I listened to a radio interview with FOX Sports football commentator Brian Billick last week, and took a lot away from it. Billick, many will remember, was head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999 through 2007, and earned a reputation for getting to his players where they lived.
Billick talked about the kind of coach he strove to be while in Baltimore, and about the state of the league today. It was all insightful and enjoyable. He caught my attention best, though, on the issue of intensity. As Billick has said since he started with FOX, “intensity” is a word often thrown around but rarely identified in football terms with any precision. In Billick’s view, it is generally an overstated factor in the way football in the NFL unfolds.
As Billick noted, football is an acutely dangerous game. Players who take the field at the pro and collegiate levels take their lives into their hands by doing so. As such, hardly any player fails to play with the maximum degree of effort, or “intensity,” he can muster come Sunday. If he does, he stands little chance of escaping the arena unscathed.
Therefore, Billick placed little stock in the way his teams practiced or played on the field, except to pull any player whom he noticed slacking visibly at either time. Physical effort and preparation were not his primary concern. Instead, Billick would scrutinize his charges in another way. During weeks in which his team had a “trap” game scheduled–one they were expected to win easily but would be devastated by losing–he would watch the players’ personal habits.
If guys failed to take home as many copies of the game film as usual for extra study, allowed their lockers or the locker room to become untidy, or took fewer notes during the installation of the Ravens’ weekly game plan, Billick would lay into his team with what he called a “blue-veiner”: a harsh rant aimed at re-dedicating the group to preparation and intelligent “intensity.”
That is all well and good for Billick’s players; the interview made me want him as head coach of my Packers, and I have little doubt he will be back on the sidelines next season somewhere. But I’m a baseball guy in every sense of the words, so my mind immediately moved to what does and does not translate from gridiron to diamond.
Baseball is the only major sport in which the immediate leader of the team is not a coach, but a manager. Skippers wear uniforms, rather than slacks and polos, but do not play as great a role in tinkering with player’s fundamentals. A hitting coach, not the manager, is primarily responsible for altering a struggling batter’s swing; a pitching coach helps the team’s young starter avoid injury by raising his arm angle.
As much as a manager may occasionally seem to impact the game on the field through strategic maneuvers–and that is quite often–his primary role is to manage. For six months, with fewer than three weeks’ worth of off days and almost no time away from the team (football players enjoy more time with their families and have much less pressure to perform on a daily basis), baseball managers must see to it that the focus of their club never wavers.
That task is exceptionally difficult. As noted, football players can hardly take the field with sound mind if they do not intend to play as hard as they can. It is not so with baseball players. Sure, an unlucky line drive or an errant fastball can be dangerous, but those are rare instances and usually are less scary than serious football injuries. Players can occasionally take a day off in the field without being roundly criticized–especially if they maintain some semblance of involvement when they step to the plate. Starting pitchers, of course, pitch only once or twice a week and go unnoticed by the general public during the interim.
Thus, a manager’s monumental mandate is to rule his team with such steady energy and consistent ferocity that they never decide to take a day–or fatally, a week–off. The baseball season is a marathon, but because of the game’s inherent ebb and flow, every quarter-mile of the race is critical. Managers are there to ensure that their players keep to the pace they aimed to make, and do not slow down or speed up too much based on their temporary state of comfort or pain.
How do we measure that quality? Is there a consistency metric? Should we reward managers who avoid losing streaks, but not those who go on long winning streaks? Clearly not. Should a skipper get credit for holding closed-door meetings or benching loafers? How great is the conventional wisdom of “keeping guys fresh” if those guys are keys to winning games? Do managers get ejected on purpose when they sense a lull in the team’s “intensity,” and if so, is it a successful sacrifice?
All of these are the questions we must answer about guys like Cubs manger Mike Quade before we can intelligently evaluate him. Quade won the managerial job over Ryne Sandberg, who (aside from being a team legend) had gained a strong reputation for handling and tutoring young talent as well as getting aggressively involved in game action. Quade is the superior tactician, but will he be sufficient to the task of keeping the Cubs upbeat, involved and efficient all season? For a franchise whose history fosters its share of pessimism and demureness, that is a crucial question. Quade has two years to give a good answer.