Yoda, Y-O-D-A, Yoda!
Now less you think I think that he's some sort of Yoda-like figure, spouting off pearls of wisdom and then kicking some Darth Dodger butt, I must point out that I don't. I'm aware of his failures this season. Alfonzo. Moss. The bullpen. Rivera. Jensen. (Well, I can't blame him for the last two and, if you'll notice, they're no longer here)
And yet, the net-net is that the Giants has led the division every day of his tenure as manager of our fine San Francisco Giants. And the lead as of July 4th, 2003 is a robust 5 games. And with the next two months balanced between playing good teams (Braves, Phils, Montreal, Arizona) and playing poor teams (Mets, Florida, Pittsburgh, San Diego), it looks like a safe bet that they'll still be leading when they play their final stretch against against divisional foes starting at the end of August because they won't get into any long stretch of losses.
A Jeff Kent, A Baker, A Candlestick Park, Terrible Fools All Three
Among things I don't miss, I don't miss Dusty Baker. God bless him for all he has done for the Giants the ten years he managed here as he built upon the Roger Craig years and kept us competitive most of his years as manager. As a fan who endured the 70's and 80's era, I greatly appreciate competitive teams and Dusty's teams were usually that.
But it was time for him to go. As great as he was, he just didn't, in my opinion, have that extra edge a manager needed to get over the hump and win everything. In the short time Felipe has been manager, there has already been many situations I think Baker would have gone another way, a worse way.
What a Difference Alou Makes
Massive changes and massive disappointments for the Giants so far, and yet Felipe makes it work and the Giants are winning, or at least winning enough to keep some of the huge lead they had built up in the early season. If you make a list of all the problems that the Giants have faced, there are many that derailed other teams. Losing our closer - hello San Diego. Disappointing free agent signing - hello Mets and Rangers. Relying on rookie starters - hello Detroit.
Felipe Alou somehow has figure out a way to motivate people to perform at beyond their peak, even if only for a month or two. Nathan, Moss and Snow were killer in April. Then Neifi, Grissom, and Foppert in May. In June, Feliz, Williams, and Schmidt gave huge uplifting performances. Everyone has been contributing and, as the cliché goes, there is a new hero every victory.
Alou gives them opportunity by being a flexible manager willing to tinker with the lineup and give his players their chance for the spotlight. By doing this, he lets his players know subtly that he believes in his heart that they got the talent to play, and play well, at this level. That keeps their confidence going.
But if they are not playing well currently, well, that's just a temporary condition that the player needs to work through at the bottom of the lineup. This also does not deflate anyone's ego - like when Baker dropped Shinjo to 8th - as it would not signal that the person is in the doghouse, but rather that temporarily they stink and need to work it out. So players don't get into too much of a mental funk.
This is similar, I believe, to the experiment psychologists did at a school once. They took all the good smart kids in one grade and gave them to one teacher and took all the bad smartalec kids and gave them to another teacher. However, the teacher with the good kids were told that they were trouble makers and poor students while the teacher with the bad kids were told how good and smart they were. And, amazingly enough, the kids acted and performed the way each teacher expected - the "good" kids became troublemakers and the "bad" kids became the scholarly saints. Alou, by his actions, expects good things to happen; whether he actually believes that is another question because, as I noted above, the numbers didn't support his action.
Positive Thinking Plus A Beautiful Mind
Alou and Baker are clearly positive thinkers. They take a positive slant towards their players and the players appreciate this so much that they perform better than they had before, for the most part, or at least as well as before. Their loyalty to their players are re-paid with improved performance. For example, Baseball Prospectus noted the improved performance that players have had playing under Dusty. Players swear by them and want them as their managers.
However, Alou appears to outdo Baker in a number of areas. He is more likely to use statistics to guide his actions. I've heard Alou quote stats more times this year than I can recall during the time Bake was the manager. For an example of his knowledge of numbers, he has been willing to bat Snow second in the order, which is a numbers guy thing to do as Snow has a pretty good OBP, but not a baseball guy thing to do as Snow is slow and doesn't hit for a high average.
In addition, as far as I've seen so far this year, he doesn't have a doghouse, unlike Dusty. If he really doesn't like you, you are gone (don't let the door hit you Rivera) and the spot is free for someone else to try to contribute. Furthermore, for those he believes in, he will give multiple opportunities to players to contribute big time. He knows that it is a long season and he will need all of his soldiers in peak shape and performance. And he believes in you if you are on his team, based on his actions. He is willing to mix up the lineup and show the love to one player or another, building up their confidence without causing another player to lose his, seemingly. He openly critiques while showing his confidence in the player at the same time.
