- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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Look at the hot-and-cold Angels. Behold the listing Dodgers, who seem about to get Don Mattingly fired if his verbal bombs don't first. And the Toronto Blue Jays? Cover your eyes. The Blue Jays' latest rebuilding strategy was to remake their club by defibrillating a significant portion of the dead-on-arrival 2012 Marlins and adding Melky Cabrera, a man whose run at the batting title was fluffed up by PED use. Now look. So far, the 2013 Toronto Marlins have been dead on arrival, too.
But at least Toronto added baseball's poet-in-residence, R.A. Dickey, who excels at putting things in perspective. "We're somewhat of a dysfunctional team right now," Dickey said a couple of weeks ago, after being booed off the mound.
The same feeling applies when you watch the Dodgers' and Angels' grand experiments, too. There's still time to pull it together. But all three teams have lurched around so far like Frankensteins slapped and sutured together out of disparate parts.
"It's a bit of a force," Dickey allowed of his Jays.
It's important to acknowledge injuries have hurt all three clubs. But that's not all that has gone wrong.
Tony La Russa works as a special adviser for the commissioner's office, not out of a dugout anymore. But the Hall of Fame-bound former Cardinals, A's and White Sox manager says generally speaking there are certain things about underperforming and overperforming clubs that "just yell out at you, that just scream out at you" no matter what your vantage point is, if you know what to look for.
He agrees the same counterintuitive patterns that are in play now with the Dodgers, Angels and Jays seem to surface nearly every year in baseball: Why is it that so many teams have trouble winning with a roster of stars who are expected to succeed, while other teams lose superstars and thrive anyway? St. Louis has thrived since the great Albert Pujols left. AL West-leading Texas is still winning without Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, Michael Young and Mike Napoli. The Giants have twice won the World Series since Barry Bonds retired.
La Russa says experience has taught him the answers start with this.
"I've been with a bunch of organizations, but I was raised in the Angels organization, by wonderful managers like John McNamara, then in other places by Dick Williams -- raised by legends -- and we actually paid more attention in the beginning to frame of mind than we did by how they played the game. And that's an important point to make … There are two situations that happen that let you know there's something else in play that's important to having a competitive team. One shows when you lose some star players and your team without the star still competes. The other one is if you assemble a lot of talent and they're getting paid a lot and not winning as much as they should, or they're regularly getting beat by teams with less talent.
"Talent is an important place to start," La Russa said. "But there are also intangibles that you really can just feel. And one of them is when you can see a player that represents every … single … day. That every day he brings what he has to practice, to games, to contribute to a team's character. Because that quality not only elevates his play, but the play of everybody around him. And you can just see the impact on a team, especially in baseball, where you play for six months, right? If you have a talented but up-and-down team competing against a team that has decent talent but is not up-and-down, the decent team will beat that up-and-down team always.
"Always," La Russa repeated. "If you have that right frame of mind and grind, well, that's a huge edge." There are other influences, too.
What pressures are created when, unlike the Cardinals and Rangers, whose salvation has been having terrific farm systems that allowed them to plug in holes, a team has to rely on other things to win?
What happens when ownership's whims or the business side's agenda is allowed to creep into the clubhouse?
The Dodgers, Angels and Jays all currently look like examples of the type of atmosphere not to create.
No club needs palace intrigues like whether the Dodgers and Angels might literally swap managers at midseason -- speculation that's actually had a credible little run in L.A. because everyone knows the Angels' Mike Scioscia wanted the Dodgers' job before Mattingly got it. And that speculation was before the laid-back Mattingly uncharacteristically started throwing haymakers at his own team as rumors he might be fired have spiked in the past week.
It started as Atlanta was sweeping the Dodgers last weekend. Mattingly called out some of his underperforming stars ("Our big boys are going to have to play big," he said) and decried the Dodgers not making defensive plays on a bloop hit and line drive that major leaguers "make all day long." Then he carried it on right through to Wednesday's 9-2 win in Milwaukee. There, Mattingly's pregame remarks to reporters seemed to be taking a possible shot at management, too.
