Greatness from mediocrity.
Ron Washington had a career as a professional baseball player that most of us would have taken in a second. But he was a marginal big league player.
Bill Cowher was a marginal NFL player.
Rick Carlisle was a marginal NBA player.
Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Tom Kelly, and Cito Gaston had undistinguished playing careers, as did Jim Leyland, Ron Gardenhire, Bruce Bochy, and Joe Maddon.
Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher, Mike Holmgren, and Sean Payton didn’t make a name for themselves as players. Neither did Don Shula, John Madden, or Chuck Noll.
And neither did Pat Riley or George Karl or Scott Brooks.
Greg Popovich didn’t even play at the pro level, and neither did Jimmy Johnson or Mike Tomlin or Bill Walsh. Earl Weaver’s 14 minor league seasons never got him to the big leagues.
Jerry Sloan and Phil Jackson were good NBA players, but not great. Same with Doc Rivers. And Mike Scioscia, and Davey Johnson.
The great ones are often failures as head coaches. Ted Williams. Bart Starr. Isiah Thomas. Wayne Gretzky.
There are theories on that. A prevalent one (which I think was advanced in “Moneyball”) is that the former superstar often has trouble relating to marginal players because he was blessed with so much natural ability that he lacks the faculty to teach the nuances of the game. Or perhaps that not having had the experience of routinely fighting for a job or for playing time makes it difficult to understand how to get the most out of (or how to utilize) his role players. Or that he’s simply unfamiliar with what it’s like to struggle as a player, and thus unequipped to help players fight through those inevitable stretches and pull out of them.
And yes, there are exceptions. Mike Ditka and Joe Torre. Frank Robinson and, briefly, Larry Bird. Don Mattingly is showing signs of being a very good manager, and there are others.
But they do seem to be exceptions.
I’m not sure why I spent time thinking about this over the weekend, but for the first time since the Rangers entered this era of great baseball there’s been much talk about Ron Washington and his tendencies to play certain players and not play others, and why that might be. I think a lot of that dialogue is overblown, the result of a fan base that now expects great things out of its baseball team and is prone to pick apart every lineup decision and sacrifice bunt call and pitching change.
And, of course, all of that is exponentially better than apathy. We’ve lived through dozens of years when August 20 was football season around here.
I’m a Ron Washington fan. He’s been instrumental in getting this thing to the place it’s at right now. His personality, and the place he comes from as a player, have helped forge the tough, tenacious, resilient character of his team.
But aside from Elvis Andrus – whom Wash has been prominently tough on since he broke in (with good results, as the mental lapses on defense and on the basepaths have noticeably decreased) – he seems reluctant to trust young players. Not that that makes him unique among the great managers and head coaches in pro sports.
I’m not suggesting Mike Olt or Leonys Martin should be getting everyday at-bats. Far from it.
My thoughts on bringing Jurickson Profar up have everything to do with Profar’s long-term development and nothing to do with a desire to reduce Andrus’s or Ian Kinsler’s playing time.
I think the thing that got me thinking about this is hearing Wash comment more and more about how Martin isn’t ready to be a big leaguer, and how Profar needs to learn how to play the game, and so on.
Wash had a respectable big league career, one that saw him get into 564 games over 10 years, and step to the plate over 1,500 times.
But he didn’t get there until he was 25 years old, didn’t get his second chance until he was 29, and before it was all over with he’d played in 1,321 minor league games over 15 seasons, getting more than 5,000 plate appearances, the final 364 of which came in 1990 as a 38-year-old who appeared at shortstop, third base, second base, first base, catcher, and even on the mound for Oklahoma City, the Rangers’ AAA affiliate.
That’s where he comes from.
I believe unwaveringly that Wash is elite at relating to and motivating his players, from the number one starter and team leader to the last man on the bench and the long reliever, and that that’s the most important thing for a big league manager to do and that it’s a huge part of why, even in a season that feels flawed, Texas has the fourth-best record in baseball and the second-biggest division lead as it heads to a third straight season of 162-plus.
And I believe that the nature of his playing career – a two-decade fight for a bigger role – helped to develop that aptitude, which is the intended point of this scattered commentary, though I have to admit that it was Wash’s apparent feelings about very young players with fast-track talent that got me thinking about where things could be headed the next few years, as the inevitability of roster turnover looms.