The Winning-er Edge
Because of all of these improvements, I believe that Alou also has the mental and emotional edge necessary to be successful in the playoffs, more so than Dusty. Dusty, in my opinion, did not know how to manage for a short series. He always managed like he didn't want to hurt his players egos by doing something necessary during the playoffs.
Lofton should not have been starting in CF when we were in Anaheim. Shinjo should have been playing CF and Lofton should have played DH. But Dusty didn't want to hurt his ego. Livan obviously should have been taken out before game 7 got out of hand, when it was still just 2-0. But he didn't want to hurt his ego and left him in.
The worse example is Reggie Sanders. Sanders was doing nothing since the beginning of the playoff push in August and all he got was a slight demotion to 7th in the lineup during the playoffs. He should have been benched by the World Series because he had done nothing for about two and a half months, batting about .230 and hardly driving in runs - except for himself when he homered - when Bonds was having one of the highest OBP years ever in the history of baseball ahead of him.
And he didn't always listen to the numbers. Why did he configure his rotation to start Livan twice and not Rueter? Rueter was winning all year, Livan was an enigma wrapped up in a question mark. Why didn't he bat Shinjo 6th or 7th when he was offensively a serviceable player batting there? Or why wasn't Minor on the roster as our DH when he is a prototypical DH player? Why didn't he use just one player as DH the whole series to give that player the reps necessary to get un-rusty and be able to contribute because he only used his regular players during the playoffs, having a pretty set lineup throughout the playoffs. And just as he allowed Livan to stay out there and pitch, why didn't he just keep Ortiz in there in game 6 when he had a shutout going? When Ortiz is going good, let him pitch.
A recent quote in the San Jose Mercury captured a slice of what I like about Alou over Baker. "When asked if Moss was upset by the decision, Alou said, 'When we do something in order to help a guy, actually 99 percent of the time I really don't care how the guy feels about it. We're trying to help the guy. It might be the best thing that happened to him.' " Alou doesn't shy away from pushing people during the season in order to get them to perform and I would presume he would do the same in order to get them ready for the playoffs.
Baker was more laissez-faire in his actions. He gave 1B back to Snow when he wasn't doing any better than Minor was at the time. Going back further to the previous year, he benched Galarraga when he was white-hot to put in a cold Snow. Lucky for Baker Snow picked it up last year when it was the playoffs. Baker did nothing to Sanders to get him going until he was moved to 7th in the playoffs, but by then it was too late.
Nothing was done to Livan. If anything, Baker continually sucked up to him, giving him the first start of the season, giving him two starts in the World Series instead of Rueter, when he did nothing to warrant such rewards. He should have DHed Lofton in Anaheim and used Shinjo in CF because, if he thought Shinjo was good enought to DH a game, he should have DHed him the whole series to give Shinjo consistent ABs, instead of spreading it among Shinjo, Dunston, and Feliz. And if Shinjo is in the lineup anyway, play him in CF.
Shinjo is probably the biggest recent example of Baker demoting someone during the season. I think he only acted on Shinjo because he didn't really want Shinjo in the first place. That is the only logical reason I can think of for basically putting Shinjo into a position where he should fail, especially based on his history. Shinjo did not have the skills to be a leadoff hitter and Baker must have known, or been told, what batting him 8th would have done to his ego. This would be like batting the pitcher fourth and then getting mad because he doesn't hit like Babe Ruth. His actions guaranteed that Shinjo would fail and force Sabean to get a leadoff centerfielder for him.
If Alou can give the stick to a player during the season, I have no doubt in my mind that Alou will do it in the playoffs. He will listen to his numbers but will bench players who are not currently contributing to the team. In addition, his experience with the Giants in 1962 taught him that preparation to win the World Series begins in Spring Training with the practice of fundamental baseball so that if the opportunity happens to come to you, you can take advantage by being prepared for that moment. And when the playoffs start, all of his players will have practiced for that moment and will feel that they can produce and contribute. I think the end of this season for the Giants will be beautiful, in quite a contrast with last year's ending.
Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fan's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player. E-mail him at GoGiants_25@yahoo.com and maybe he'll reply back.
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