LAKELAND, Fla. — A leadership experiment of sorts is playing out in Florida, where two baseball managers separated by 15 years and 2,107 big league games are setting their rosters and lining up their pitching rotations in advance of Opening Day.
At Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Ron Gardenhire and the Detroit Tigers enter the season with modest expectations and a drastically reduced payroll. When the Tigers said goodbye to Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and several other high-priced veterans, they officially forsook instant gratification for long-range thinking.
Drive 35 miles on Interstate 4 past the Florida Air Museum and a Bob Evans restaurant or three, and the stakes are higher. Aaron Boone, who has never managed a game at any level, is running a New York Yankees team that’s long on home run and star power. One day, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is rolling into camp for a week of batting practice and bonding with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. A few weeks later, Alex Rodriguez arrives and says the New York lineup has a chance to be “record-breaking and put up numbers we have not seen in a long time.”
Beyond the outfield fence on Dale Mabry Highway, a billboard features Judge’s likeness with the words “Breaking Expectations.” The honeymoon period for Boone officially ends with the Yankees’ Grapefruit League finale Sunday against Tampa Bay.
The Tigers are equally diligent in their spring training prep, but there’s a little more room for banter in the manager’s office. After a recent win over Atlanta, Gardenhire kicked back at his desk and mused about his batting order with the beat writers. Gardenhire is no statistical novice, and he gained a greater appreciation for the importance of advanced analytics as a bench coach under Torey Lovullo in Arizona last season. But he enjoys poking fun at the perception that he’s a stodgy old relic who’s destined to listen to his heart and his gut in the end.
“I haven’t even gotten any of the analytics yet,” he said. “They haven’t written me out one lineup yet on where they think all these people should go.”
And when they do?
“I’ll just kick them out and write out my lineup,” Gardenhire said. “Just kidding.”
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At Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the slightest disruption can create a frenzy compounded by the number of media outlets following the team. A day after Gardenhire’s casual bull session, Boone met in the dugout with more than 20 media members looking for a shred of confirmation that the Yankees were about to sign free-agent infielder Neil Walker pending completion of a physical exam. Boone dusted off his two-strike approach while fending off one question after another in deference to general manager Brian Cashman.
“Cash is working through that,” Boone said multiple times. “We’ll see where we are at the end of the day.”
At the end of the day, Walker passed his physical, and Boone was free to move on to Jacoby Ellsbury’s oblique injury, Clint Frazier’s post-concussion aftereffects and the other peripheral stories of spring. He says his biggest challenge so far is “time management,” and there’s no telling which issue will take him down a side road he had no plans to traverse.
Hiring trends are cyclical, and this year MLB teams are high on bright, young, malleable minds with a working knowledge of Statcast and weighted runs created plus. Boone, Boston’s Alex Cora, Washington’s Dave Martinez, the New York Mets’ Mickey Callaway and Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler are former big leaguers who all landed jobs in major East Coast markets without a day of big league managerial experience. All but Kapler arrived with legitimate postseason aspirations — and the scrutiny on him ramped up a notch after the Phillies signed Jake Arrieta to a $75 million deal last week.
Cashman made a bold move in October when he decided not to retain manager Joe Girardi even though the Yankees surpassed expectations with 91 wins and a wild-card berth in 2017. Boone was sufficiently poised, confident and informed during the interview process for the Yankees to hire him fresh out of the ESPN broadcast booth — right after Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner expressed his concerns about having a novice in the dugout.
In spring training, Boone has shown the same people skills and self-assurance that helped him emerge from the pack during his interviews.
“He’s allowed it to be a seamless transition” Cashman said. “He’s a talented person and a great communicator. His demeanor is perfect for this type of environment.”
The Yankees enjoyed a 22-year run of stability with Joe Torre and Girardi as their only managers, and Cashman has seen an evolution in the relationship between a manager and the front office. For decades, front offices worked 12 months a year to scout, acquire and mold players before handing the roster over to the manager in February and telling him, “It’s all yours.” No more. It’s all about collaboration now.
“I’ve likened it to NASA and the space shuttle,” Cashman said. “We’ll pick the mission. We’re gonna get the trajectory. We’re going to hire an astronaut to fly that payload, and they’re going to stay in touch with us every single step of the way.
“We’re not connected to the dugout during games, so the manager’s job is to make moves to put the players in position to succeed. Pull the starter. Stay with the starter. Go with the reliever. Pinch hit. Hit and run. I think today’s generation recognizes that dynamic more. Today’s generation realizes it’s our job to put a laser-focused amount of quality information in front of the manager, and you want a manager who’s going to want it, cipher through it and disseminate it to your players in a way that they can understand it.”
