Ingredients for winning require rare mix
Sometimes it's easy to see which players and managers have that rare "it"
TAMPA, Fla. -- He's a man defined by the rings he's won in October. But the quality that really separates Derek Jeter from the masses is the unstoppable force that drives him from April to September.
We know it as energy. But it's more. Or focus. But it's more. Relentless concentration. But it's more. What Jeter really has is an ignition with no "off" switch.
It's the stuff winners are made of. Some men have it. Many don't. Some teams get it. Many don't. And as we stand at the precipice of another baseball season, we can guarantee you this:
It will show up over the endless baseball marathon ahead. It will in time separate the teams that win from the teams that don't. In a season in which you can make a case for why 22 teams can make the playoffs, it will be baseball's great divider once again.
If you can't play baseball with never-ending energy and focus every day of this long, relentless, exhausting season, you will be exposed. Happens every year. And it will again in 2010.
"When people ask me what separates the good players from the great players, that's it," says the Yankees' Andy Pettitte, a man who has played with six MVPs, six Cy Youngs and five World Series MVPs. "And that's what makes this team so good. I can't believe the intensity our position players bring to the ballpark every day."
But after listing all those names, Pettitte says, "Derek is the best. I can honestly say I've never seen him give away an at-bat. Never. Not any."
We have catchphrases for the quality he's talking about: intensity hustle energy passion. But none of those words quite define what this is about.
Anybody can crank it up for a day. But baseball is a game you play every day. So to play with energy every day, to maintain concentration every inning, to hustle on every play requires a level of excellence, commitment and competitive inferno that most human beings can't even comprehend, let alone reach.
Jeter isn't the only player in baseball who rises to that level, of course. He's just the poster boy. So to try to paint this picture, we spoke with three players who exude the kind of hyper-energy we're talking about -- Jeter, Chase Utley and Johnny Damon -- as well as two managers who do their best to demand it -- Jim Leyland and Charlie Manuel.
They all go about it in different ways. But they all have this particular "it:" the stuff that winners are made of. So listen to them talk about what that "it" factor is, and you'll understand what this phenomenon is all about.
"Over the course of 162 games, it's difficult to have that energy every single day," Utley says. "But if you have it, you can create something. If nothing's there, you can still create something with that energy."
"It's a mindset," Jeter says. "You know what I mean? I'm not one who believes you can turn on and off a mindset. Either you have that mindset or you don't have that mindset. That's a difficult thing with this long season. If you lose focus, you're in trouble."
"You'd better have it, but it's a tough thing to do," Damon says. "I just know the first time you come to the ballpark without it, you can get embarrassed. And you can wind up, as my old coaches used to say, with egg on your face. But that's why this game's not for everyone. The average guy goes out and tries to play in a softball league for one day and he's sore. We have to try to be ready 162 games a year. Plus spring training is about 20 more. And if you make the playoffs, that can be another 19. So you'd better have that energy."
All three of those men love the big game and live for the defining moments in every season. But what separates them from mere mortals is that they feed off every little moment in between -- in their own totally distinctive ways.
Jeter is the king of cool. Utley is the opposite: so intense his teammates are sometimes afraid to speak to him when he locks into his zone. And then there's Damon, a fellow who comes to the park every day with a smile on his face, wondering exactly how much fun he can have trying to figure out how to win today.
"To some guys it's baseball, and to other guys it's a job," Leyland says. "That doesn't mean the guys who think it's a job aren't good at it. But that's what it seems like. To some guys it's like playing Little League, and that's what Johnny Damon reminds me of. He's like the Little League kid who can't wait to get there, has their hat turned sideways and they're going for ice cream afterward, no cares in the world and can't wait to play the next Little League game."
But Damon says he was taught early on -- by his first big league role models in Kansas City, Greg Gagne and Gary Gaetti -- that there's more to baseball than just having fun, that you never mail in an at-bat, ever.
Then he "learned how to win," he says, when he got to Oakland and was mentored by Jason Giambi on how to dig in and grind those big at-bats. And now he does his best to spread those lessons -- the daily doses of fun, the importance of every game, the art of the great-at bat -- wherever he goes.
"He's a winner," says his new GM in Detroit, Dave Dombrowski. "He's been great for us. Tremendous. I always knew he was a good player. But I didn't realize the other stuff he brings to the table."
Utley, meanwhile, brings much of that same stuff. But baseball is no yuk-fest to Chase Utley. The Phillies' second baseman is consumed by his work, immersed in every second of every game like just about no one you've ever run across.
