VERO BEACH, Florida- A new major league baseball season begins next week, with success on the field once again heavily dependent on the wisdom of general managers. They are the ones who decide which players to sign and which to dismiss, but they don't make those decisions in an ad hoc manner: Consciously or unconsciously, they evaluate the facts according to their presuppositions.
Buildings and players at the granddaddy of spring training camps, Vero Beach's "Dodgertown," display three of the competing management theories. The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have trained there since 1948 and played since 1953 at Holman Stadium, which is delightfully non-frilly: For example, the dugouts are just that, plots of ground about 3 feet lower than field level. The players sit on a bench there, without railings, roof, or rah-rah provided by a mascot.
Dodger players once lived in Dodgertown dorms during spring training, and minor leaguers still do: The original concept of Dodgertown was to provide a no-frills classroom environment for players and coaches who would study baseball all day long. General manager Branch Rickey, who broke baseball's racial barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, believed that education bred teamwork: If players all learned how to do things "the Dodger way," they would work well together.
Dodgertown was a revolutionary concept that other teams tried to emulate for a time, but free agency beginning in 1975, which let players control their own careers, led some general managers to deemphasize home-grown products and instead graft on hotshots from other teams. More recently, statistical analysis practiced most thoroughly by Oakland general manager Billy Beane has given teams sophisticated ways to examine player performance, and sometimes has led devotees to rip apart good teams in the search for computer-verifiable perfection.
A case in point: Two years ago Mr. Beane's key assistant, Paul DePodesta, became general manager of the Dodgers and found his team in first place within its division halfway through the season. His computer, though, showed opportunity for massive improvement by trading away his starting catcher and others; he went ahead despite warnings that he was tampering with "team chemistry," which some stats determinists see as a mystical notion that is unmeasurable and therefore irrelevant.
Result: The Dodgers staggered during the rest of 2004. After more stats-based signings of free agents not known for being team players, the Dodgers fell last season to 71 wins and 91 losses, the team's second-worst record since 1944. Dodgers owner (and real estate magnate) Frank McCourt Jr. fired Mr. DePodesta. His wife Jamie McCourt, who earned a B.S. degree in French from Georgetown University, is now president of the team.
A new general manager, Ned Colletti, hired a new manager, Grady Little, the former Red Sox poobah. Mr. Little is infamous among the stats-conscious for evaluating players by their appearance; last month at Dodgertown a former player, Ron Goodwin, walked by, and Mr. Little asked, "Is he on the Mets?" Told, "No, he's the radio announcer," Mr. Little observed, "Looks like he should still be playing."
Having lost the early emphasis on education and team-spiritedness, the Dodgers and many other teams now seem unsure about whether to rely on stats, appearances, gut instinct, or blind chance. For example, the Dodgers recently signed journeyman pitcher Brett Tomko and announced, "What is most intriguing about Tomko . . . is his performance at Dodger Stadium: 4-2 record with 2.92 ERA in 13 games over his nine-year career." That's what stats aficionados call the misuse of statistics, since the sample is so small: More indicative of the 32-year-old's ability is his mediocre 4.52 career earned run average.
But what's the alternative to mediocre evaluation? John Smoltz, the Atlanta pitcher with 17 years of major league experience who also has been instrumental in starting and funding a Christian school (see "Throwing heat and taking heat," Aug. 3, 2002), offered his view inside the Braves spring training clubhouse in Orlando: Appearances are deceiving and stats are useful, but they need to be augmented by a searching analysis of character.
As Mr. Smoltz put it, "Some GMs see a player with all the tools and go wild, but the tools will be misused if the character isn't there. . . . It amazes me that some executives are up there cruising at 30,000 feet instead of doing research at ground level to find out what's in the hearts of players. . . . They hand out huge multi-year contracts without knowing enough about the players and the families to determine whether a player given all that money and security is going to get lazy."
What should a general manager look for? According to Mr. Smoltz, he should see whether a player loves baseball (so that he's willing to work hard at it) and has successfully "gone through trials and tribulations, because that's how we improve." The most useful stats, he says, are those that show how a player performs in clutch situations: "I want gamers, guys who will lay it all on the line under pressure. I want to know whether a player is too high-strung, too wired-up, or whether he is calm under pressure."
Overall stats can be deceiving, Mr. Smoltz said, because "a guy may be impressive in relaxed situations, only to choke when you really need him."
Team-spiritedness is also important, but impressions based on image can be wrong: "Players sometimes get negative because they're trapped in a bad situation. Sometimes they learn from that experience and change. . . . You need to stay away from the troublemakers, but don't assume that a guy who's had trouble will always be a problem. . . . You've got to fight the easy judgments and push your scouts to go the extra mile."
The other advice he has for baseball teams is to be patient with personnel, from the top down-and here the Dodgers and the Braves have been utterly different in recent years. The Dodgers change general managers and philosophies; the Braves since the 1991 season have had one general manager, John Schuerholz, whose approach combines statistical and personal research. Since that year the Dodgers have had six managers, the Braves one, Bobby Cox, an eight-time Manager of the Year, according to The Sporting News.
Mr. Smoltz says Braves success-a record 14 consecutive division championships-owes much to that duo. (Of course, winning makes the regular rehiring of both men a no-brainer for Braves ownership.) Consistency and patience contribute to victory: "So many people in this game panic easily. They push a guy off a building if he's in a slump. Bobby pays attention to the numbers but doesn't swear by them. He tries to look inside a person and bring out what's there."
All of that sounds like not only a prescription for general managers but a set of principles for managing generally: Use stats but not stats only; examine hearts and not just arms and legs; judge but don't be judgmental; look for gamers who love the game and have learned from it. And, in examining both players and politicians, be skeptical about "a guy who brags a lot," as Mr. Smoltz notes, for players "who have lots of words often don't match that with their deeds."
Japan, baseball, and Peter Moylan won. A Cuban manager and a Japanese teacher lost.
On March 20 Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 in the championship game of the first World Baseball Classic and earned naming rights until the next WBC: The sport should no longer be called baseball or beisbol, but yakyu, the Japanese word for baseball (literally, "field ball").
Yakyu players increased their international prestige by triumphing in a 16-nation tournament that included U.S., Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rican teams packed with major leaguers. Baseball itself gained in its guerrilla war against soccer, as games televised to multiple continents gained big audiences. And Peter Moylan, a 27-year-old pharmaceutical salesman from Australia, threw so well in the WBC that the Atlanta Braves signed him to a contract.
But pity Higinio Velez, the Cuban manager forced to explain to 1950s pitcher Fidel Castro why he yanked starting hurler Ormari Romero after only 23 pitches in the first inning. Sure, Mr. Romero gave up a walk and two infield singles while retiring only one batter, but the next pitcher did worse. Mr. Velez felt that he could not wait any longer, yet Cubans have waited during 47 years of Communist rule for life to improve.
Mr. Castro has never apologized, but a Japanese teacher did after watching a WBC game on a classroom television while students were taking a test. Some students complained that they could not concentrate, particularly when other students yelled out, "Hit the ball!"