Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Assuming the Image of Leadership

Whether where you stand depends on where you sit or where you sit depends on where you stand, depends on who you are. In the world of sports, at least in the world of mid-size market sports and college sports, it is clear that where you stand depends on where you sit. We need venture no further than our own backyard to establish this truism.

On a warm October weekend full of promise for local sports fans, the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Gophers, and Minnesota Vikings each provided evidence to support this notion. And, in so doing, each demonstrated that in this part of the country players take on the persona of their leaders.

Take, for example, the Minnesota Twins. Throughout the season, the Twins have trotted out the mantra that the Twins "play ball the right way." Fans have yet to receive a full accounting of what, precisely, this means. Presumably, it means that the Twins, void of any true homerun hitter, rely on the sacrifice, keen baserunning, adept fielding, gutty pitching, and comraderie to win games.

Twins' Manager Ron Gardenhire has preached "playing the right way" since he took over the managerial role with the Twins, with the mantra reaching fever pitch this season. In fact, Gardy was so committed to preaching that his team "plays the right way" this season that he sometimes neglected to ensure that it was the case, as players were often seen freelancing at the plate and appeared particularly inept at situational hitting and baserunning.

No matter, Gardy's boys bought into Gardy's mantra. So much so that players such as Torii Hunter routinely tossed out the line--"we play the right way."

Prior to the ALDS against the Yankees, Hunter said that he hoped that the Twins had an opportunity to play the Yankees in the ALDS, because he thought the Twins had a chance to knock off the Yankees. In support of this proposition, Hunter suggested that, while the Yankees have the greater payroll, the Twins "play the right way."

Gardy appeared to encourage this line of thinking through the ranks, encouraging his players to "be aggressive" and to "take chances." After Hunter and Cory Koskie were thrown out foolishly attempting to stretch hits an extra base, Gardy defended the players' attempts as consistent with the Twins' "aggressive style of play." Gardy stated that he would not attempt to restrain such play because it is the type of ball the Twins play, baseball played "the right way."

The conundrum for Gardy and the Twins is not that the Twins' players might take the philosophy of being "aggressive" too far--which they clearly did against the Yankees--but that Gardy has enticed his players to buy into a philosophy that is unlikely to produce a championship. It is not that the philosophy is necessarily anathema to team sports, but that the philosophy is counter-productive to motivating a team like the Twins to defeat a team like the Yankees.

The Twins entered the series with the Yankees believing two things: (1) that the Twins play a different style of baseball than do the Yankees and (2) that the Twins' style of baseball can unseat the Yankees, particularly in a short series. These are obviously good beliefs for a team to buy into at the outset of a MLB playoff series.

Unfortunately, the Twins' players also bought into the necessary corollary of the Gardenhire philosophy. To wit, the Twins cannot beat the Yankees unless the Twins get some breaks. If the body language of Twins players did not convey this message in game 2 of the series, the body language and play in game 3, after the Twins fell behind, made it abundantly clear.

And if there was any doubt that the "play the right way" philosophy has become a euphimism for "we can beat anybody on any given day but will probably lose to big payroll teams because they can throw more at us" philosophy, it was laid bare by Hunter after the Yankees eliminated the Twins from the playoffs when Hunter stated that "the Yankees were just better--they bought more talent."

Sadly, Hunter had already forgotten that, despite mistakes in game 2, despite the Yankees playing like the Yankees, the Twins still could have and should have won game 2. And game 4. And that would have been the series--advantage Twins.

But in the aftermath of game 4, the consensus--from Hunter, to Gardy, even to the usually rational GM Terry Ryan--was that the Twins lost to a higher payrolled roster, one that was more forgiving of errors than was the Twins' lower budget squad.

While there is no dispute that there is some merit to this contention, there also should be no dispute that the Twins had the talent to defeat the Yankees. That the Twins failed to do so is as much a consequence of the team's collective inferiority complex--one that inevitably kicks in when the Twins play the Yankees--as it is of poor execution. And that is a reflection of the Twins' "play the game the right way" philosophy and the hidden message that the philosophy betrays.

While the Twins philosophy may be leading them astray, they appear to be in a better mental state than the Glen Mason-led Gopher football team. Mason, never one to shy away from an opportunity to pat himself on the back (not even after a loss), led the Gophers to Michigan last weekend to battle for first place in the Big Ten.

