RP for the win!

This is about RP, whom I’ve mentioned before. It’s also about how attitude–sometimes called “clubhouse culture” in baseball–affects the championship possibilities of a team. Thus, it’s also a little bit about the 2022 Phillies.

RP nearly always had a smile on his face. You could call it RSF: Resting Smiling Face. He provided everyone with an example of how to be childlike–not childish but taking a delight in whatever life had to offer. He joined the district where I taught in 1983, the same year I did. I taught English to 13-year-olds. He taught Social Studies to these same students, which in most Washington school districts back then meant they received a healthy dose of United States history. I wish I could’ve taken it from him or at least sat in for a few sessions. It must have been entertaining, because he always entertained. When he didn’t find things entertaining enough he raised the entertainment level. To wit:

Toward the end of one school year our school held its annual Open House. Teachers prepped for Open Houses by putting their best visual foot forward–bulletin boards were spruced up, posters and other motivational aids adorned walls, and where possible certain subject matter teachers were allowed to create displays in our cafeteria (the only gathering space in the main building). These displays were typically science, home economics, or art related subjects, those which naturally produce something to look at.

This year our art teacher planned to display collages. Nearing retirement, he mostly mailed it in when it came to teaching. He had issues with his home life, also, which probably affected his abilities in the classroom. This apparently led to his lack of judgment when he allowed a couple of his students to make collages of photos torn from magazines, all of which featured naked women. None showed those “absolutely forbidden areas”, but they were torn from women’s magazines and primarily advertised such products as bath oils, shaving, and other products which would display a lot of skin.

Our staff learned about this one day as we lounged about the  faculty room immediately after students had been dismissed. Two of the younger teachers, both women and both outspoken feminists, marched in brandishing two questionable collages and demanded, “What the hell, B—-! You can’t put up stuff like this!” Turning to our principal they implored her to “do something”. Most of us stood there, seeking the mild entertainment level or clucking a bit disapprovingly to stay on the Right Side of Things. Not RP. Not enough entertainment for him. He and I were standing in the doorway to the faculty room when he took a half step back so that I obscured him from the others. Leaning closer to me, he whispered, “watch this.” He wiped the ever-present smile from his face to look serious and stepped into the room.

“Well, really, I mean, I don’t see what’s so bad about it.” That’s all he said. It was like throwing a match onto a pool of gasoline. The two young women turned around so fast I’m surprised they didn’t pull a muscle. They raised their already loud voices to screeching level. “What’s wrong with you! You can’t see how inappropriate this is? I can’t believe it! We can’t display this to the parents.” One of them went so far as to impugn him because he was a coach: “Well I guess coaching all the time you wouldn’t understand!”

Sure it was momentary, but it provided both him and me a great deal of entertainment. More importantly, RP didn’t care what they thought of him at that moment, nor that he immediately wound up on the wrong side of a couple of the more conservative members of the staff. Heck, even I thought it was inappropriate to display something like that to parents because we were sure to be attacked for letting their precious little children be exposed to that…never mind that 13-year-olds are about the most oversexed beings on the face of the planet.

RP encountered several of us in the faculty room another time as April 15th neared. All Americans know this day better as Tax Day since that is the deadline for submitting our annual tax returns detailing how accurate our tax withholding had been during the previous calendar year. Many people play with their withholding levels, artificially lowering them to have more money in each paycheck, or artificially raising them to guarantee a refund. As Tax Day nears, the latter like to provoke the former by asking the former things like, “I’m only getting back a thousand dollars this year–how ’bout you?” 

Both strategies are short-sighted. Over-withholding means letting the government hold onto your money, interest-free for up to a year. Under-withholding represents the epicurean approach, living large in the present, and ignoring the bill which comes due in the future. RP shared my belief that one shouldn’t seek either a large refund or pay a large tax bill, but instead should seek to pay a very small amount: this guaranteed that an appropriate level of your own money stayed in your pocket paycheck to paycheck, the government didn’t get to hold onto it any longer than legally necessary, and your tax bill remained easily affordable.

RP, however, had his own twist to taxes. He listened a bit to a couple co-workers complain about how much they owed, and said, “I never pay very much. I just decide how much I think is fair for me to pay and just work my taxes backward from there.” For a moment you could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall. Several jaws hung slack. Soon several rushed to educate him about how wrong he was. By this time I had learned more about RP and just leaned against the wall, amused. Did he really do his taxes that way? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. He had highjacked the conversation from its annual woe-is-you-and-I’m-so-great theme. He yet again provided entertainment.

Perhaps RP just felt one should envision what one wants and then go get it. He certainly encountered this every year when he coached high school sports. In the fall he played his part on the coaching staff for the football team. (American-style.) He must have chafed under someone else’s coaching style, because I knew his philosophy and that it diametrically opposed the current head coach’s. Our district had the lowest student population of all the districts in our athletic league. This is a serious thing for football: the team fields 11 players at a time, and one usually trots out different players for defense than for offense. When special situations come up (extra point attempts, kickoffs, etc.), one would like to send out at least a few special teams players. Small districts just don’t have the turnout to field teams of this size. Some players play both offense and defense. They tire. The team can’t perform by the final minutes in a game. They lose.

Come basketball season our district should have excelled. Basketball lends itself to small schools as Gonzaga University, Creighton, Xavier and others can attest. RP helped coach football, a boys sport, but in the basketball season he took over as head coach for the girls basketball team. Those girls teams did quite well under his guidance. Our boys? Not so much. RP got most of those boys when he served as the head coach for baseball season in the spring.

“Pilcher, it just sucks,” he said to me enough times it’s been burned into my memory cells. “Our district is so small we’ve got the same boys playing football, basketball, and baseball. By the time I get them, they’re convinced they’re losers. Hell, this year they didn’t win any games in football and only one in basketball. They actually started chanting on the bus after a football loss ‘WE SUCK!’

