What is team chemistry? Is it a romantic notion we like to believe in when our team is successful and we’re struggling to explain why it has over performed compared to our expectations? Is it simply a lazy answer to a surprise success story along the lines of good coaching?
Each and every year, beat writers, managers, players even will espouse the virtues of good clubhouse chemistry as one of the intangibles required for a team to make a step forward. Each and every year, it seems, the club with the best ‘chemistry’ ends up winning the World Series so it must be a prerequisite of winning, mustn’t it?
Cast your mind back six weeks or so and the narratives coming out of nearly every Spring Training home were that preseason had been a rip-roaring success in getting the guys together and having some fun in advance of the six month slog of a major league season. The boys were all “pulling in the same direction” as well as for each other. This was what would take the club to the promised land of the postseason, a golden elixir if you like.
Anyone can say “we have great chemistry”. It is, perhaps, little more than a nice line to get a beat writer, who has nothing else to write about, off your back. There is often scepticism around statistical types about what chemistry can do for an individual player or for a team. It all sounds a bit schmaltzy and narrative driven. This is not to say that team chemistry does not exist. It clearly does.
It is baseball’s version of the chicken and egg conundrum. What comes first, clubhouse chemistry or winning?
I would argue that prolonged winning or losing makes for good or bad team chemistry. Then, once that chemistry is in place, it can either keep a good thing going or stand in the way of getting a bad thing turned around.
Team chemistry might not be quantifiable the way modern baseball likes everything under its dominion to be but it is most certainly a factor in a team’s development. There is such a thing as positive team chemistry, and it can be fostered. It’s not the be all and end all but it’s better than the alternative.
A team that values execution, confidence and the belief that it has something to prove over how much fun it’s having in the locker room will win more, and for longer, than a team that just gets along. It will also right the ship faster when things start to go awry.
Things like pride and passion, being prepared, professionalism, hustle, attitude and so on – even the ambiguous ‘playing the game the right way’ – are useful tools for keeping a team focused on a larger goal instead of the granularity of self.
A manager also plays a major role in creating positive team chemistry. A good manager can spot if bad chemistry is creeping in and interject with distractions. A good manager can make a team stop focusing on its shortcomings long enough for its inherent talent to string a few wins together and get back on track.
Funnily enough, in baseball, that most individual of sports, it could be argued team chemistry is as important as in any of the team games. Teams and players spend more time together than in the others. There are 10 game road trips and very few days off to get away from the team environment. However, because so much of baseball is down to an individual’s performance not a unit’s, it could also be argued that chemistry is less imperative here.
Baseball, as in any walk of life, has its share of assholes, some of whom have been amongst the game’s greatest ever players. Perhaps nobody could have been accused of looking out for only himself more than Barry Bonds. A lineup of 9 of him, though, and, whilst we might shudder at the poison oozing from the dugout, there is no doubting the potency of said lineup. Just where would you pitch?
If you’d asked a group of baseball fans preseason which team might struggle this season because of chemistry issues, you could bet your bottom dollar that the Yankees would have topped this particular crappy poll. There was the return of the ‘antichrist’ Alex Rodriguez to lay waste to any good feeling there might have been in The Bronx. Of course, six weeks into the season, and there are the Yankees leading the AL East.
The September collapse of the Boston Red Sox in 2011 was attributed to chicken and beer, guys getting along but in their own little clique. There have been some infamous ‘clubhouse cancers’ down the years, some of the best known being Bonds, Milton Bradley, Gary Sheffield, John Rocker, Reggie Jackson, Albert Belle, Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. That most of these examples are black is perhaps an issue that needs to be looked at another day. That most of these guys undoubtedly helped their teams win is also undeniable. Yasiel Puig and other Latin players are held up as a ‘difficult children’ these days yet every team would want Puig on their roster.
A squad of 25 ‘David Ecksteins’ would be truly abysmal yet would get along great and play the game hard each and every day. When you have that large a roster, you are bound to get some ‘different’ characters. It is up to the manager to mesh these together into a winning unit, not necessarily a harmonious one.
Perhaps it’s best to end with a quote from Joe Torre. “ Winning creates chemistry more than the other way round. I’ve seen clubs that don’t necessarily like each other, but they respected each other when they got on the field, and that’s more important than being able to go out to dinner with each other.”