Who pushes you to get better?

Pete Rose & Joe Morgan in the clubhouse.

I recently read “The Machine” by Joe Posnanski. His book “The Soul of Baseball” which is about time he spent with the great Buck O’Neil and the many wonderful lessons he learned about the attitude and mindset of one of Baseball’s most cherished personalities and spokesmen. It was one of my favourite books of all time.

“The Machine” is about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, one of the greatest teams in history. I’ll admit now that although I’d known for a long time that the ’75 Reds were special, I had never really delved into their story. Going and studying and understanding the ’75 Reds was on my backlog of “things I should do one day”, filed under “Baseball”. When I finished “The Soul of Baseball” and found out that Posnanski had also written a book about the ’75 Reds (referred to as “The Big Red Machine”), I decided this was the best way to get to know this team.

The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping ...
Cover artwork for “The Machine” by Joe Posnanski.

Joe’s voice as an author is exactly how I like Baseball stories to be told. Reading something he’s written is as close as I’ve ever come to the feeling I got when Vin Scully used to tell stories between pitches during an important game in the late 80s early 90s.

Right in the midst of intense competition, there’s this ease to his style that slows everything down and makes you feel like you’re there. Posnanski puts you in the clubhouse with them experiencing every joke, every argument, every strikeout, every hit. I wanted to hear about this team from someone who could tell the story in this manner.

By the end of the book, I felt like I knew the ’75 Reds so much that I wanted to watch the ’75 World Series, which I’m currently doing (thanks COVID-19).

I wanted to see these guys I’d been in the (imaginary) clubhouse with.

I wanted to witness some of Sparky Anderson’s magic and watch how he used his bullpen. I wanted to see Pete Rose play ball again.

I wanted to finally be able to appreciate Johnny Bench & Tony Perez (who I suddenly realized hadn’t seen enough of).

I was also interested in seeing guys like George Foster & Ken Griffey Sr, whose stories are brought to life in the book.

I wanted to see that famous Game 6 (against the Boston Red Sox) from start to finish, now with a full appreciation of what one of those teams was going through in that game.

But out of all of the people involved, there was one guy I really wanted to see. That was Joe Morgan. I knew Joe Morgan was good, we all know that. (Hint: If you don’t know much about Joe Morgan, you should be looking him up now. This piece by Joe Posnanski, in The Athletic (paid site that offers a free 90-day trial) is a great place to start).

The Baseball 100: No. 21, Joe Morgan – The Athletic
Joe Morgan is in the Baseball 100, a series on The Athletic about the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, written by Joe Posnanski.

What I didn’t know was how much he grew as a player when he got to Cincinnati. All because he became friends with Pete Rose, who was one of the hardest working guys to ever play Baseball.

Note: Rose may have really screwed up his legacy with all of the gambling stuff (especially lying about it for years afterward) but despite what anyone ever says about Pete Rose, nobody will ever be able to deny how committed and competitive he was. And if anyone ever did try to deny that, Joe Morgan would have to be amongst the first to defend his teammate.

Why?

Imrem: Pete Rose deserves second chance -- with conditions

Because Pete Rose made Joe Morgan better. In fact, Joe Morgan is known for saying that “Pete Rose made everyone around him better.”

Pete Rose attacked the game. All the time. This rubbed off on Joe Morgan, who began to push himself harder and play with more intensity himself and who, in turn, became the Joe Morgan that won multiple MVP awards and earned a place in the Hall of Fame.

To me, this was powerful. And true to my own playing experience.

Every team has someone like Pete Rose. (No, we don’t all have a guy in our lineup that’s arguably the best hitter ever). But we all can relate to that one teammate that just attacks the game all the time. They play the game at full tilt and seem to get good results often because they do. They don’t just want to win every game, they want to win every inning. They want to win every at-bat. They bring that energy all the time.

What’s interesting about this to me is that while many ballplayers have had a teammate like that, they don’t always respond to that situation like Joe Morgan did. We don’t always see competition from within as a good thing. Some of us would rather step away from a challenge than to use it to motivate us to work harder and be better.

