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Motivational Skills Are in Eye of the Beholder

August 07, 1996|DANA PARSONS

My late father, bless his failed heart, hated Nebraska football Coach Tom Osborne. Oh, not hate in the sense of wishing anything awful would happen to him. Rather, he hated him at selective moments and with the special passion die-hard sports fans reserve for coaches who don't win the big game every single time.

It became ritualistic. With another big game slipping away, TV cameras would pan to Osborne. Invariably in those moments of great despair for Husker fans, and with Dad fulminating in the living room, Osborne would be expressionless. No screaming, no clenched teeth, no slamming his headset to the turf. Nothing. It was remindful of the old joke, "If you can keep your head while all those about you are losing theirs, perhaps you're just not aware of the situation."

Like a lighted fuse, Osborne's stoicism would set my father off. "Look at him, standing on the sidelines, chewing that gum," Dad would say, derision dripping from his lips. "Go on, Tom, chew that gum, chew that gum."

What others saw as Osborne's quiet dignity in the face of defeat, my father, a former high school coach himself, saw as the inability to get excited and motivate his players. Osborne looked like he didn't care, and Dad was convinced that affected the players. Anybody could chew gum; he wanted a coach that would shake players by the shoulder pads and give the refs an earful.

Dad didn't live long enough to see Osborne's latest Husker teams win consecutive national championships. Obviously, that would have required some major revisionist thinking on his part. He died six days into 1993, in the midst of a string of Husker losses on New Year's Day, which also happened to be his birthday. Tom ruined a lot of birthdays and no doubt Dad went to heaven without ever having forgiven Osborne for his sins.

This flashback comes to mind while contemplating the career demise of another quiet gum-chewer in the Osborne mold, Angels Manager Marcel Lachemann. Make that former Manager Marcel Lachemann.

In the face of this season's ever-mounting defeats, Lach could gum-chew with the best of them. Most times I've seen him on camera this season during Angel games, there he was in the dugout, chewing that gum, keeping that cool. Like Osborne, Lachemann was known to unload once in a blue moon behind closed doors but seldom, if ever, in public. If memory serves, Lachemann even apologized once for blowing his stack and being thrown out of a game. He promised it wouldn't happen again. I can see Osborne doing something like that.

But in a major plot twist, Lachemann resigned Tuesday, saying he couldn't motivate his players. It's almost unheard of for a coach or manager to quit in midseason, give up the salary, and then blame himself for not motivating the team. Usually, it takes a general manager to come up behind the manager, tap him on the shoulder and say, "Uh, you're not motivating the team. You're fired."

Instead, Lachemann fired himself. The question, though, is did he fire himself for the right reason?

This motivation business is tricky. Bookstore shelves are filled with tomes on just how to motivate in the corporate world. Does that also apply to million-dollar ballplayers? Would you listen to your boss if you were making 10 times his or her salary?

In Lachemann's case, was he a good motivator last season when the Angels led their division by 12 games, and then a bad motivator when the team lost the lead? Was he a good motivator when the team swept a season-ending series to force a playoff, then a bad motivator when they got beat in the playoff game?

Ironic that in this same season of Lachemann quitting for being motivationally challenged, the guy considered the master motivator, Tommy Lasorda, also has ended his managerial career. Master motivator maybe, but Lasorda's Dodger team was bumping along this year and has been considered an underachieving bunch for at least the last few years.

Lachemann and Lasorda represent polar opposites of the motivational-speech spectrum, but both their teams played beneath expectations. How can we possibly learn a lesson from their experiences?

Nothing lends itself to over-analysis like sports. We love the capriciousness of the game, then insist on explaining upsets or bad performances. Sparky Anderson's Big Red Machine of the 1970s is generally considered the best baseball team of the modern era, so go ask Sparky how they lost to the lowly Mets in the '73 playoffs.

Yes, maybe the Angels need someone more voluble than Lachemann. Maybe the Dodgers need someone less voluble than Lasorda.

Or, just maybe, when the hitters start hitting and the pitchers start pitching, the teams will play according to form, regardless of what the managers say or don't say. Maybe a new player here and there or an uptick in the clubhouse chemistry and, who knows, maybe we'll find out that motivation didn't have much to do with anything. My favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, has, by consensus, one of the top managers in baseball. Check today's standings for the current Pirate position.

Lachemann probably out-thought himself on his resignation. A little too much Hamlet and not enough Alfred E. Neuman.

Heck, if he'd hung around a few more years, he might have become a genius. Gum and all.

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