Role of team chemistry still up for debate

Role of team chemistry still up for debate

Role of team chemistry still up for debate
It is baseball's version of the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Which comes first, positive clubhouse chemistry or winning?

In search of insight, Reggie Jackson is always a nice place to start. Mr. October graced five World Series champions -- three with the Athletics, two with the Yankees -- and unloaded 18 homers in 17 postseason series. His intelligence quotient is top tier, like his monumental home runs.

Asked the question that cannot be definitively answered, Jackson -- traveling with the Yankees as a consultant, always happy to impart wisdom -- didn't hesitate.

"Winning creates chemistry," Jackson said. "It's all about strong leadership. You've got to have someone to keep everything and everybody in order. I've been on teams that didn't have great clubhouse chemistry, but won. We didn't always get along off the field, but between the lines we played the game hard, together.

"What those teams all had in common was leadership. That's what you have to have to win. In the NBA, you look at a guy like [Gregg] Popovich [of the Spurs]. He's got everything under control. That's how it was in the Lakers' "Showtime" days with [owner] Jerry Buss and Jerry West. They made sure they brought in good people. They weren't like the Oakland Raiders, who didn't mind having what you'd call incorrigibles on their roster."

In Oakland and later in the South Bronx during the tumultuous 1970s, Jackson was the star stirring potent drinks. The A's and Yankees, on his watch, shared an affinity for fighting among themselves before and after battling the opposition. Steve Garvey and Don Sutton fought in the visitors' clubhouse at Shea Stadium in 1978 while the Dodgers were en route to a second straight World Series against Reggie's Yankees.

You don't see or even hear of that kind of behavior anymore in Major League clubhouses. If there is discord, it's out of the media's view, in inaccessible back rooms.

Paul Konerko, on his way to another big season with the White Sox, comes down on the other side of the chemistry issue. When his 2005 South Siders rolled to a World Series title, the first baseman was convinced their collective attitude was the difference.

"When we left Spring Training," Konerko recalled, "no one thought we were a good team. Everyone on that team thought we had a solid team. We hung out together and started winning games, and it kind of took off. That was a team that had fun together, and it carried over to the field.

"We had a lot of close games. We didn't bomb a lot of people and put games away. We didn't score a ton of runs, but we put together rallies and won games late. Some of that has to come from being on the same page and pulling together. You have to believe in chemistry when you go through something like that."


"We've seen examples where teams don't get along and win. Look at the A's [in the '70s], the Yankees with Reggie and [Thurman] Munson going at it, even the Dodgers. You might not like somebody, but you respect what he does on the field. Sure, chemistry makes for an easier environment to work together. But do you really think guys think about chemistry when they're on the field? Come on."
-- Davey Lopes

Skip Schumaker is one of those guys you can visualize managing in the Major Leagues. A versatile catalyst in the Cardinals' successful run the past seven seasons, he has absorbed all the elements that go into the making of a champion. Chemistry, he concludes, is an essential component.

"It's 100-percent chemistry," Schumaker said. "Our general manager, John Mozeliak, has done a great job of identifying not just good players, but good clubhouse guys. A lot of our guys hang out after games. It's easier to win when you like each other.

"Young guys come up and feel they belong. We have a really good blend of veterans and young guys. You have to make them feel comfortable on the field and in the clubhouse."

The Cardinals have been going through myriad transitions with the departures of manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and superstar Albert Pujols. Carlos Beltran, signed as the primary Pujols replacement in the lineup, has flourished the way Lance Berkman did when he arrived in 2011.

"I didn't know how good Berkman and Beltran were in the clubhouse until they got here," Schumaker said. "We've had strong veteran leaders since I've been here, and those guys fit right in."

Following Berkman, a key figure in the World Series title run last October, Beltran arrived with postseason experience from his time in Houston and New York. His 2006 Mets fell to the eventual champion Cardinals in a memorable National League Championship Series.

"Good chemistry creates winning," said Beltran, who has generated electricity with 11 postseason homers in 22 games. "You have to get along on a team in order to perform. When there's no chemistry, people aren't happy and don't contribute."

Unfortunately, for all of his thunder, Beltran is best remembered for the third strike he took from Adam Wainwright, ending Game 7 of that NLCS classic in 2006. It is one of the reasons he chose to sign with St. Louis, a club with the weapons to contend behind new manager Mike Matheny.

"It's important to feel good and play free," Beltran said. "We all got along with the [2006] Mets, and it's like that here. We just need to stay healthy."

The Yankees are Mark Teixeira's fourth team, his career taking him from Texas to Atlanta to Anaheim to the Bronx. Teixeira is in the Reggie camp on the chemistry issue.

"Winning is probably first," Teixeira said. "When you're winning, everyone's happy, everyone gets along. When you're losing or uninvolved in a pennant race, you shouldn't be happy.

"In Spring Training, everyone feels like they've got a chance. Everyone's in a great mood in the clubhouse. But if you get to the All-Star break and you're 20 games out of first, it's not a great place to be. Guys on teams like that shouldn't be happy."

Dave Roberts, the Padres' first-base coach, played 10 Major League seasons with five organizations. It took one slide, one stolen base, in the 2004 American League Championship Series to make him a beloved figure forever in the hearts of New Englanders.

Roberts' steal of second ignited the historic Game 4 comeback that took Boston to an eventual World Series title, chasing away all the ghosts and goblins of decades past.

The self-proclaimed "Idiots" are part of baseball lore. Roberts knows it would be a much different story if they hadn't staged the rally to end all rallies.

"Chemistry doesn't necessarily mean that people like each other," Roberts said. "With that team, every day was an adventure. You can have guys like that, with all those different personalities. But if they don't win, they're looked at as underachievers who weren't serious enough.

"Winning definitely bands a team together. It's easy to have good chemistry when you're winning."

Always the realist, Dodgers coach and former star Davey Lopes is dismissive of the whole notion of good clubhouse vibes factoring into a championship formula.

"You don't talk to losing teams about chemistry," Lopes said. "Chemistry is associated with winning. I'm sure you could find teams where guys have a great time together and can't win.

"We've seen examples where teams don't get along and win. Look at the A's [in the '70s], the Yankees with Reggie and [Thurman] Munson going at it, even the Dodgers. You might not like somebody, but you respect what he does on the field. Sure, chemistry makes for an easier environment to work together. But do you really think guys think about chemistry when they're on the field? Come on."

Padres manager Bud Black, who pitched for some superb teams in Kansas City and San Francisco, comes down the middle on the subject.

"I think they're mutually exclusive," he said. "Winning can create good chemistry -- but not always. Very talented teams don't necessarily have to have it. But with teams not as talented, it can help you in terms of momentum, confidence, playing together."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.