The role of ‘character’ in professional sports

Opinion June 5, 2013 0 Comments

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel showed what could be considerd good character when he pulled starter Cliff Lee for closer Jonathan Paplebon, who many consider to be a different kind of character, giving Paplebon the chance to pitch again in Fenway Park.

by Clark Groome

One of the unquantifiable aspects of professional sports is just how important a player or coach’s character is to the success of his team. When sports execs and players talk about a teammate as being “a quality guy” or “a character guy” they are saying that his presence makes the team better.

Philadelphia teams have always bragged about how much attention they pay to the affect a player has “in the room.” At times it seems that a player of good character is more important than a jerk who has humongous talent.

Flyers’ goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has been the center of a lot of media attention, mostly because of his quirky behavior and his remarkable comments. He’s great for the media, supplying us as he does with a cornucopia of stuff to write about.

Sadly, his performance on the ice hasn’t been matched by his behavior off. Those who are close to the situation report that he actually drives his teammates nuts.

Contrast that with what Phillies manager Charlie Manuel did in the second game of the recent series with the Boston Red Sox. Cliff Lee was on the mound at Fenway Park, pitching magnificently, on pace to pitch a complete game. But wait. Manuel decided after eight innings and 95 pitches to bring Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon into the game to seal the deal.

Papelbon was making his first visit to Fenway, the place he played so successfully for six-plus seasons, registering 219 regular-season saves and being a large part of the Bosox’s 2007 World Series championship.

Charlie did the right thing in allowing Papelbon to close. Lee, for all he would have liked to finish the game, was very happy that his teammate got the opportunity to play in a park and before fans that were so important to him.

What, if any, role does the player’s character have on the team’s overall performance?.

Look back locally and remember that Larry Bowa, a great baseball mind, was, after one year as the Phillies manager, not particularly successful. Many believe that was because his passion and hatred of losing were often expressed publicly as criticism of his players.

The Flyers’ Hall-of-Famer Bill Barber and, later, Ken Hitchcock, one of the most successful coaches in NHL history, were both canned because they allegedly “lost the room.”

Earlier this baseball season I spoke with Phillies president David Montgomery about this. Understandably, he only wanted to talk about baseball.

“One of the major challenges in our sport is the amount of time that you’re with your teammates,” he said. “It’s a long season: February to hopefully deep into October. We play 162 games in 182 days. [That’s] 20 days off. Take four away for the All-Star Game. That leaves 16. Of those, you normally travel on half of them.

“If the two of us are teammates, we’re going to see each other a minimum of 170 days out of 182. That’s when the harmony and keeping the clubhouse together is so important. The team’s ‘chemistry’ is more comfort and familiarity.”

Montgomery said that one of the reasons for the team’s success over the last half-dozen years has been due to none of the players being critical of teammates when the team was going through a rough patch.

“We’re either 102 wins like we were two years ago or we’re 81-81 like we were last year,” he said. “We’re a team. We’re together.”

Montgomery feels that a good clubhouse, where people support each other and the leaders truly set an example on and off the field, does help a team win a few games over the course of a season.

“In 162 you’re going to have many peaks and valleys,” he noted. “Hopefully, at the same time you don’t get too full of yourself. You need someone to keep you grounded. That’s where your team leaders come in.

“The more Raul Ibañezs, the more Mickey Morandinis, Doug Glanvilles – I could go on and on – the more good guys, the better people feel.

“A team that enjoys playing [together] as much in August as they did in April is probably going to end up winning a few more games than a team that feels differently about that.”

Which raises the Barry Bonds issue: if someone’s a huge talent and simultaneously a real jerk and very unpopular with his teammates, what do you do?

While Montgomery wouldn’t rise to the Bonds bait, he did say generically, “If the bad apple is a star then it becomes tougher. If your senior citizens are statesmen, people who have been around the longest and are the most respected, if they set the right tone, then it’s pretty tough for one or two guys to flip that.”

Ideally, then, you want to have a team full of superstars who are also really good guys. Barring that, make sure that there are enough character guys in the room to keep what Montgomery calls “bad apples” under control while simultaneously improving the team’s win/loss record.

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