So here’s the story: Thursday night, in Game 2 of the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals were leading the Texas Rangers 1-0 after eight innings. One inning later, the Rangers put the finishing touches on a 2-1 victory that evened the series at one game apiece. Soon thereafter, the media convened to talk to several Cardinals about what had happened, but Yadier Molina, Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, and – most importantly – Albert Pujols were absent. The veterans disappeared without talking to any reporters, and as should come as little surprise, this got on the nerves of a lot of reporters.Maybe the most scathing article in response came from Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan, who began:
The kids could handle the mess. Never mind that Albert Pujols created it. This is his clubhouse, where his rules apply and where the term leader is thrown around rather liberally considering real leaders, you know, lead. They own their mistakes, like a ninth-inning error in the World Series, and they damn sure don’t let the pups in the clubhouse, the ones in their first postseason, stand and answer questions they’re not equipped to answer.
Passan only got nastier from there. This isn’t a new story. Historically, lots of players have skipped out on postgame media sessions, and it almost always causes a stir. But this is the first we’ve heard of it during the 2011 playoffs, and it’s led people to question whether Pujols is a real leader, and whether any of these guys are real leaders. Real leaders, they write, are accountable. This is a popular word. Accountability.
Let’s get one thing straight right now: I agree that Pujols and the others should have stuck around. I absolutely agree with that. It would have been the right thing to do, and it looks bad that the four of them left. Like it or not, talking to the media is among their responsibilities as professional athletes.
But I just can’t bring myself to care very much. Like a lot of baseball fans, I can’t bring myself to care very much. And I have a very simple reason for that.
There’s a huge emphasis on leadership. In many fields, and certainly all sports. Baseball’s no different from any other; a clubhouse is supposed to have followers, and a clubhouse is supposed to have leaders. Loud, veteran voices capable of keeping a team together, and behind which a team can rally.
At the heart of this concept, and at the heart of most concepts, is team performance. In theory, it’s good for a team to have strong leaders, because they will allow that team to play better. It would be bad for a team to lack strong leaders, because then the team would play worse. If leadership had zero effect on wins and losses, then nobody would care about it, because ultimately wins and losses are what matter the most.
Let’s examine the Cardinals, shall we? The four players who bailed have been Cardinals all season long. Berkman is a new Cardinal, but the other three have been Cardinals for a while. Presumably, little to nothing about them has changed over the course of the year. If you were to assign each of them a specific leadership grade in March, it’s doubtful that that grade would have changed much. Pujols is Pujols. Molina is Molina. Holliday is Holliday. Berkman might have changed a little as he grew more familiar, but it’s not like he’d become a new man.
And how have the Cardinals performed with those veterans? Oh, right, they overcame impossible odds to qualify for the playoffs, and now they’re playing in the World Series, having already eliminated the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers. And, of course, they beat the Rangers in Game 1.
Little about the Cardinals’ leadership has changed. Pujols has always had the attitude that he has. The Cardinals are playing in the World Series. What conclusions can we reach here, really?
I think there are two possible conclusions: either these guys are bad leaders, and it just doesn’t matter, or they’re fine leaders, and they lead in other ways. Maybe their leadership can’t be judged by one instance in which they skipped media interviews following a frustrating loss in the championship.
I don’t know which of the two is more right, but they both point to the same thing: it just isn’t that big of a deal that the four players dodged the media. They should have talked to the media, like their teammates and coaches, but the fact that they didn’t isn’t going to change much. The Cardinals have gotten this far with those four players, and it’s not like the clubhouse is going to collapse because Albert Pujols didn’t feel like explaining to Jeff Passan why he couldn’t handle Jon Jay’s throw home.
I think there can be times that talking about a player or players dodging the media can be important. If a team is really struggling, and there’s nothing in the way of evident leadership, well, maybe that’s a thing. The Cardinals are in the World Series. They came three outs away from being up two games to zero. Maybe Albert Pujols acts like a diva, but this seems like a weird time to worry about it.
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