“I get them and spend the first half of the season convincing them they can win. Teach them the right way to play. We play twenty games each season. This year we went oh-and-ten the first half of the season and ten-and-oh the second half. If I could just get those boys before they’re convinced they’re losers!”

In professional sports, but particularly in baseball, there’s a term thrown about by fans, sportswriters, players, just about everyone: clubhouse culture. It’s indefinable and unmeasurable which means the statisticians don’t like it. It’s difficult to discount, though. Teams such as the 2003 Florida Marlins, the 1993 Phillies, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, and yes, the 2022 Phillies will attest to what it means when it seems they captured lightning in a bottle. Repeatedly they cite the team camaraderie and other factors which allowed them to play relaxed, to the best of their abilities. RP would be saying, “hell yeah!”

In 2018 the Phillies–I told you this would be about them sooner or later–were supposed to be “better”. In the parlance of fans, that means “we’re going to have a winning season and maybe contend for the playoffs.” Up and comer Aaron Nola had been pitching for three years for a cumulative Earned Run Average of 3.94, and Rhys Hoskins had debuted in 2017, hitting 18 home runs in just 212 plate appearances. The team boasted a number of stars-in-the-making: catcher Jorge Alfaro, third baseman Maikel Franco, centerfielder Odubel Herrera, and rightfielder Aaron Altherr. Several other players looked promising, as did the pitching staff, and the team had a proven first baseman (Carlos Santana…no, not that one). Things looked bright. Hoskins, a natural first baseman was shoved into left field where hitters go to watch balls die somewhere not near to where they’re standing. Things looked good on paper, but the games are played on grass, and the Phillies finished 80-82. This vastly bettered 2017’s record of 66-96, but wasn’t the winning season everyone expected.

In 2019, therefore, when the team signed superstar Bryce Harper to a contract whose value would allow more than two hundred families to retire comfortably, fans got hopeful. They traded that young stud catcher Alfaro for a proven commodity, J. T. Realmuto. They ditched Santana and put Hoskins at first. They snagged Andrew McCutchen, a five-time All-Star and National League Most Valuable Player in 2013, and they traded a surefire prospective shortstop (J. P. Crawford) to the Seattle Mariners for Jean Segura. Sure the new manager from 2017, Gabe Kapler, seemed to be an idiot, but he got better during 2017, didn’t he? This team looked like it was “going places”. Where it went was one win better than 2018, 81-81. Kapler got fired because …you have to blame somebody or it’s going to be your fault isn’t it Mister General Manager (Matt Klentak). Former Yankee great as both player and manager, Joe Girardi, took over managing the team.

Everyone got a pass in 2020. Well, everyone but Matt Klentak.  To fill in a better option at shortstop, the Phillies had signed Did Gregorius, hoping he could regain the star statistics he had displayed through 2018. Segura moved to second base. A rookie third baseman, Alec Bohm, showed up and hit a bunch. The team finished 28-32 in the pandemic-shortened season, two games under .500, a backwards direction from the previous year. Worse, the postseason field was expanded to reflect that the 60-game season couldn’t sort out teams like a 162-game would. The Phillies, had they just played to .500 ball as they did in 2019, would have been in the postseason. GM Klentak had no one left to blame, and out the door he went.

Enter Dave Dombrowski. He exhibited patience. He pushed a few prospects to manager Joe Girardi’s dugout but spent 2021 figuring things out. A lot of “stupid money” had been spent but the team had underachieved by a lot. Players arrived to the major league team unprepared to fit in. Worse, Girardi seemed to have a short leash with these players, seemingly saying, “hey, the minors are supposed to prepare these guys!” At the end of 2021 the Phillies tried to make the most out of the fact they went 82-80, the first actual winning season since the juggernaut 2011 team won 102 games. But c’mon–one more win than the dissatisfying 2019 team? Really?

Let’s bring it back to RP and clubhouse culture. Here’s the point: Dombrowski made sweeping moves regarding the scouting and player development systems, changes which will eventually prove to be more important than his signings and trades for 2022. Most impressively he signed Kyle Schwarber, not just because he smacks a lot of home runs but because he walks into a clubhouse and pulls it together into a cohesive unit. The Phillies aren’t in the World Series this year without him. And they aren’t in the World Series if Dombrowski doesn’t fire Girardi on June 3rd. Yankee Joe remains an admirable player/manager, but he wasn’t the right fit for this baseball club. Looking back at it, no one ever wanted to mold the franchise into the Yankees, and that’s all Joe really knew. He expected certain things his players could not, would not deliver.

Ultimately clubhouse culture, attitude, atmosphere–whatever you want to call it–rests with the guy at the top. For the players in the clubhouse, that’s the manager in the dugout. Dombrowski’s most important move was putting even-keeled Rob Thomson in charge. (RP, anybody?) Secondly, putting Kyle Schwarber in the clubhouse. His batting drove in 94 runs; the team scored 747 runs in the season. That means Schwarber was responsible for 12.5% of the runs scored. It would take more math than I want to perform to compare his plate appearances against total plate appearances for the Phillies, but considering all the “extra” guys who play because of substitutions, filling in for injured players, and giving guys a breather, it’s significant Schwarber could manage one-eighth of all the team’s runs. But remember, it’s the clubhouse attitude which sets Schwarber apart.

As RP would say, “Hell, Pilcher, Schwarbs thinks the team can win on any given day! It’s like having a second manager in the clubhouse!” (By the way: it was RP who nicknamed me “Pilchbo” which has stuck for these 40 years.)

One thought on “RP for the win!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s