When you do that, I believe you miss out on one of the best parts about having teammates. Competition.

My first year in college, after it became clear that my pitching career was over, I had to compete to earn a spot in the outfield. There were several upper-classmen on the team, but it seemed to me that there was no obvious candidate for Center Field.

I wanted that job.

There was another freshman on our team that year, Patrick Linden. Linden was a Wide-Receiver on the Football team. He was strong, fast and could hit pretty well. We lined up together at every practice. Every rep he took made me realize that he was a good player and that there was a good chance I’d be on the bench when the season started. That feeling drove me to work harder and to prove to the coaches that I was as good as Linden was at everything.

Although I ended up getting the job in Center Field, Linden (a great teammate, by the way) was always lining up there. During batting practice, he’d come to CF to get reads on balls off the bat. If he wasn’t starting in Right Field or Left Field, he would often take infield/outfield in Center Field.

He pushed me. I could never relax because I knew there was another guy capable of taking my job away at any moment. When he didn’t get the job, he didn’t give up. He came out there every practice and every game trying to prove something. We encouraged each other. We liked each other. But he wanted my job and I knew the only way I could keep it was to keep working harder than he was and to hope that the coaches continued to think I was better than he was in Center Field.

I can’t think about my college playing days without thinking about that. My game would have been very different if Patrick Linden wasn’t pushing me like he was.

I’ll always be grateful to him and to the game for that lesson.

The Lesson I Learned in Moscow

a.k.a. the story of Roy the umpire

Post from Drew Spencer about Roy van de Wateringen, an umpire who changed my approach to the game of Baseball.

This is a piece that I wrote in June of 2019 after returning from Moscow where the London Mets were competing in the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier. When I wrote it, I did so knowing that I was going to start a blog on mindset one day. So now this story finally has a place to live.

Sports competitions bring up emotion in all of us. This week I have had the privilege of coaching a team of young men as they competed in the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier, an important European club baseball tournament in Moscow, Russia.

The hosts (RusStar) put on an amazing tournament at RusStar Arena, the best Baseball facility I’ve been to in a very long time. We brought a very good team. We left London with a lot of confidence. We spent the last year preparing for this week. You could feel the determination in each and every player from the minute we got on the plane.

The first 2 games didn’t go our way. We didn’t make some plays we’d normally make back home. We didn’t hit like we’re used to hitting. The scores were much closer than we were used to. All great things to learn from.

But the lesson of this tournament was something else.

RusStar Arena, the beautiful new home of the Russian National Baseball team, has a big screen in left-center field. They had replays going all tournament. So when a couple of calls didn’t go our way, we got to see it again on the big screen. Being able to see it again up on the screen was new for us, and quickly became more of a reason to chirp at the umpires about calls we were unhappy with.

Photo of RusStar Arena taken by Drew Spencer
RusStar Arena, June 2019. Photo by Drew Spencer

One umpire, in particular, had an issue with it. His name is Roy. Roy was part of the umpiring crew when we played in this same tournament last year in Bulgaria. He was friendly to everyone but also took his job very seriously. Because my team was a bit mouthy last year too, Roy and I got to know each other a little bit. He remembered me and said hello at the Technical Meeting in Moscow. We shook hands at the start of the tournament, remembering last year and exchanged the usual pleasantries between coaches and umpires before the games get played.

Those pleasantries came to an abrupt end when, during the second game, I yelled at an umpire after a call didn’t go our way. As I walked back to our dugout, the replay went up. And I felt it showed something different from what he had called on the field. I let him know how I felt about that. 

When I walked back to the 3rd base box the next inning, Roy said something like “We aren’t going to play this game up on a replay screen. we are going to play it on the field.” He said it in that way that any Baseball person knows actually meant, “say it again and you’ll be watching the rest of this game from someplace else”.

