The Cubs and Craig Counsell didn’t do anything wrong. Neither are angels, but neither is the devil incarnate. The Cubs recently fired their manager, the once-beloved David Ross, so they could replace him with Counsell, who had been fiercely loved by Brewers fans until he signed with the Cubs. Now many of those same fans hate Counsell with a passion usually reserved for a road-rage incident.
Big-time baseball is a blood sport dressed up in nice uniforms. Players are traded or waived without a second thought. Managers get fired all the time. The heartlessness of the Cubs’ removal of Ross might have seemed like next-level cruelty, but there’s not much difference between a lot of cruelty and a whole lot of cruelty. There’s just cruelty. If you know that and expect it in sports – and you should – nothing surprises you deep down.
So there’s no right or wrong in personnel decisions in pro sports. There’s only what is.
Surely we can all agree on one thing, though: Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Jed Hoyer and Counsell no longer should be able to use the term “family” when referring to what happens at the office and in the clubhouse. Same with “team culture,’’ family’s first cousin. You can’t kill off Grandpa Rossy, replace him with another gramps and think that’s how normal families operate.
The prevailing culture of the Cubs clubhouse should be “watch your back,’’ just as it should be with any pro sports team. To pretend that a team is family is just that – pretend. The only way professional teams are family-like is in their dysfunction, so why is it that every coach in every sport tries to sell their players, and us, on this fiction?
They think it can help them win, although there’s no way to quantify that it does. They think that if the left guard and the running back share a brotherly love, one will block better and one will burst through a hole quicker. And if a second baseman thinks of his manager as a father figure, he’ll … what? Ask for advice on his inability to commit to a relationship? Ask for the car for Saturday night?
It’s strange when you think about it. Why is teamwork in sports conflated with family? I like my coworkers, but I don’t think of them as family members. I’ve had jobs in which I’ve spent much more time with my fellow employees than I did with my wife and kids, but there won’t be anything for them in the will when I’m gone. Most people feel this way. And most people do well at work without a second family.
But the sports world grabs on to fake family ties with both hands and won’t let go. It’s absolutely bizarre when you think about it. Coaches at the college and pro level are constantly trying to find better players than the ones already on their rosters – the players, they tell us, whom they love like their own children. I’m sure there are times we’d all like to trade in a brother or a sister, a mother or a father, an uncle or an aunt. But we don’t. We can’t.
Players at the highest levels all think they should be starters. Coaches ask many of them to support teammates who get all the playing time. And if that’s not enough, they ask them to love them like family members. It’s beyond the limits of human nature. Only a coach, high on whatever corporate leadership book he’s just read, would take that last ridiculous leap.
Isn’t it enough to ask athletes to play as hard as they can for their teammates without attaching filial devotion to it?
It takes a certain kind of person to buy into what a coach or manager is selling, and maybe gullibility is the ingredient I’m missing here. There are people who can be all in without thinking through the absurdity of what’s being asked of them. You know what we call those people? The next generation of coaches.
I hope Hoyer stands in front of the team at spring training and speaks the following truth, the only truth:
“The only culture here is winning. The only relative here is the theory of relativity: W=mc2. W is for “winning’’ and I forget what mc2 stands for. We canned Rossy because we found a better manager. That’s it. Nothing against him. If Craig Counsell doesn’t win, he’ll get fired and so will I.
“I really like you guys. What I like about you most is that I think I can win with you. I forget the other stuff I like about you. But if we don’t win, you’ll be gone. If we do win, there’s a chance you’ll be gone a few years after that. The good news for you? Many of you will be filthy rich either way.
“It’s OK to become attached to one another. I have no proof that it helps a team win, but it can’t hurt. Just don’t become too attached. I hate messy goodbyes.
“Joe Maddon used to think up a slogan for each season. For 2024, mine is ‘Win or Else.’ I’m having T-shirts made with those words printed on them. They’ll be ready on May 15, the International Day of Families.’’