Season’s End

Casey Stengel walks towards the clubhouse (yes, behind center field and up the steps) after the last game at the Polo Grounds. September 18, 1963

It wasn’t all that long ago that Southern Maryland was dotted with tobacco farms. It was a crop that produced more money per acre than anything legal other than a winery. A farmer could make a nice living on less than 20 acres of land. 20 acres of corn wouldn’t produce enough money to pay for the fuel required. The money was fair, but was never guaranteed. A hail storm could wipe it all out within an hour. So, it was always a source of celebration when the last plants were “Housed” in the barn to fresh-air cure. Whether it was family, tenant farmers, or an ad-hoc bunch of youngsters doing the work seeing that last stick of plants go in the barn was a cause for some joy. Many times it was simply horseshoes and beer. It always seemed the least excited was the old farmer himself. One old codger told me once; “The thing about this business is that the work and worry never end.” A crop in the barn was still vulnerable to rotting after a week of wet stagnant air. Stripping the leaves required the very humidity not wanted earlier. Then, it all came down to what the buyer was willing to pay. Within days of that, it was time to plant the new crop. The cycle had a timeline that never changed even as every element within it was at least slightly different every year.

This baseball season for our Washington Nationals and 17 other teams is now, “In the barn.” It is interesting to listen to managers talk much like the old straw-hatted farmers of days gone by. “The work never ends” was uttered by Davey Martinez within the last fortnight. The Nationals’ product this year was regarded as “Better,” “More fun,” and even “Enjoyable” by many within the commentariat. No one said it was “Good enough for the foreseeable future.” Seventy-one wins is surely an improvement. It’s a long ways from 98 — the win total back in 2012 when the Nationals crashed the National League East party. That team earned a certain ire from the Braves’ nation and media. “How dare they.” For Nats fans, it was a heady time. A return to it should be the 2-year goal.

Improvement in baseball is often regarded as formulaic. Buy this pitcher, promote this kid, and jettison anyone below MLB average are the popular components. Sometimes all of the above happen with little impact. A quick look around sports today reveals a plethora of cautionary tales. Aaron Rodgers would provide deliverance for the long-suffering members of football’s “Gang Green.” He lasted less than a handful of plays. The Jets are now rumored to be in turmoil as his back up is proving, again, to be less than adequate for the task. In San Francisco ownership threw out Gabe Kapler with three games left on the schedule. His laissez-faire approach to clubhouse discipline resulted in a group that couldn’t win games, but could play a wicked brand of cards. All the ingredients don’t matter if the culture isn’t conducive to production. Think of culture as the soil for the plants. If it’s lousy nothing much good will grow.

Say what you will about Davey Martinez, but give him this: He runs a good clubhouse. His players don’t drop quotes, “…under the condition of anonymity.” Players come and go on a routine basis during rebuilds. It’s an opportunity for departures to vent their spleen in the media if there is a need. Apparently there hasn’t been one for several years. Contrast that to the San Francisco debacle where Logan Webb vented on camera. If that didn’t seal Kapler’s fate it surely should have. But, a good culture is more than just a lack of toxicity. Old management screeds often stated that the culture of an organization is the sum of the behaviors displayed when no authority is around to monitor. If the field manager is going to abdicate his responsibility for the clubhouse to “Veteran Leadership” he’d be well-advised to have veterans that are capable of fulfilling the role. Ken Blanchard’s old book, “Situational Leadership” described the sliding scale of delegation. Newbies need direction at every turn. Old Salts just need occasional reinforcement be it positive or negative. In-between is where things get muddy, requiring a deft touch. The book should be required reading for anyone managing people. It appears that Davey has this element of things down pat.

Next year starts today. Which players should be pursued? Which current ones should be made available to pursue other opportunities? Is there an asset worthy of trading away one, or more, of the golden prospects? Which current players should be targets for extension? Is everyone in the Minor League system at the proper level? What is the status and prognostication for all the various physical recoveries? Who gets invited to Spring Training? There are other concerns, of course. None being more important than the budget limitations laid down by ownership. In a town where a “Secret” is seldom more than a few hours away from the media, the Lerners’ books on the team are truly hidden from view. If Mike Rizzo doesn’t have a gallon-sized jar of antacids on his desk, then his system is made of pretty stern stuff.

Bill Veeck famously said that there weren’t four seasons to a year, there were only two; “Baseball and Winter.” For the Nationals and the other 17 non-playoff teams, winter has arrived as expected. There will be plenty of company soon. Best-of-three and best-of-five series come at lightning speed. Dreams die quickly in the post-season. The small consolation for the Nationals for missing the playoffs is that they get a week’s head start on next season. It needs to be used wisely. Winter brings a certain weariness. The low sun angle and the ceaseless gray of February grates and grinds. Baseball players often refer to the season as a “Grind.” But, in both cases the time involved is remarkably short. It’s only when a milestone appears that the true speed is realized.

It will be time to plant before you know it.

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