"I've been in baseball 42 years, and I've seen a lot of intense players," says Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin. "But without question, he's No. 1. You know, Chase is a friendly guy, but I'll put it this way: During a game, I don't bother him. He's got something on his mind, and he's totally focused. I don't know if I could have played if I was that focused."
You wouldn't expect a man who has spent 42 years in professional baseball -- as a player, coach and manager -- to talk about a fellow baseball creature with that sort of how-does-he-do-this awe. But Utley is so driven, so intense, so obsessed with excellence, he's a constant topic of exactly this type of conversation within his own sport.
Eventually, even he became aware of how other people talk about him. But that has only reinforced his passion for how he goes about it.
"Some of the compliments I've gotten over the years have kind of stuck with me," he says. "Like, 'I enjoy watching you play,' or, 'Don't change the way you play.' Things like that, you don't forget. [His late, great coach] John Vukovich used to tell me that. Other coaches on other teams have given me those kinds of compliments. You're not looking for those compliments. You don't expect them. But when they happen, you appreciate it."
Jeter -- another source of nonstop conversation in the same circles -- had a similar experience about a decade ago, with a gentleman by the name of Hank Aaron. It still blows The Captain away.
"It was in Boston, at the All-Star Game in '99," Jeter says. "We had all the players out there on the field, huddling around Ted Williams. And I got a tap on my shoulder. It was Hank Aaron. I'd never met him before. He said, 'You're the guy I've been looking for. I've been wanting to meet you.' I said, 'You've been wanting to meet me?' He said, 'I really enjoy the way you play the game.' And coming from him, those are the things you remember forever."
So if old-school baseball men of that stature are seeking out the likes of Jeter and Utley, just to say they notice there's something, well, different about the way their bonfires burn, you know this isn't something we're dreaming up just to get us through another workday. This is a real, tangible quality that places the truly special winners and leaders in a category all their own.
Jeter still believes it's a quality that was instilled in him by his father Charles, a social worker who competed with him as a kid in anything and everything -- and "never let me win."
"I think those are lessons that you learn, that life can be difficult at times," Derek Jeter says. "So you've got to have that mindset, to want something. You have to work for it, and it's not going to come easy. I enjoy competing, at anything. And I want to win. You've got to enjoy competing. If you don't enjoy it, then I think it's very difficult to focus in on every game."
But Jeter, Utley and Damon are only interested in talking about their own mindsets for so long, because they also understand their season's work isn't about them. It's not about the numbers they put up. It's about the number their team puts up -- in the old "Wins" column.
"It's not just me," Utley says. "It's our team. Our team plays with a lot of energy. We always bring that intensity level that can push us over the top at times when we're not at the top of our game."
When people talk about teams "learning how to win," learning this art seems like a big part of it: the art of maxing out the energy meter every single day. But Utley looks around at the personalities in his clubhouse and wonders if that's how it worked with his team.
"I'm not sure if you learn that," Utley went on. "I think the type of guys we have here play that way. And when other guys come into this organization, and they see guys playing hard every day, it sets that tone, that here we play the game the right way."
But the truth is, no team can have everybody playing that way every minute of every day of the longest season in sports. It isn't humanly possible. So what happens when teams slide off those tracks? That's when their leaders -- and managers -- have to grab the steering wheel.
Jeter and Utley may not be the loudest voices in their ballparks. But when they're asked if they'll say something if they see a teammate playing with his head somewhere else, they both snap back with a thunderous: "Yes."
"People say I'm not vocal. How would you know?" Jeter says, pointedly. "One thing I don't do is do it through the media."
"If something has to be addressed, I have no problem addressing it," Utley echoes. "It might not be pretty. But I think, because of the way I play, guys respect my two cents."
Sometimes, though, these issues become too big for a player -- any player -- to address. And that's why managers get paid the big bucks.
Let's jump in the Way-back Machine and head for April 2006. It's a getaway day for the Detroit Tigers that turns into an unsightly 10-2 loss to Cleveland. Afterward, the new manager, Jim Leyland, stomps into the clubhouse to tell his team it "stunk," that it had essentially cruise-controlled its way to this loss and that if this is going to be the effort level, he'll be happy to go get new players with a different effort level. Then he invites the media into his office and tells the world the same thing:
"We stunk, and that's not good enough. This stuff has been going on here before, and it's not going to happen here. We had a chance to take a series. I'm not talking about anyone in particular. I'm talking about the team, myself, the coaches and everybody else included. It's my responsibility to have the team ready to play today, and they weren't ready to play. They were ready to get on the plane and go to Oakland. If they won it was OK, and if they lost it was OK. That's not good enough."As famous 21st-century managerial tirades go, this one might be No. 1. But Jim Leyland didn't launch into it to make the Sound Bite Hall of Fame. He had a bar to raise -- for a team that had averaged 100 losses a season over the previous five years.