It sounded a little odd -- even self-serving -- coming from a man whose strengths are supposed to include having an asbestos constitution because of a career spent with the Yankees, a franchise that has long set the bar for outrageous excess but finds it unbecoming to complain about the outsized expectations that creates.
"It's not just all, 'Let's go put an All-Star team out there and play games, and the team with the All-Star team wins,'" Mattingly said Wednesday. "All grit and no talent is not going to get you there, and all talent and no grit is not going to get you there. There's got to be a mixture of both."
Asked if that's why former All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier was benched for the third time in six games Wednesday, Mattingly answered: "I'm putting out my lineup that I feel is going to be the most competitive and going to compete the hardest."
Ethier shot back, "I take offense to that."
The high-payroll/win-now clouds hanging over the Dodgers, Angels and Jays are undeniably affecting all three teams. You can't always microwave potential into wins or sure things.
The Angels, in particular, look like an ill-fitting rotisserie baseball team brought to life. Pujols looks old and too injured to drive the ball. Hamilton's latest malady is chronic allergies that he said made him feel "a little off upstairs" (this after missing time last year for eye problems caused by too much caffeine consumption). Jered Weaver is on the DL.
The Blue Jays' aggressive retooling was motivated in part by the idea of hitting a rare window of opportunity before it closed: They thought they could challenge the teetering Yankees/Red Sox hegemony atop the AL East in the same way smaller market Baltimore and Tampa Bay have as the Yanks have grown old and the Red Sox self-immolated for a bit.
The Dodgers' new owners took a calculated gamble. They hoped assembling a club that began the year as the highest-paid team in major league history would win games and assure market dominance despite the splashy Angels. The diagnosis is hard to fault -- invigorate a listing franchise that had suffered through the Frank McCourt follies and the perception that Chavez Ravine had turned into an unsafe place to see a game -- but the shock-and-awe approach looks flawed.
Where everything really started to get skewed was when the new regime began speaking so openly about championships -- and then timing Mattingly with a stopwatch.
Mattingly's bosses Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson and Ned Colletti denied his offseason request to avoid managing his first full year with his remade club on a lame-duck contract after the Dodgers failed to mount a late surge to make last year's playoffs following the blockbuster trades that brought Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to town.
Once this year's Dodgers got off to a thudding start, the Mattingly death watch predictably began.
"You've got an ownership that's never been around baseball and they don't have that 162-game perspective," former player and current MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds pointed out on "The Dan Patrick Show" this week.
And he's right.
But still, the Angels' Arte Moreno is the most flagrant example of ignoring the first commandment of ownership: Thou Shalt Not Ignore Thy Baseball People.
Moreno hasn't learned from past over-exuberances such as lavishing an unheard of, absurdly long contract for a manager on Scioscia that runs through 2018. He routinely overrules his front office on what to pay for players or whom to grab. He might've been better off noticing something that Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak pinpointed to the Wall Street Journal's Brian Costa, when asked to describe why St. Louis held the line on not going past $200 million to keep Pujols after the 2011 season.
"In the end it came down to business discipline versus emotionally driven negotiation," Mozeliak explained.
Moreno gave Pujols a 10-year, $240 million deal that now looks like an albatross.
The 2012 Cards fell one win shy of making it back to the World Series without Pujols or La Russa, and woke up Thursday tied with Texas for the most wins (30) in the majors.
Baseball isn't the only major sport that regularly reminds us the chalk teams don't necessarily prevail like they're "supposed" to, or grand experiments can turn into Frankensteins.
"It's such a fine line," La Russa said. "You really want to build a confidence and ego on your ballclub like, 'We're good enough to do this. We're tough enough to do this.' But you always want them to know how fine that line is. How quickly it can get away from you. In a heartbeat."
Spend more/talk big/win now makes great preseason copy.
But in the short term, especially, shouldn't/couldn't/didn't is always a threat to follow instead.
"The minute someone goes around saying 'should,'" La Russa said, "somebody should spank 'em. Because the competition will spank you. In baseball you can't even guarantee what'll happen against the same team on back-to-back days. Am I right?"
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