As a coach, that can be a tricky moment. Sometimes you have to speak up on your players’ behalf. I’ve seen first-hand how players can get when they think their Manager won’t defend them. That can cause a dugout to break down, sometimes not just for that game. It can impact a team for weeks, if not an entire season. So, as I have been developing as a Manager, I’ve become more and more vocal with umpires. Trying my best to balance that fine line between keeping them honest and keeping my team from getting out of control.

Roy and I talked after that game. I had also made a comment about another replay. When we talked, I thanked him for allowing me a bit of leeway. He said, “Baseball is an emotional game.” He showed me that he understood that, but also warned me against letting emotion get the better of me in those moments.

I thought I knew what he meant.

See, in British Baseball players (and coaches) constantly complain about the umpires. It’s always their fault. I hear people moan about “how bad they are” all the time. I’ve definitely been guilty of it myself.

When we travel abroad, I often hear people say “the umpires hate British teams”. We all say it, we all think it. And when we don’t get the close calls, it confirms what we believe… which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I voiced my opinion about the replay on the call in game 2, Roy gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the game. We lost that game. And as if on cue, when we didn’t get a close call, we all told ourselves it was because they were against us. I didn’t take that loss very well. I spent the whole night tossing and turning and trying to figure out what to change in game 3.

I shaved (we’d gone with team mustaches, which now didn’t make sense when you’re 0-2). We changed our lineup around a bit. We tried to loosen the team up with different warmup music. All the things competitors do to change the energy in the clubhouse.

I also decided to just keep my mouth shut all-game. Sure, a couple of times I winced when a ball got called a strike, or vice-versa. I’m only human. But when close calls didn’t go our way, I kept quiet. 

Maybe too quiet.

We were behind all game. The team from Poland jumped ahead early and our energy seemed flat for a lot of the game. In the 8th inning, we mounted a comeback. To try to give my team some energy, I got really animated in the coaching box. I was shouting, but making sure to only be shouting to my own players. I was giving them everything I could. So was our dugout, we were really focussed on us and what we could do to compete in that moment.

And, hey guess what? We came from behind, scoring 6 runs in the top of the 9th inning, got 3 outs in the bottom and notched our first win of the tournament.

After the game, Roy said to me. “You finally stopped focussing on the umpires and started coaching.” He was right.

In Game 4, we played the hosts. For us, it was win or go home. We were naturally pumped up. And in the first couple of innings, a couple of close calls didn’t go our way. The team started chirping. Roy called over to me at one point and said: “make them stop, Andrew” (he used my full name like my Grandma used to do when I was in trouble). I had noticed them chirping too, so when I went into the dugout after the inning, I made it clear to the team that we needed to stop.

The best part of this, and where the lesson comes from is that once we stopped focussing on the calls we weren’t getting, we became the team I’m used to. We made great pitches. We made great plays on defense. We got timely hits. We picked each other up. Everyone was focussed on competing and we played in one of the most exciting games we’ve all been part of, which sadly we lost.

After that game, Roy’s words really stood in my head. In an effort to show my guys that I had their back, I had stopped coaching them.

This story isn’t really about Roy. He is just the messenger here. The message is that it’s time that we focus on competing. It’s time to be all about controlling the things we can control, not the things we can’t. We have to put all of our energy into the next pitch, not the last call.

I wonder how our tournament would have gone if we had that mentality starting in game 1, not the 3rd inning of game 4? I wonder how many other British Baseball teams and individuals might have benefitted from this mindset?

It’s not rocket science, it’s not even new.

But if you watched the London Mets play against RusStar and enjoyed that valiant pitching performance by Lucas Friss, the clutch at-bats by Jonathon Cramman, Jordan Edmonds and Zach Stroman, the great defensive effort from Brendan Power and most importantly the energy coming from our whole dugout, which kept us in that game until the final pitch, I’m telling you that the difference was that we were focussed on attacking the next pitch instead of complaining about the last call.

I will forever be a different manager because of this tournament.

Roy also defended his team (the umpires) but didn’t stop there. He also used this tournament to try to make the game better, by helping me get better.

I’m passing on this story in hopes that it helps more than just the 18 guys in our dugout that night.

We all need to be better at this.

This is a big part of how we get better and get to the next level.