In light of the recent dismissal of Kirk Gibson as the Diamondbacks’ field manager, some pundits lay direct blame on Gibson himself for his ruin.
Others contend his lack of commitment was not issue nor was his romance with the game of baseball. Observers point to his method of communication and relationship with the players as principal catalysts for his downfall.
To a certain degree, this is true but the composition of the clubhouse had more to do with Gibson’s firing that Gibson’s control his team.
When former general manager Kevin Towers took a look at the standings by the All-Star break in mid-July, the Diamondbacks sported a 40-56 record, buried in last place in the National League West and 13.5 games behind the division-leading Dodgers.
Through the second half, things deteriorated at an alarming rate.
Following a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers in Chase Field on Aug. 27, the Diamondbacks fell to over 20 games behind NL West division-leading Los Angeles and, with two games remaining on the slate, stand 29 games out of first place in the division. Since opening the season March 22 against the Dodgers in Sydney, Australia, the Diamondbacks were in fourth or last place in the division every day except for one day in third place.
After Sunday’s game with the Cardinals in Chase Field, they will finish with the worst record in Major League Baseball.
Given the stark reality of this dismal season, Towers reacted in an abysmal way.
In an uncharacteristic move among executives managing professional sports teams, Towers appeared to panic. He began to trade veteran players, who represented the bridge between stability and leadership and the energy of youth.
“This clubhouse was lost when they traded (Martin) Prado, (Gerardo) Parra and (Brandon) McCarthy,” said outfielder Cody Ross before Saturday’s home game with St. Louis. “Then, they began to call up rookies and you don’t win championships with the majority of rookies. Yes, they were intimidated and they should be.”
While rookies like outfielders Ender Inciatre and David Peralta, infielders Nick Ahmed and Jake Lamb, pitchers Matt Stites, Evan Marshall and later in the season pitchers Zeke Spruill and Andrew Chafin in the clubhouse, the essence of a veteran environment was overlooked and compromised.
“You can’t win championships with this many rookies,” Ross added. “To win, you really need veteran leadership and guidance. When guys like Prado, Parra and McCarthy left, there was a void. It’s a dead clubhouse.”
The way back, Ross pointed out, is to bring in veterans with experience and wisdom to change a morbid clubhouse.
When general manager Dave Stewart surveys the damage of this season, he’ll find more dead wood than live trees.
Over time, teams tend to get better by cleaning house and bringing in new talent. Tony La Russa, the Diamondbacks’ Chief Baseball Officer and the power broker in all baseball decisions, said he wants ”a fresh start,” and that was the principal reasoning behind dismissing Towers in early September and Gibson in late September.
While a change in the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse is needed, there are other dimensions which bring a manager and players together.
“There has to be open communication and players can talk to the manager about anything,” said pitcher Vidal Nuno, who played for the Yankees’ Joe Girardi and Gibson this season. “It’s all about bonding with the manager. It’s how players talk to the manager and are they on the same page.”
Despite human frailties and the unique personality of each manager, the approach to the game is usually the same. That’s the conclusion Ross drew after spending his career with Detroit, the Dodgers, Cincinnati, the Marlins, San Francisco, Boston and the Diamondbacks.
“I’m a firm believer that players make the manager,” Ross said. “You have to have players and talent to win. Also, communication is key.”
So Stewart and La Russa began the search to replace Gibson’s shingle outside the manager’s office. In the process, both will utilize their sources and contacts but, in the end, they also might ask a few questions to personnel inside the present clubhouse.