Off-field harmony tends to breed on-field success
Constructing an upbeat clubhouse atmosphere is an important step toward winning
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Loud clubhouses generally are happy clubhouses. Noise in the forms of music, laughter and fraternity-like pranks and interactions can translate into vibrant on-field performance over the long grind of a 162-game season.
It can be argued that no clubhouse ever was louder or wilder than that of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. The "We Are Fam-i-lee" members, united in song and dance and playing the game from the heart, rocked and rolled their way to a championship by coming from behind to seize the final three games of the World Series from the Orioles.
"We never lost faith in each other," the late Willie Stargell, ringleader of that fantastic Pirates team, shouted above the roar of the celebration after he'd powered a Game 7 triumph in Baltimore. "We believe in each other and never thought we were going to lose."
More recently, in a similar vein, a rollicking Dominican Republic club rolled unbeaten last spring to the World Baseball Classic title, dancing and prancing to its Latin beat every step of the way. Robinson Cano and Fernando Rodney, major parts of the victory, are reunited in Seattle, where ace Felix Hernandez welcomes them for their vibrant personalities as well as their on-field exploits.
"Cano's one of the best players in the game," King Felix said. "And for the ninth inning we got a guy who's closed for a long time -- with no fear.
"These guys, Cano and Rodney, have a lot of personality. That's what we need here -- to have fun. You can't get too serious. It's a game; you have to have fun. The last thing you want is a quiet clubhouse. I don't think this clubhouse is going to be quiet. I know Fernando a little, and he's a great guy. He keeps things loose."
Rodney is one of the game's colorful characters, a natural comic with a bag of hilarious tricks featuring a bizarre bird call. Cano's good times are more conventional.
"Cano can be a leader," Rodney said. "He knows that you play your best when you're relaxed. Our [Dominican] team was very relaxed in the clubhouse and very motivated on the field."
With Tampa Bay the past two seasons, Rodney recorded 85 saves for a manager, Joe Maddon, who goes to creative lengths to keep his players engaged and connected.
"He keeps everybody happy," Rodney said. "Everybody plays and everybody has a good time. That's why he's a great manager."
From Minnesota to Anaheim to Detroit, Torii Hunter has served a similar role for his teams with good humor and an engaging manner.
"Torii makes you feel like you belong the minute you walk in the clubhouse," said former Angels teammate Peter Bourjos, now with the Cardinals. "You can't force it. You just know he cares about you, and it's real. He's a vocal leader who loves to laugh -- and teammates know he always has their back."
New Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon attended a Seattle Seahawks practice this winter orchestrated by a head coach, Pete Carroll, who was in the process of driving his team to a Super Bowl title. Carroll's high-energy style left quite an impression on his camp guest.
"He had music on the loudspeakers all through that practice," McClendon said. "They got all their work done, all their drills, and he kept the music pounding the whole time. The mood stayed really upbeat."
Mike Trout feels it's a good sign in the spring when he gets to the ballpark early in the morning, and he's not alone.
"We've got a meeting at 10 and we're there at 6:30, so we have all this time to interact," Trout said. "Team chemistry, I think it's a big thing. You have to make it fun -- not just, 'I'm going to the field every day.' It's huge to want to be here with your teammates."
They might not be as electric as Hunter, but veteran imports Raul Ibanez and David Freese have the personalities to lighten and brighten the Angels' clubhouse after the darkness of a disappointing 2013.
"This guy here," Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick said, nodding toward Ibanez, "we're of a similar mind. He's like a big kid who loves everything about the game. I talk to him all the time. He's very serious about preparation and getting his work in, but he really enjoys what he's doing. You need that kind of attitude to be successful.
"Freese, I like him too. He's won a World Series, played in two World Series. He's been a World Series MVP. And he's a good guy, down to earth. He brings a lot to our team."
Along with Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Jered Weaver, reliever Kevin Jepsen is part of the Angels' version of the "core four" -- the remaining players from their most recent playoff team of 2009.
"Players are like everyone else -- if they're happy when they go to work, they're going to perform better," Jepsen said. "If there's not a good feeling in the workplace, you're not going to want to go to work every day. But this isn't like a normal job. We don't get weekends off. We're together pretty much every day for eight or nine months, so it's important to get along.
"We got used to it with Torii, but it doesn't have to be one guy [leading the way]. If everybody pulls for each other and picks each other up, that's what you're looking for. I think we have a really good group of guys here."
The Brewers are Mark Reynolds' fifth team in eight Major League seasons. The slugger learned Sunday he'll be sharing first base with Lyle Overbay, his teammate last season with the Yankees.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has followed the lead of his good buddy Mike Scioscia, the Angels' skipper, in presiding over highly entertaining team meetings before workouts.
"It's a consistent grind," Reynolds said, "and you've got to find ways to keep morale up. I don't want to compare it to the military, but you do have to find ways to break up the routine. For example, I've got to wear this thing." He pointed to a Vietnamese-style hat at the foot of his locker.
"It's important to keep things lively," Reynolds said, grinning.
When the 2004 Red Sox chased away all those ancient ghosts and goblins en route to the World Series championship, they made it happen as self-styled "Idiots." Johnny Damon led a band of rogues who stunned the Yankees in the American League Championship Series by sweeping the final four games.
Padres bench coach Dave Roberts played 10 Major League seasons with five organizations. It took one stolen base in Game 4 of that ALCS to make him a figure forever beloved in New England.
Roberts will tell you the "Idiots" would have faced ridicule if they hadn't staged the rally of 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."
Like the 1979 Pirates, the 2004 Red Sox had the characters and chemistry to turn the monotony of a long season into a Woodstock festival. It's not a bad formula, if you don't mind the noise.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.