgins was a major disappointment this year and clearly Wakamatsu and he never saw eye to eye.

According to some reports the Fan read, Ichiro Suzuki was not happy about the move. First, Ichiro is widely blamed as the player who put Riggleman and McLaren on the hot seat when that pair managed the Mariners in 2008. Ichiro seemed much happier with Wakamatsu. It will be interesting to see what Ichiro does after this season.

The Fan has said it before and will trot it out one more time. The players win and lose games and the general manager is the one who chooses who those players will be. A manager can go astray if he doesn't communicate well or doesn't deal with disciplinary issues well. Perhaps there is a little of both in what happened on Monday. From this perspective, it doesn't seem much of Wakamatsu, or his coaches fault that the team performed so horribly on the field. But they are all out of a job and the guy who assembled this goulash of a team is still working.

And now a word about "losing your players." The Fan is qualified to talk about leadership as that was his bag for a long time. You can "lose your employees" in several ways. First, discipline problems can undermine what you hope to accomplish. Come down too harsh and people think you're a jerk. Don't come down hard enough and you are perceived as a patsy. You can also lose your employees when you are not honest with them. There is no indication of that being a problem here. You can lose employees with confusion over roles and responsibilities. If they are not clear or always changing, people lose faith in you, in your system and in themselves. Those are just some examples. It is unclear how Wakamatsu lost his players, but if he did, it would be something similar to one of the above.

One other note worth mentioning. Wakamatsu is another minority manager who is being replaced by a white guy (at least temporarily). So far, only the Marlins replaced a minority manager with another one and even that is temporary.

The Pittsburgh thing has a degree of intrigue to it. Pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, and bench coach, Gary Varsho, were fired by the manager, John Russell. It's rare that a manager is the one to make these kinds of personnel decisions. But apparently he had the backing of the upper management team. There are rumors that Varsho and Kerrigan were less than supportive of their manager and were undermining him and his authority. That's a pretty heavy charge. The Yahoo Sports article about the incident as well as Pittsburgh's Post Gazette writer, Dejan Kovacevic, claim that Kerrigan and Varsho were having player meetings without the manager's approval or knowledge.

Kerrigan has never lived up to the reputation he gained in Boston as the pitching coach of Pedro and the gang from those glory years. For such a high profile coach, the pitching in Pittsburgh has grown worse instead of better. The general manager even hinted out loud that Kerrigan messed up Brad Lincoln's delivery that cost the phenom some MPH off his fastball. Whenever a pitching staff performs this badly, no doubt the coach has to go. But this seems more of a behind the scenes thing than a results thing. Kerrigan has tasted the managerial cup and it isn't far-fetched that his aspirations would in a weak moment cause him to undermine his own manager.

The Fan isn't that familiar with Varsho. The stories today seem to describe Varsho as Russell's enforcer. The stories also seemed to indicate that Russell has been dealing with these problems for a while, so that means there has been stress there for quite some time. If that's the case, why did it take so long for it to get resolved and what does that say about Russell's leadership? And how long does Russell get a pass here as the team continues to pile up losses? A better question is how long his GM gets a pass for giving him so few quality players to work with?

All in all, it's been an exciting day in a rubbernecking, train wreck sort of a way. But train wrecks happen all the time when the train has long been on the wrong set of tracks.

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