Character Matters

Sports – and success in sports – is more than just taking the guys with the best stats, putting them together and sitting back and watching a championship unfold. If that were the case, being a GM would be a lot easier. Much of what goes into putting together a winning team goes well beyond the numbers. It deals with personalities. It deals with character and attitude. And yes, it deals with chemistry.

The New York Yankees have gone out and assembled all of their high priced parts. It's almost absurd. Obscene. Whatever King George wants, he can afford. It literally seems like there are no bounds that would limit the New York Yankees. What happens if they don't win though? Obviously, heads will role, but the meaning of that would be something that should be felt much deeper than simple hirings and firings.

For recent examples, you need look only across the street from Citizens Bank Park to the Wachovia Center. It's the home of the Philadelphia 76ers. Their star, Allen Iverson, has had a pretty tumultuous season to say the least. The Sixers fired their coach, Randy Ayers. He was replaced by Chris Ford and seemingly, all hell broke loose. Why? Because Ford, even in an interim role, expected to see character and leadership from his players; including Iverson. Nobody had ever demanded that before. Iverson hasn't dealt well with the change – when he hasn't been injured and sitting on the bench eating nachos - and the team has suffered. Glenn Robinson, another high priced (and often injured) member of the Sixers hasn't exactly been a good fit, either. Meanwhile, the young guys have responded to not having Iverson and Robinson by winning. The 76ers are a better team without their high priced prima donnas than they are with them. Why? The chemistry of the team on the court is simply better when Iverson and Robinson aren't around to mess it up.

Consider Iverson's lack of willingness to practice with his teammates. Then, consider Jim Thome. Even with a fractured finger that prevented him from hitting and throwing, Thome was on the field with his teammates everyday, fielding ground balls. Thome was doing drills with his teammates. He never once kicked back in the Florida sun to watch everybody else sweat it out while he was cool and comfortable wearing the jersey of another MLB team. Even when injured and unable to play, Thome was in uniform. He let his teammates know that he was one of them. Iverson, after a tantrum because he wasn't in the starting lineup, sat on the Sixers bench in a Milwaukee Bucks jersey, eating nachos. He was just another fan. Of course, it was hard to tell he was even a Sixers fan while he was wearing another team's jersey.

Is Allen Iverson a bad basketball player? No, on the contrary, he's a great basketball player. That's what makes his case so disappointing. His team has a better winning percentage without him in the lineup than they do with him in the lineup not because he's a bad player, but because he turns the rest of the team into bad players when he's on the court.

Consider Pat Burrell. The young superstar showed up his manager after a homerun last season. Now, Burrell regrets that incident and has worked his butt off to return to form. It was an isolated case of disrespect for his team, his manager and the game that he plays. He learned from it. He matured. After being in the NBA for much longer than Burrell has played in the majors, Iverson has yet to develop that level of respect for anyone or anything except himself. Don't figure on ever again seeing Burrell show up his manager or a teammate. It was a lesson learned and one that won't be forgotten. A classless incident has been turned into a show of maturity and respect. Keep in mind too, that Burrell's indiscretion came during a horribly frustrating season for both him and the team. This spring, Burrell was in camp early and played hard at all times to get ready for the season.

Consider Todd Pratt. By medical reasoning, he should just now be returning from knee surgery. Instead, he worked harder than anyone imagined he could and has been playing for about a week. His commitment to himself, his team and his sport speak volumes about Todd Pratt the person. Pratt simply says "I'm an animal" in explaining his return. All this from a utility player. Nobody would have blamed Pratt if he missed the first couple weeks of the season. Instead, he would have none of it.

Consider even last season's Veterans Stadium closing ceremonies. Mike Schmidt, for all of his ego, raised the hand of Jim Thome when the two met at homeplate. A sign of acknowledgement from perhaps the best Phillie to have ever played the game. A willingness to let someone else stand above him at a time when he could have sat back and reveled in the moment.

Even the signing of Doug Glanville, at some level, makes sense. Let's be honest. He's not the worst utility outfielder you'll find in the majors. What he lacks on the field is more than made up for with his leadership. Doug Glanville won't be outworked. He won't look to place blame elsewhere. And, he will be a great role model for young players like Marlon Byrd to learn from. Glanville brings experience and a strong, impressive attitude to blend in well with the chemistry of the 2004 Phillies. Was he a great addition? Not necessarily, but he certainly doesn't hurt the organization and again, at some level, his signing makes sense. Glanville has talked repeatedly about his respect for the game, the city of Philadelphia and his team. The bottom line is that Glanville can help the Phillies win games.

Character matters. Phillies fans can be proud of their organization. For the most part, they have stayed away from the "high maintenance" type of players that are so prevelant in sports. Sure, Mike Schmidt had his ego. Most of the '93 team weren't exactly the kind of guys you would want your daughter to bring home. And yes, our broadcasters have had a little airing of dirty laundry this winter. Overall though, the Phillies history is well covered with examples of solid people. Some weren't always the greatest players, but they were great men. Rico Brogna and Jim Eisenreich, who battled what could have been debilitating diseases. Tug McGraw, who brought fun and personality to the game and taught us all a lesson even in how he lived his final days. Richie Ashburn, who spent great amounts of time signing autographs and making fans feel like they are part of the game. Great men with great characters, who contributed to the teams that they played for with more than just homeruns, strikeouts and stolen bases.

You wonder how Terrell Owens will fit with the personality of the Eagles. While his "sharpie incident" was arrogant and bold, at some level, it was human. It was fun. It is also the least of the off the field worries that Owens will bring to the team. He's not the kind of guy that you would imagine hanging out with Donovan McNabb or Andy Reid. Of course, sometimes that works. Refer to Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson as an example. Or, even our 1980 Phillies, can give an example of a somewhat dysfunctional family that still found a way to win.

Don't discount the importance of character. Don't discount the importance of chemistry. They matter. They're part of the game. Think about your own little world. How much energy do difficult co-workers zap from you each day of the week? How much better do some projects at work turn out because of the collection of people that completed them? Sports is no different. Is having a team full of nice guys an adequate replacement for winning? Certainly not. The point is though, that sometimes, attitudes and personalities go hand-in-hand with winning. Remember, character matters.

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