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What Intangibles Go Into Winning Team Sports?


This is FRESH AIR. If you spent a few minutes thinking of the places you've worked over the years, you could probably recall a few people who somehow made people around them better. They might not be the most talented, but they'd boost morale, collaborate on projects, share knowledge and pitch in when help was needed. Our guest, veteran baseball writer Lonnie Wheeler, says that Major League Baseball teams are beginning to recognize the value of such intangibles in players they acquire. While the statistical analysis of players, which was dramatized in the film "Moneyball," guides many decisions, Wheeler says there's more to what makes a player valuable. In his new book, he writes that players who work hard, set good examples, mentor other players and create a positive clubhouse atmosphere can make teams better in ways that are easier to see than they are to measure. Lonnie Wheeler is a former newspaper writer and columnist who's also ghostwritten several books with athletes, including three who've been on FRESH AIR - Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson and Mike Piazza. Wheeler spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book "Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games."


Lonnie Wheeler, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say there are two kinds of intangibles - situational intangibles and environmental intangibles. First, what are situational intangibles?

LONNIE WHEELER: Those are the things that you can see on the field - a batter hitting behind a runner to advance him an extra base, maybe taking a pitch so a runner can steal a base, you know, an outfielder calling a fly ball, you know, so there's not a collision, backing up another outfielder who may be charged with an error if the second fellow doesn't get there and save him of that. You know, the little things that people refer to are basically the situational tangibles. And those can be, and to some extent now are being, measured. They're not generally input into a player's bottom line statistically, but they're not being ignored.

DAVIES: So that's situational intangibles. What are environmental intangibles?

WHEELER: Mostly, it's the things that people can't see that may go on in the dugout, in the offseason, in the clubhouse. It's players, by whatever means, making other players better through counsel, through example, work ethic. It's a social thing. It's players rubbing off on each other, playing well with others, creating a culture and atmosphere that is conducive specifically to winning. It's not necessarily creating a kind and gentle environment where everybody's getting along and having a good time. Sometimes, it's - what's required is some tough love or some harsh words.

DAVIES: Right, so there are times that it involves a player making another player better in a clear way by giving some advice or calling them out or giving them an example. There's also the question of clubhouse leadership. And early in the book, you write about the Cincinnati Reds of some years ago when they had two terrific stars, Ken Griffey Jr., wonderful ballplayer, great outfielder, had a sweet swing that would hit the ball out of the park, and then Adam Dunn, who could just hit the ball a country mile. Both good guys, but you say the wrong kind of leadership for that team. Why?

WHEELER: Good guys and funny guys, well-liked, nobody had any problem per se with the way they conducted themselves. But because they were stars - they were powerful; they had gaudy numbers, made a lot of money, were on television all the time and in the headlines - the younger players naturally looked up to them as leaders. And for all their assets on a ball club, they didn't purport to be leaders. They both had body language that wasn't particularly energetic. In Griffey's case, he was advanced in age and dealing with a lot of injuries, and he couldn't play at the breakneck speed that he did when he was young. Dunn is a big guy. He played with injuries also. And he has a sort of a good-old-boy pace about him, maybe the funniest ballplayer I've ever encountered. His teammates appreciated that. But they didn't set a tone of energy and urgency for the younger players.

DAVIES: Which one of these guys had the recliner next to his locker?

WHEELER: Oh, both of them did.

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK.

WHEELER: That became - Griffey and Dunn both liked to relax in the locker room and, you know, just let their hair down before a game and prepare in their own way. And they did have reclining chairs. They had recliners in the locker room. And it became an issue in Cincinnati, referred to by some as recliner gate. And people thought it did set the wrong tone, that it was a lazy team. They were lying around and not preparing. That was their way of doing things.

DAVIES: Right, so two guys who produce good numbers and have certainly earned the right maybe to take a break now and then. But if the younger players are looking up to somebody who is not filled with energy, that's not what we need in a clubhouse leader. What do you need?

WHEELER: The curious thing about it is that - it's like a chemical mix. Depending on what the other elements are, the product result can be so different. The Cincinnati Red that I used most often as an example of being a good teammate and setting an example was Scott Rolen. And he had - having come from the Cardinals, he had been on the outs with his manager there, Tony La Russa. And he'd had some issues to that effect. And in an earlier stop in Philadelphia, he wasn't considered a particularly good baseball citizen. But when he arrived in Cincinnati as a no-nonsense veteran, he led the way and really changed the makeup of the ball team. And younger players rallied around that and respected that. You know, put a player in a different situation and he may not have the same effect at all.

DAVIES: You write that the great player Jack Clark once said that everybody should have the benefit of playing one year with Joe Morgan. I mean, older folks will remember Joe Morgan as the second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds back in the '70s. What was special about what Joe Morgan brought to a team?

WHEELER: In Cincinnati, he was part of a great foursome with Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench that were sort of famous for their - for their needling. And Morgan - one of my favorite anecdotes of the book was in 1975, when the Reds were struggling early in the year. They had a losing record. And they were known for needling in the clubhouse. And the manager, Sparky Anderson, thought it might be excessive. And so he told him to cut back on it. No more needling, just take it easy with the young players on the team. And it wasn't working, and they were losing. They weren't having much fun. Morgan got hurt one day, went in, got treatment, went to the doctor, reported to the ballpark. The next day, he just simply had enough. And he walked into the clubhouse and looked around and said, screw you, Rose, screw you, Bench, screw you, Perez. And then Sparky Anderson is standing there. And he turns around and says, while I'm at it, screw you, too, Sparky.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

WHEELER: And from that point on, the Reds posted - I think it was, like, a .750 winning percentage. You know, anecdotal - who knows, you know, how much of an effect that really had? But it was a dramatic turnaround point for the Reds that season and for the Big Red Machine, which, of course, in those two years, won back-to-back World Series. And what Morgan did was say let's cut it loose, guys; let's be us. And it worked.

DAVIES: We began by talking about the Cincinnati Reds, when they had a couple of great players who didn't bring enough energy to the clubhouse, weren't the right kind of leaders. The team eventually traded them away and got different players. Who provided the leadership, and why did it work?

WHEELER: Scott Rolen was probably the principal leader, and Walt Jocketty traded for him specifically for that purpose. It was an odd trade when the Reds acquired Rolen because they were a young, struggling team. It was a midseason trade. A team like that doesn't usually deal for a veteran. They're usually jettisoning their veterans to rebuild with younger players. And so Jocketty, in sort of a backwards step, traded young players for a veteran on the decline, understanding that what he would bring to the team would be a veteran presence that would instruct the younger players. And it worked.

DAVIES: Well, Lonnie Wheeler, it's been fun. Thanks so much for coming in.

WHEELER: Dave, thanks for having me. It's a treat, so thank you.

GROSS: Lonnie Wheeler spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior news reporter. Wheeler is the author of the new book "Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Dr. Damon Tweedy about his memoir "Black Man In A White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections On Race And Medicine." He's an African-American doctor who has grappled with the health disparities between his white and black patients. And he considers the economic and social conditions that make it seem that being black can be bad for your health. He was diagnosed with chronic health conditions in his 20s. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.