In his personal sales pitch for the job, Boone stressed that he has been preparing for this opportunity his whole life as a product of a three-generation baseball family. His grandfather, Ray, and father, Bob, played a combined 32 years in the majors, and Aaron and his brother Bret grew up as ball rats with an inherent curiosity about the inner workings of the game.
Boone arrives in New York with a general framework in place on bunting, stealing bases, bullpen use and other tactical machinations. He plans to be flexible with his lineup cards and sees Judge as a nice fit for the No. 2 spot because of his .422 on-base percentage last season — those 208 strikeouts notwithstanding.
If events this spring have drummed home one thing, it’s the all-consuming nature of the manager’s job. Even when Boone leaves the park and he’s at dinner or watching an NCAA tournament game, a thought might pop into his head and prompt him to fire off a text to Cashman or one of his coaches.
“I’ve woken up many a middle-of-the-night this spring with thoughts,” Boone said. “I can’t tell you since I’ve had this job how many dreams I’ve had that have been very job-specific.”
Boone went through an embarrassing moment recently when reliever Adam Warren hadn’t warmed up properly because of a miscommunication, and Dellin Betances had to return from the clubhouse to face a batter. But his early outreach efforts appear to have played well in the clubhouse.
“He’s fit in nice,” Stanton said. “He doesn’t seem like a new guy. Spring training is a time to get your bearings, and I think he’s just prepping himself to be ready for the season. He’s been talkative. He’s been everything you would think of as a guy who’s done it before.”
Gardenhire, the congenial, avuncular guy in the managerial team photo, has struck a deft balance between fiery and approachable in 28 seasons as a coach and manager in the majors and minors. He led the Twins to six first-place finishes in the AL Central between 2002 and 2010 before subsequent seasons of 63, 66, 66 and 70 wins led to his firing in 2014. He underwent surgery to remove his prostate gland last spring after being diagnosed with prostate cancer before returning to Lovullo’s staff in May.
When Tigers GM Al Avila went looking for a successor to Brad Ausmus in October, he began with a list of 40 names and considered many of the hot young candidates before going with the proven commodity.
“The reason we ended up with Ron Gardenhire had nothing to do with old-school or new-school, analytics or nonanalytics,” Avila said. “We felt we wanted somebody with experience who has gone through some ups and downs. He’s had tremendous success and tremendous tribulation as far as rebuilding. That experience was important for me, because I knew we’re going to go through some rough stretches.
“I also wanted a strong leader. I talked to some players, and a lot of them went back to when Jim Leyland was our manager. They said to me, ‘We want a strong man who can discipline, but can also be fun and loose and have a good time.’ Gardy has done that.”
If events this spring have drummed home one thing, it’s the all-consuming nature of the manager’s job. Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Gardenhire isn’t averse to some time-honored motivational tactics. Before the Tigers reported to camp in Lakeland, Detroit Free Press reporter Anthony Fenech wrote a story with the headline, “The Detroit Tigers will stink in 2018; here’s why they’ll be fun to watch.” Shortly thereafter, copies of the story were hanging in each player’s locker, courtesy of the manager.
If Gardenhire is successful in Detroit, could he strike a blow for all those baseball lifers who’ve come to feel that experience is now devalued or even a deterrent to running a team? He doesn’t regard himself as a trendsetter.
“Baseball has definitely changed,” Gardenhire said. “There are a lot of young managers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The game is evolving, and it’s been doing that since day one. An old guy like me, am I lucky I’ve got a job? I don’t know. I didn’t come searching for it. They came for me.
“It still comes down to the basics of it. If you stop learning, you might as well just go and retire. Call me old-school. I’m very proud of it. We’re old-school because we never stopped learning.”
Personnel dynamics are never as black and white as they appear. The Tigers have spent more than $2 million on upgrading their analytics and assembled a 12-person department essentially from scratch, so they’re not the dinosaurs they’ve been made out to be.
“We’ve caught up to the industry,” Avila said. “I’m not going to bring in a guy who’s not going to be using this information when I’m spending all this money and putting all this effort into it.”
Conversely, Cashman has drawn a line on interfering with the manager’s business, and he’s not about to cross it with Boone.
“I’ve never once directed a lineup in all my years,” Cashman said. “You can ask Joe Girardi or Joe Torre. It’s never happened once. What I do demand is that they keep those spigots open for information so they can close the gap on what they don’t know. If you have a close-minded individual, then you’ve got the wrong person in that chair.”
In spring training, it’s easy for everyone to have an open mind. The Tigers went old-school with a rebuilding club, and the Yankees picked a rookie to lead a team with massive expectations. Did the two teams choose wisely? They’ll have a better idea starting next week, when the shuttle prepares for liftoff.