Baseball field runs as any other workplace

April 07, 1991|By Ronald E. Roel | Ronald E. Roel,Newsday

On a waning, sun-drenched Florida afternoon last week, 6 boys and men of all ages stood rapt on the grass of Sarasota Fla.'s Ed Smith Stadium, home of the Chicago White Sox during spring training. For the next hour, it was their field of dreams.

The group, composed of the team's sponsors and families, was fixed on White Sox Manager Jeff Torborg as he described his "surprise" team of 1990 -- a team that stunned experts by winning 25 more games than it had the previous season. They did it, Torborg explained, by starting the year before, patiently focusing young players on "inside baseball" -- little skills he believed would yield big results.

His critics were skeptical at first. But eventually, his "scuffling" players became contenders, and this season they expect to make a run at the American League champion Oakland Athletics, Torborg told the intent audience. "We're a team now, a family," he said. "You live with your players day by day. You die with them when they're down."

For Torborg, voted manager of the year in several polls last year, the warm afternoon offered a moment to bask in the glow of the team's successful leadership. But it may not last long.

As the teams head north for opening day next week, baseball's managers increasingly are having trouble keeping their "families" together. Like management in other organizations, the job of managing baseball players has become more complex these days.

More than ever, baseball managers must have good communications skills and instincts to blend players with diverse personalities and from varied cultures. And while ballplayers may be highly paid stars, they are basically like young employees in other modern businesses who have grown up less awed by old-line authority than their predecessors.

"There's no more fear factor, no more sergeant-private relationship," said New York Mets Manager Bud Harrelson. "You need to be more diplomatic."

The diamond, more than the office, is filled with constant feedback and positive reinforcement, said Peter Wylie, a partner of Performance Improvement Associates, a Washington-based management consulting company.

"Professional types tend to be cynical about that stuff," said Wylie, "but there is a tremendous place for enthusiasm in most workplaces. A lot more could be spread around. Most workplaces are much more dull or stressful than they have to be."

More than other workers, baseball players expect fair treatment from their managers, said Patricia King, a New York-based management consultant and author of "Never Work for a Jerk."

"There are fair balls and foul balls," King says. "It's where kids learn fair play and good sportsmanship."

One thing that separates players from most employees, of course, is pay. Expanding salaries -- and egos -- are straining traditional baseball's management-player relations, experts say. Roughly a third of the league's 650 players make at least $1 million a year, and about 40 make more than $3 million. Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens makes $5.38 million; a contract extension garners Met pitcher Dwight Gooden $5.15 million per year, Oakland Athletics outfielder Jose Canseco earns $4.7 million, and Los Angeles Dodger Darryl Strawberry makes $4.05 million a year.

Highly paid players "seem to feel more free, much less inhibited about seeing how far they can go to break the rules," said Gene Michael, former manager of the New York Yankees and now the team's general manager.

Salary squabbles have produced a not-so-silent spring.

Four weeks ago, for example, Pittsburgh Pirates star outfielder Barry Bonds, unhappy with his current contract, got into an obscenity-strewn shouting match with Manager Jim Leyland during a routine practice at the team's Bradenton, Fla., training camp.

Bonds, last year's Most Valuable Player in the National League, had been sulking since he lost salary arbitration over a new contract. He will make $2.3 million a year instead of the $3.25 million he wanted.

"One player's not going to run this club," Leyland screamed at Bonds. "If guys don't want to be here, if guys aren't happy with their money, they don't take it out on everybody else." Leyland said he did not discipline Bonds, however, because the outfielder broke no club rules.

While accurate figures are hard to find, observers agree that managers generally earn less than players, who will average an estimated $800,000 this year, according to the baseball commissioner's office. According to some published reports, Lou Piniella, manager of the world champion Cincinnati Reds, makes more than $650,000 a year; Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda reportedly makes about $550,000.

Yet when questioned, managers uniformly insist that their relatively modest salaries make no difference to their ego or management style.

"God bless 'em," said Harrelson, a former Mets shortstop. "They've met the challenge of the minor leagues; they've had to perform on a daily basis. And they've survived."

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