During prep week, Mason was all shucksy with the media, feigning self-deprication at mention of his accomplishments.

And Mason has accomplished quite a bit during his time at Minnesota. He has turned a team that was once routinely routed by schools such as Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Iowa, and a team that sometimes lost to Indiana (!) into a team that can compete with any team in the Big Ten. Mason has done this by expanding the Gophers' recruiting base and landing in-state talent. These are significant accomplishments for a team that played as if it were serving an NCAA death penalty for the better portion of the three decades prior to Mason's arrival in Minnesota.

But the problem for the Gophers--at least for the Gopher fans--is that that is both not enough and more than anyone should have a right to expect of a Gopher coach. And that makes the situation--as viewed by Mason--a win-win for the coach and a lose-lose for Gopher football fans.

When the Gophers win, Mase pats himself on the back, suggests that the players overachieved by executing a flawless game plan, and strongly hints that the victory surpasses the rightful expectations of any rational Gopher fans.

When the Gophers lose, Mase pats himself on the back, bemoans the inability of young, inexperienced, and/or less talented kids to execute a flawless game plan, and complains that Gopher fans' expectations are too high--and, oh yeah, please pass the raise on my one million plus salary.

After the Gophers lost a very winnable game at Michigan on Saturday afternoon, reporters questioned Mason's offensive playcalling in the fourth quarter and his decision to essentially pull the defense of the field on Michigan's winning drive. Rather than answer the question, Mason began his typical post-game salute to himself.

"You know," he said. "When I first came to Minnesota, nobody knew the state existed. Nobody knew the University existed, let alone that there was a D1 football team at Minnesota. I changed that."

Yes, coach. No doubt you did. And the players you brought in had something to do with that as well. But the question was....

"I heard the question," Mase continued. "Let me ask you this. 'Cuz maybe I don't see so well. But I believe we are 5-1, not 1-5. Right? Right?!"

Yeah, coach. You are 5-1. And you were 5-1 last season. But that's not the point. The point is that for the past two seasons, you have failed to defeat a Big Ten team that has (or is likely to) finish the season with a winning conference record. And that means that you are not progressing, despite your record.

Worse, yet, is Mase's continuing insinuation that it might not get much better than it already is. That this is the best that Gopher fans can hope for. If that is true, surely there is little point in continuing to pour millions into the football program and little point in lobbying for an on-campus stadium. If the Gophers cannot even aspire to beat the best, then surely, at a minimum, there is one too many million dollar salaries being paid out by Minnesota tax payers today.

But the true downside of Mase's philosophy on football at the U rests not with how it affects fans' impressions of Mase, but with how Mase's philosophy affects his players and their gametime performance. The Gopher team that played the fourth quarter at Michigan looked like a team that had bought into Mase's implicit philosophy that Minnesota football teams should lose to Michigan football teams. That kind of mindset, and its trickle-down effect on the players, led to the demise of John Cooper at OSU.

Maybe Mase wants to rethink his strategy.

While the Twins and Gophers appear to be following suspect philosophical approaches taken by their managers, the Vikings may have a more adept manager at the helm.

All last season, Mike Tice said "playing outside is different and playing on the road is different. It just is." And Tice coached as if it was. And the Vikings failed miserably on the road. And that failure kept the Vikings out of the 2003 playoffs.

This season, Tice appears willing to acknowledge that playing on the road and/or outside is only different from playing at home and/or indoors if the players believe that it is and if the coaches game plan as if it is.

Against Philly, the Vikings had a good game plan--control the ball. They controlled the ball, they just forgot to finish scoring drives. Against Houston, the Vikings did not control the ball as much as they would have liked but they finished scoring drives. Both games featured passing attacks (50 passes against Houston), with the Houston game featuring many more deep passes with a healthy blend of short- and mid-range passes and a good rushing game. There was no attempt to dumb down the game plan to play on the road. And while the Vikings probably should have won at Philly, they did win at Houston. And that marks a significant improvement over last year and an improvement directly correlated with Tice's changing philosophy and how his team responds to his philosophy.

On the winning drive against Houston, the Vikings--for the first time in recent memory--played to win rather than not to lose. That's a good start for turning around the Vikings' road woes and a good lesson for Mason and the Gophers.

Up Next: What I promised before. Plus, more. See you then!

Q of the Day:

Does anyone think Carlos Beltran will be wearing anything other than Yankee pinstripes next season?

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