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On Passion And Fire In Baseball

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After yesterday's Carlos Zambrano antics, Bob Brenly said on the Cubs telecast: "This has been a deadass team for three months," and implied that having such an outburst might be good for the Cubs.

With all due respect to Brenly, whose commentary I like and who both played and managed major league baseball, I don't think that sort of thing either: a) has any place on a baseball team, or b) accomplishes anything except embarrassment and a mess for the manager and general manager to clean up.

I think Brenly, and some here as well, are confusing yelling and screaming with fire and desire to win. Follow me past the jump and I'll explain why I don't think this kind of thing has any place in major league baseball.

Let me begin by examining the kind of teams you put together in the three other major North American professional sports, and the kind of individuals who play those sports.

In the NFL, each team has one well-defined leader -- the quarterback -- or at least, someone who's supposed to be that leader. Obviously, more skilled quarterbacks are going to help lead teams to victory. But it is, I believe, also true that a good quarterback/leader has to be a strong, rah-rah guy, who might yell and scream at players in practice sessions. We often hear stories of fights breaking out at NFL training camps; this isn't surprising given the physical contact you see between teammates in practice, especially in training camp where it's summer, temperatures are high, and emotions run high. Football is an emotional game, played at a fast pace.

So is basketball, which also has quite a bit of physical contact. Elbowing goes on all the time in the NBA; sometimes fouls are called, sometimes not, which often leads to agonized looks on the faces of players who think they've been wronged. Players defend their teammates as best they can against these kinds of infractions, within the rules; break the rules and you're penalized with fouls. Too many fouls and you're out of the game, which, presumably, you don't want -- thus, games are played physically, but not with teammates shouting at each other.

Which leads me to the NHL. Hockey is a violent sport. Players move at breakneck speed and crash into each other all the time; I've written before that I don't care for the fistfights that break out when a team's enforcer -- or someone else -- takes exception at certain hits. Some of these hits are, in fact, dirty (as was the one on the Blackhawks' Brian Campbell by Alexander Ovechkin in Washington last March), and that leads to fights, penalties and suspensions. Players defend their teammates with vigor and emotion -- you can see it on the ice every day, and it's expected.

Baseball is not played that way. First, it is played on a nearly everyday basis. Players must go out and perform daily or nightly, many times banged up (I've read player quotes that say, essentially, "the only day you feel 100% is the first day of spring training"), and keep things on an even keel. Players spend more time with their teammates during the season than with their families -- different than any other sport. It must be a collaborative process, not an emotional process, that keeps teams together. I have never once seen a team succeed by screaming and yelling at each other. The 2008 Cubs, who won 97 games -- no tantrums; not even from Carlos Zambrano. One of the complaints about that team was that it "lacked fire", presumably one of the reasons they lost the playoff series (I don't agree; I believe one of the primary reasons was that it was ill-prepared by its manager). That was one of the stated reasons for the acquisition of Milton Bradley, to add "fire".

That isn't the "fire" you want to add; we all know how that situation worked out and I won't belabor it. I will, however, point out that the most successful of teams over the last 15 years -- the Yankees, who have 14 playoff appearances and five World Championships since 1995 -- don't yell and scream at each other in public, don't have meltdowns like Carlos Zambrano's. If anything, you can accuse them of being too staid and businesslike. It is true that the "Bronx Zoo" Yankee teams of the 1970's, who also won a pair of World Series, had their share of characters and one memorable dugout confrontation between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin -- but that's one incident, and team management immediately took control of the situation and it never happened again.

Did you see this year's Red Sox, who got off to a slow start at 19-20 and 8.5 games out of first place as late as May 23, yelling and screaming at each other and throwing tantrums in the dugout? They could have been called a "dead-ass team", too, but no, you did not see that. They calmly and methodically, under a manager who knows what he's doing, moved back into contention, to the point where they were within a game of first place earlier this week and are well-positioned to win the wild card, if they can't overtake the Yankees.

That's the kind of leadership the Cubs need, and do not have, with Lou Piniella. Yesterday, TV networks re-ran the footage of the Zambrano/Michael Barrett fight from June 1, 2007. What struck me more than anything about that footage was how dark Lou's hair was only three years ago. This team has aged him and it shows in his slumped shoulders and resigned "Look, what do you want me to do" statements. It was time for him to go a month ago; now, it may be too late to do anything about this year.

I haven't said much about Jim Hendry's role in all this. I put him in the middle of the pack of major league GM's; he's made good moves and bad, and in his tenure the Cubs have had more postseason play than any decade since the 1930's. There is no doubt that the huge backloaded deals he's handed out like candy have hamstrung him, and the Zambrano deal may be unmovable. Phil Rogers in the Tribune today suggested shipping him to the Yankees for Kei Igawa; Igawa is pitching poorly in Triple-A and the idea is to rid yourself of the $45 million (approximately) left on Z's deal, not take on more immovable money. Rogers also says:

Coincidentally, it was 363 days ago, after watching Zambrano cold-bloodedly drill the White Sox's Dewayne Wise out of spite, at the end of another tiresome meltdown, that I wrote the Cubs should put him on waivers and see if anybody would take him off their hands for nothing — sort of the way the Blackhawks just shed three Stanley Cup winners and the Bulls have agreed to trade Kirk Hinrich. More than 70 percent of voters responding to a Tribune poll agreed they would do it.

Hendry could put Zambrano on waivers now — he probably will, judging from the disgust he and Piniella showed — but would anyone want the contract? And don't forget that the Cubs also gave Zambrano a no-trade clause. He could block any move.

This is all true, but it has to be done.

In any case, this kind of gets away from the main point, so let me wrench this back on topic. Sure, players should care about winning. Though the Cubs have looked, many times this year, like a team that can't hit, can't pitch and can't field, I have no doubt that they care. Throwing a tantrum in the dugout and screaming and yelling at one of the most respected players in the game doesn't indicate "fire", it indicates that you have psychological problems that need to be addressed, and better addressed, perhaps, in another zip code.

Let them be addressed elsewhere. And get a field leader who leads, not sighs.