Some thoughts about Christmas and team chemistry

December 24, 2014



Another Christmas Eve has arrived. It is my personal 56th observance and the seventh for the Best American Baseball Experts Society. It is interesting to me that so few stand out with any particular memory either of a personal or sporting nature. I tend to recall events in familiar patterns – last-minute shopping, late night worship services followed by even later night toy assembly, or at least the inventorying of gifts and offering of prayers for favored selections. Newer traditions of listening to the live broadcast of a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College – Cambridge and the writing of a B.A.B.E.S. Christmas greeting have provided some much-needed reflection in what can often be a time of superficial distraction and even personal uncertainty. (Do you control who is at your home for the holidays?)

Considering all that has transpired in MLB since the Giants won another World Series on October 29, there is very likely some distraction and uncertainty this Christmas Eve for many ballplayers. Incredibly, over 100 players from MLB 40-man rosters have been traded in the last 60 days. At least some of those players must be uneasy as they contemplate spring training with new faces in new locations. The same must be true for several of the thirty General Managers (yes, we are thinking of you, Billy Beane). Teams that were already post-season participants, like OAK and LAD, have made wholesale changes to their starting line-ups. Teams on the rise like MIA and SEA have tried to find the last pieces to the post-season puzzle. And teams in decline have taken aggressive action to change course (see ATL, CWS, and yes, even NYY).

I will comment more on the substance of these efforts in the weeks leading up to Spring Training, but on this Christmas Eve I am thinking about the one aspect of these moves that I believe is more important than any other – team chemistry. Since 1969 and the advent of divisional play, when teams with inferior won-lost records were allowed into the post-season competition, the team with the most wins in the regular season has won the World Series only seven times. Since 1995, when the wild-card team was introduced, the team with the best record has won only three times and the wild card team has won six times. This includes the 2014 World Champion Giants, who were the Second Wild Card Team! Clearly, something else is at play on the field or in the dugout when the post-season begins.

In the era of advanced-metrics analysis, I am sure there are mathematical explanations for this phenomenon that I am totally unaware of, but as an English major who only took math classes to prove that I could make an “A” with no actual comprehension, I am interested in the more subjective aspects of a championship team. Advanced analysis can only take you so far – see the winner of this year’s B.A.B.E.S title! Indeed, even the casual observer of the MLB post-season in the past decade should have noticed that the defining characteristic of the team holding the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of October was not that they had the best players. Rather, for whatever reason, the winners performed – at least during the post-season – as the best team, and usually this was epitomized by some quirky expression. The BOS Idiots with beards, the SFO Misfits with Hunter Pence style, the STL “win it for Tony LaRussa” crusade. Even the teams that don’t win often credit team chemistry for just getting them close. How else can you explain mediocre teams like KCR, TBR, COL and HOU getting to the Fall Classic in recent years?

I believe that the defining characteristic of those teams was that the players got along very well. (With the possible exception of HOU in 2005: who knows what went on in a clubhouse with Roger Clemens and Jeff Kent, although they also had Lance Berkman and Andy Pettitte.) These teams had leaders who were willing to make themselves part of the team’s story rather than demanding or simply allowing the team’s story to be about them. Just look at this list of LCS and World Series MVP’s over the past 15 years and tell me how many of the 45 names you will ever see on a plaque in Cooperstown. I count fewer than five. Where were the stars in those series? The series made the stars, not vice versa. A team with many good players performing together as a team will almost always defeat a team with a few great players no matter how they are performing.

This is why, I believe, we are seeing so many players changing teams – players that are not great but who have abilities GM’s believe can improve the team. These are not the proverbial 5-tool players. Many have only one of the five gold stars: hit, hit for power, run, catch or throw – but in combination with 23 other players of complementary incompleteness they can form a team that can win enough games to get into the post-season. And once in the post-season, anything can happen. Witness KCR winning its first 8 games. Witness Madison Bumgarner surpassing Clayton Kershaw in the Super Hero department, particularly since Kershaw changes from Superman into Clark Kent whenever he pitches against STL. Pablo Sandoval can wink at the camera while waiting for one of the biggest at bats of his life and a rookie named Joe Panik can save a season by turning a hit into a double-play (with the aid of instant replay). (And why no one has nicknamed him “Joe-No” is beyond me.–panic–puns-081453149.html.) Then you have Hunter Pence, whose personality is so quirky he doesn’t even need a nickname to create a cult following even among fans from other teams.  In every sense of the word, “character” counts for something.

That thought brings me back to the event we will observe tonight and tomorrow and the key players in it. As I wrote two Christmas Eves ago, Joseph and Mary had special skills to bring to the drama in which they were cast without auditioning. The Scriptures provide tantalizingly little information about either of them but imagine how different the story would be if Mary had thrown the angel Gabriel out of her house or worse, if Joseph had done what he had the legal right to do under Jewish law – have Mary stoned to death!  Fortunately, they submitted to the authority of their general manager and played their parts – Mary physically and Joseph emotionally (has anyone in history showed greater faith in buying into management’s plan?). The result of their combined characters was that a baby was born in Bethlehem, sheltered in Egypt from a murderous tyrant in his homeland and eventually raised in a rural village where he learned his earthly father’s trade. From this eventful but humble background came the most discussed leader in human history.  His leadership style was that of example, although he did his fair share of teaching, and two thousand years later millions of people still honor or disparage him every day.  Either way, they still consider his message.

Whatever your personal conclusion may be about who Jesus was or is, I encourage you to consider his advice about living one’s life: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the law and the prophets.” With all the strife in the world, whether it is in the clubhouse or the Middle East or your own house, these words still seem appropriate even after 2000 years. I don’t know much about the personal beliefs of those players mentioned above, but I think they exhibit the fruit of Jesus’ teachings.  They may not comprehend a greater power than themselves but they certainly understand that they cannot accomplish their goal by themselves.  Baseball, like life, is a team sport.  The higher we regard and the better we treat our fellow-men the more likely we are to experience the joy that was announced in a field so many years ago:

“Peace on earth! Good will to men!”

(JSR 2014)