Saturday, October 14, 2006

Up Yours, GMs

The genesis for this post was a conversation with a co-worker who's an old-school Yankees fan, a day before the Yanks were about to be eliminated from the ALDS. From the Bronx, ex-Navy, one of the nicest guys you could meet and a veritiable NY Sports Freak, especially when it comes to the Bronx Bombers. He wasn't devastated about the Yanks being eliminated; in fact, he claimed that he'd known that this would happen all along and had known it in the previous years of Yankee failure as well.

He said that given his choice, there would be 3, maybe 4 of the Yanks current batting order left, the rest presumably shipped off to baseball Siberia (for those wondering, the remaining players would be Jeter, Matsui, Abreu and maybe Damon). He also claimed that the "real" Yankees had died back in 2000 and the teams since then had been crippled by overpaid, over-the-hill players purchased for their name, rather than for their value in terms of builidng a team.

It's a familiar story. It's not too much of a stretch to say that that's what's happening with the Knicks, albeit with much lesser talent and with Real Madrid, who have had roughly the same success with their Galacticos as the Yankees have had with their "greatest line-up of all-time". These once-giants are doddering along, getting outplayed by sharper, younger and less-famous teams that are built around the holistic concept of The Team as a whole instead of being a flaccid temple to the notion of sports celebrity.

This incompetence is especially grating because these teams appear to be exempt from the financial issues that make GMing most sports teams challenging and probably beyond the grasp of somebody who has a good head for numbers as well as for the sport itself. The perception, true or not, is that these teams operate with a different set of rules where there are no barriers aside from the ones created in your own mind, especially in the mind of a dedicated fan.

The usual route this line of thinking follows, as exemplified in the introductory anectode, is "I could put together a better team than the guy who actually does it."

It is a theory that is at once heavily distanced from reality and also most likely true.

Disconnection, because the people running profressional sports teams are dealing with a lot more variables than the fan perceives them as. That basically boils down to: money. With a few exceptions, the GM has to juggle competitive success and financial success. Signing players, trading players, making players happy, these are all things that are fantastically more difficult that it appears to those of us on the passive end of "sports entertainment"*.

The key, as it seems to me, is that GMs (or the people building the teams, it's madness to think of Cashman as the real architect of the Yankees or of the Real Madrid coaches as having much of a say in recent years) have to try and avoid the trap of imposing their personality on the team. That is not their place. Their job is to provide the coach the players to succeed within a system. The GM may have some input upon the system and may impose choices when it is financially prudent/necessary/shrewd; he never should overrule the man actually creating the tactics or lineups for the team, unless that man happens to be himself, in which case if things don't work out, he should consider self-termination.

* - It should be noted at this point that these statements are not based on a long and successful career in sports management; well, maybe it is, if you count playing "Football Manager" as experience in sports management.

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