No Thanks, but Thanks

The New York Times

October 12, 2009

By Doug Glanville

No one has been able to pinpoint the reason. Lidge’s knee has been bothering him all year, his confidence is down, the usual suspects have been cited. Many fans wondered why the Phillies’ manager, Charlie Manuel, stuck with him as he blew 11 saves and recorded a 7.21 E.R.A.

Monday the Phillies continued their march toward what they hope will be their second consecutive World Series championship, and so the Lidge question mark has become more pronounced. As more detractors have faulted Manuel’s loyalty, the manager, exasperated, did not announce a closer for the playoffs, saying that it would be determined “by committee” and adding that “the game is bigger than my heart.”

But I think it’s impressive that Manuel has worked around his closer’s struggles and stayed with him. (And in fact Lidge rewarded Manuel's confidence by getting the save Monday night in the game that sent the Phillies to the N.L.C.S.) I have seen so many situations where players are sent off to pasture or demoted. So what makes the voice of a supporter bigger than that of a detractor? In baseball, as with anything else, you need a sponsor, no matter how good you are, and if you don’t have one you are in trouble.

Sometimes the opposite of a mentor can be nearly as good.

A few weeks ago there was a lot of chatter following Michael Jordan’s induction speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Despite comments about his “pettiness” — he pulled no punches, and went into detail — I did understand Jordan’s perspective. I heard it as someone leaving his passion behind with a final goodbye, saying everything he’d ever wanted to say, including calling out those who, he felt, had done everything in their power to stop him. Not the speech I would have chosen if I were so recognized, but allow me to run with it.

The most poignant message I got from Jordan’s speech was this: thank your enemies. Because when I look back at my career, there were so many turning points, so many advocates . . . and so many detractors.

We want to believe that sports is a meritocracy, that everyone will be supportive and allow your performance and numbers decide your fate, but that is far from reality. You often need someone who will fight for you and demand that the decision-makers give this “kid” a chance. I had a few such sponsors, none more notable than Tom Gamboa, my manager in Puerto Rico and the Cubs’ minor league director of instruction at one time.

Tom, unfortunately, became famous for getting attacked at a White Sox game while he was innocently coaching first base for the Kansas City Royals. (A fan ran out on the field and jumped him, randomly, and Tom was roughed up and shaken.) Yet that is the least of what he should be known for in baseball. He is the eternal optimist — he became a spokesman for personal safety after his attack — whose mantra was, “We didn’t lose tonight, we just ran out of innings.” That sums him up in one line.

But the reason I got close to Tom was a nightmare season I had with a manager in Triple-A Iowa.

This manager and I had been introduced the year before, when his job (like Tom’s) was overseeing instruction for the Cubs’ minor leaguers. Since he was a “roving” instructor, one trip took him to Orlando to evaluate our team. One game, I was on first base when a ball was blooped to centerfield. It wasn’t clear to me that it would drop in. Ken Griffey Jr.’s brother Craig, a good outfielder, was playing center, so I crept toward second base. Well, the ball dropped but I stopped at second, advancing only one base. After the game, the instructor jumped all over me, declaring that I “should’ve made it to third base on that ball.” In self-defense, I didn’t back down, and the conversation devolved into who was going to get in the last word. He would always remember this act of insubordination.

Fast forward to the next season. The instructor was now my manager in Triple-A Des Moines. And he seemed to revel in doing everything he could to break me.

How? In Buffalo, he kicked me out of the stadium (not just out of the game; I was banished from the stadium). I once heard him telling our hitting coach all the reasons he didn’t like me (he’d forgotten that I was sitting within earshot). In mid-season, he informed me that I would not be called up to the big leagues (how he could declare this with so many games left in the season was highly curious). He conveniently omitted one of my ongoing hitting streaks from my player report. He never let me work on one potentially productive part of my game, base-stealing; on the bases, I was routinely given the “stop” sign. That’s the G-rated list and only a small taste. It never ended.

In one game, I was hit in the head by a pitch. The blow, coupled with my attempt to get out of the way, knocked my helmet off. He was there quickly, looking concerned; and although he checked on me, the joke on the team was that he really wanted to make sure the helmet wasn’t cracked.

Like most 24-year-olds, I made my share of mistakes, many of which revolved around trying not to make one. I was naturally cautious and had learned that the repercussions were grave, and this made for a bad cocktail. I’m sure everything I mentioned above has a counterpoint from his perspective. But the real problem was that there was nothing, at the time, that I could identify in his style or actions that indicated he had any interest in helping me. I am sure he firmly believed that his “old school” approach was justified, but even teammates and coaches would whisper to me, “This guy just hates you.”

But I had the last laugh. After having been buried and left for dead in Iowa, I got invited to work out in the Instructional League in Arizona. This was a session geared to much younger minor leaguers, and it was kind of a slap in the face for a Triple-A player like me, if I chose to take it that way. (My manager certainly didn’t value the opportunity, calling it a “complete waste of time.”)

I arrived in Mesa, Ariz., frustrated and annoyed. I saw the glass quarter full. But Tom Gamboa was running the program and would not stand for anything less than a full glass of hope. Practically every day I would ask him, “Do you guys have a job for me in winter ball?” (Winter ball, for American players, was the highest level of play going on after the major league season ended.) I could jump right into new season. I wanted to get better. I wanted to reverse the damage done in Iowa.

Gamboa would initially brush my request off: “Keep working, we are looking.”

After I bit Gamboa’s head off during a base-stealing drill, he took me aside, and I ended up venting about my year in Triple-A. I was like a pet that had been kicked one too many times, ready to take on anyone at the drop of a hat.

He made me a deal: work hard, play hard and see what happens. I did. I improved. Gamboa, who it turned out was managing a team that winter, finally told me, “You’re coming with me to Puerto Rico, but keep in mind, we play to win, not develop.”

I knew this was the defining moment. I had a chance to change a future that, it seemed, had been determined for me by someone who never took a minute to understand me. It was up to me.

Puerto Rico turned me into a bona fide major league player. It’s easy, and obvious, to thank Tom Gamboa for being supportive, caring and unyielding in his belief in my ability. But we can’t choose our lessons, nor should we be arrogant enough to think we always know where a lesson will lead us. Reflecting, like Mr. Jordan, I see that I trumped my Triple-A manager’s assessment that I wasn’t “tough.” (I once asked a reporter, “How do you know who is tough until the smoke clears?”).

The smoke hasn’t cleared yet for Brad Lidge. We may soon find out the real power of loyalty and patience. Lidge’s teammates have stood by him, Manuel has continued to make sure he has a place to contribute and the Phillies keep winning. So we don’t know yet, just as my manager in Triple-A did not know. But whether I liked it or not, that manager also played — maybe not fairly, or even willingly — a useful part in my career. And for that, I have to thank him, too.

New York Times 10/12/2009


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