Clearing the clubhouse air doesn't always meet with success

Phil Jackman

September 24, 1990|By Phil Jackman

Every baseball season, without fail, there's a team meeting story.

Actually, there are thousands of such stories authored in every city and hamlet across the land. And searching out the one, the only, recreates the proverbial haystack and needle dilemma.

You know the script: Team is downtrodden. Injuries abound. Utilitymen bad-mouth regulars and manager. Cliques in the clubhouse. Several 3 a.m. returns from road trips.

Then, as if by magic, somebody suggests a meeting to clear the air. A vote is taken hastily to determine if the manager and coaches will be included.

It's always so much better when the manager and his yes men are excluded, because now we are left to imagine each and every player having his say. Suddenly, petty gripes and personality conflicts are put aside as a leader of the John Paul Jones mold speaks his piece and rights the floundering ship.

One of the more famous meetings occurred in 1967 when a mighty good Cardinals club found itself in a dead calm after pitching ace Bob Gibson had his leg broken on a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente.

The man who had an MVP year that summer, Orlando Cepeda (.325 with 25 homers and 111 RBIs), called his mates together. As folklore recalls it, Cepeda spat fire and brimstone and was so inspirational throughout his monologue, the Cards won the pennant by 10 games.

Well, folklore took liberties with what really happened. As third baseman and now St. Louis broadcaster Mike Shannon remembers, "Cha-Cha got up and the only thing anybody could understand was a couple of swears in Spanish. We all started laughing, he got mad, stalked out of the room and we went out on the field. The whole thing took about two minutes."

Then there's the famed boys' night out in Minneapolis that supposedly got the 1966 Orioles juggernaut turned around. It wasn't a team meeting, per se, just manager Hank Bauer suggesting the gang go out and have a good time because the curfew was being lifted.

Truth is, everybody did just about as they always did, because only the rawest rookie didn't know when a bed check was coming at least 48 hours in advance.

About a month later and after the O's had won maybe 25 of the next 30 games, the beat writers determined that Bauer's loosening the reins had been the answer. If the bus had gotten a flat the next day on the way to the ballpark, that probably would have been adjudged the turning point.

The subject of team meetings moves center stage right now as the Red Sox, possessors of a fairly comfortable 6 1/2 -game lead a couple of weeks ago, stagger toward the last nine games of the campaign.

They concluded a swing through Chicago, Baltimore and New York yesterday and, if one more city had been included on the itinerary, surely they would have returned home in fourth or fifth place.

The weekend in Chicago was particularly rugged, the Mighty Whiteys sweeping four, and Boston manager Joe Morgan recalls, "I called a meeting on Saturday, we led 3-0 in the first inning and got blown out."

The Beaners won one here before the Birds drilled them twice, so it was time for another team meeting in Yankee Stadium last Friday. They won, then blew two more.

"Last time we went to Toronto," Morgan recalls, "I thought about having a meeting. We didn't and we won 10 in a row."

Of course, a manager has no control if the players beat him to the punch, call a meeting and don't invite him. That's what a very good Minnesota team did in 1967 after the team had changed managers (Sam Mele to Cal Ermer) and they wanted to vote on how much of a World Series share they'd be voting Mele.

Some players favored stiffing Sam, who had handled the club for the first third of the season, and this led to nastiness in the ranks and an ultimate second-place finish.

Back in his playing days, Brooks Robinson had an unfavorite team meeting that was always mandatory. It's the one where scouts would go over the opposing hitters prior to the Series and the third baseman would duck out as soon as possible.

"They go into great detail about how to pitch to their hitters and it really doesn't matter because Jim Palmer argues against everything they say anyway," said Brooks.

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