"You have to remember this was a talented team that had floundered around, and they really didn't believe in themselves," Leyland says now, as he looks back on that day. "They didn't realize how good they were. I saw some things in the last few innings of that game that day, and it just hit me wrong, and I said what I felt. I mean, it could have blown up in my face, but that's what I believed. Now I'm not saying I had anything to do with anything. But fortunately, after that, they started going out and grinding out nine innings every day."
Yeah, he probably didn't have anything to do with the fact that his team climbed off that airplane and swept two straight series, won 12 of its next 14 and 28 of its next 35, then kept rolling all the way to the World Series. Yeah, that was probably just a coincidence.
Right. Sure it was.
"He was smart," says then-Tigers reliever Chad Durbin, "because he didn't just allow it to stay in the clubhouse. There are certain things you do and don't tell the media. But in this case, he let them know what he was thinking, because then it became bigger than just a speech that ends in five minutes and you're done. It became newsworthy, and that made it more relevant to everybody."
The message the manager sent that day -- that it's not acceptable to play a game where if you win it's OK and if you lose it's OK -- "made them aware of the expectations," Leyland says. But just because we know now that it worked doesn't mean he knew it would work at the time.
"It's a button you have to push at the right time," he says. "It's a real dangerous button, because if you push it at the wrong time it can be disastrous."
All managers hold that button in their hands every minute of every day. What often defines the best managers is their innate ability to sense precisely when to push it.
The manager of the past two National League champions has turned out to be a man who has mastered that sense. Charlie Manuel may seem like a player-friendly softie from the outside. But his bench coach, Mackanin, says: "You know that quote, 'Don't mistake kindness for weakness?' That's Charlie."
Manuel has yanked his MVP shortstop (Jimmy Rollins) out of a game for not hustling. He has taken on his Opening Day starter (Brett Myers) in the dugout, with the TV cameras rolling. He has summoned more players to his office for a "chat" than anyone will ever know. And his team meetings, while rare, are legendary for their this-is-NOT-the-way-we-play lectures.
Charlie Manuel loves his team and loves his players. But "every team has guys," he says, "who you've gotta watch, because they like the attention and all of a sudden, the game starts to become more about them than the team and winning the game. Well, the game is the No. 1 priority. But guys will forget sometimes. They'll get caught up in who they are. And that's not good."
But it isn't so much runaway egos that Manuel is most on the lookout for. It's signs that his team has started to get a little too comfortable. And that's when it becomes time for him to push that button, and launch into his favorite topic -- getting his troops back to "playing the game the way we always have."
"I've said things to our team about energy," Manuel says. "Sometimes I'll say, 'Look in the other team's dugout. Right there is what we had. That's what we've got when we're playing good. That's what we want to keep. And look, they've got it and we don't have it right now.' You have to remind them. If you're a manager, you'd better be talking about those things."
He has always picked his spots to send those messages. But the men in his clubhouse say he's had an incredible knack for finding the right time, saying it the right way and getting his team's GPS back on course. Utley says it's all part of the "hidden genius" of Charlie Manuel.
We spend a lot of time in our lives talking about what makes teams win. Funny how little time we spend talking about this part of the equation. Explain to us sometime why we talk less about what makes winners tick than we do about money. As big a factor as those dollar bills can be on some levels, they're overrated on so many other levels.
"People always mention money," Jeter says. "We've been spending money for years. Lots of [teams] spend money and don't win. Money gives you the opportunity to win. But it doesn't mean you're going to win the World Series. You have to have that mindset in order to win."
Oh, money can buy you Cy Sabathia. We understand that. But you know what it can't buy? It can't buy you the flame that ripples through Derek Jeter's brain every night of every season. It can't buy you the look in Chase Utley's eye, every at-bat of every season. It can't buy you the voice in a manager's head that tells him when it's time to push That Button.
There are forces in the baseball universe that are way more elusive -- and way more important -- than money. It's the stuff winners are truly made of. And if you don't recognize what that stuff is by now, we guarantee you'll recognize it by October -- because the eight teams still playing by then will never survive the treacherous journey down Highway 162 without it.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.