LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - No matter how prepared he thinks he is, new Nationals manager Dave Martinez cannot escape one indisputable fact that will dog him until March 29: He’s never managed in the major leagues.
Baseball history is rife with learned men who have been unsuccessful in their first go-around at the helm of a big league club. Joe Torre finished in last place his first three seasons as Mets skipper and was fired from three jobs before he latched on with the Yankees, where he won four World Series in five years. Only four rookie managers have led a team to a victory in the Fall Classic, the last being Bob Brenly with the Diamondbacks in 2001.
When Martinez was introduced in late October, he willingly accepted a mandate to not only get past the National League Division Series but win a World Series. Maybe he was caught up in the moment and wanted to say the right things, but Martinez might as well have repeated Davey Johnson’s mantra from the 2013 campaign - “World Series or bust” - that concluded with the Nats 10 games behind the NL East-winning Braves as Johnson shuffled off into retirement.
The bar has been set high, by a club frustrated with excruciating first-round playoff exits and by Martinez, who figures that expecting the best out of his charges is the best way to extract maximum performance.
It’s a character trait he picked up from his mentor, current Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, who thinks the world of his protégé and fully expects Martinez to flourish in D.C. in his first managerial gig.
“It’s just Davey’s time,” Maddon said yesterday during his media briefing at the Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. “He’s ready to get this done, and I really have a lot of confidence that Davey is going to do a great job.”
For eight seasons between Maddon’s tenures in Tampa Bay and Chicago, Martinez served as his bench coach and right-hand man. We’ll see if Martinez replicates some of Maddon’s trademark lineup decisions - like batting his best hitter second or his pitcher eighth with a speedster in the nine-hole - or whether he’ll import some of Maddon’s wacky motivational gimmicks - like penguins in the clubhouse or themed dress-up travel days.
But Maddon is sure the Nationals have hired a savvy, smart baseball lifer, a former player and coach who is not only making the natural progression into the manager’s office but also possesses the right personality and skills to succeed in one of the hardest jobs in professional sports.
“He’s very good at what he does,” Maddon said. “He’s going to be a very good in-game manager. We talked a lot during the course of the games. He’s also a very good instructor. He’s a very good outfield instructor. He can help with the hitting.”
But being a manager requires both multitasking and the ability to delegate responsibilities to other members of the coaching and support staffs. Until a guy has been in that seat, it’s hard to know exactly how he’s going to handle the pressure and react to the day-to-day grind.
Maddon knows Martinez is well-acquainted with baseball’s newfangled metrics and statistics - it’s one of the chief reasons he was hired by the Nationals, who gave him a three-year contract. But Maddon understands more than most that sabermetric knowledge isn’t worth a hill of beans without the ability to personalize a presentation to an individual player who may or may not have the same zeal for the numbers and how they can impact a game.
“It’s always going to be about the heartbeat,” Maddon said, meaning the way Martinez couches his interactions will be a key in his dealings with the players.
“Everybody knows the data, the information,” Maddon added. “Everybody’s got pretty much all that stuff. Then you have to decide to what extent you want to utilize it. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to get better baseball players. Better baseball players that are fearless, better baseball players that when it gets hot a little bit, meaning tight, that they respond well to that. They never quit, they never give up.”
Martinez believes in personal interaction, and envisions himself working the clubhouse like a Capitol Hill lobbyist on an almost daily basis. It’s not just being viewed as a players’ manager; it’s the ability to connect with members of his team, forge and foster relationships, and let them know you’re behind them 100 percent.
Maddon values an environment where coaches aren’t pigeonholed into their area of expertise - pitching coaches only dealing with pitching, a baserunning coach only instructing the finer points of sliding into second base. Given Martinez’s long connection to Maddon, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him adopt a similar philosophy.
“I love cross-pollination, where coaches are not afraid to step outside of their own little department, to add to the conversation because they know the guy they’re talking to is not going to be offended, because their self-confidence is strong enough,” Maddon said.
Martinez has been interviewing for jobs for a handful of years now, always considered a future manager but never quite landing the job - until now. Maddon believes Martinez’s tenure as a bench has created a template that he can put into place now that he’s finally secured the job he’s coveted for so long.
“You know, I gave him a lot to do,” Maddon said. “He was really involved in the defense every day, he was involved in outfield. He would stand by me during the game, was always listening in on the discussions for pitching changes, etc. Offensively he knew what I wanted; he was following the signs all the time.
“He would throw a suggestion out there. Just talking about the game stuff. Probably more importantly, he’s like, ‘How do you deal with the players themselves, conversation?’ I would ask him to have conversations with certain guys and sometimes it’s not easy, not easy ones.”
Bench coaches function as a liaison between a manager and his players. It’s one of the many responsibilities of the job. But in the way Martinez went about those conversations, Maddon saw a man capable of connecting on a very personal level, an innate trait he thinks with serve the first-year skipper well.
“You try to send the intermediary out there first,” Maddon said. “Because ... it’s funny how players react to the manager sometimes in a real frozen (way) or they get like concerned manner, whereas if you send the messenger, they react to the messenger a little bit better. So Davey was really good at delivering messages.”
Soon the former messenger will be the one crafting messages and dispatching his trusted lieutenant into the clubhouse, for reasons good and bad. The role may be changing, but Martinez’s excitement for the assignment has not.
“Davey is ready,” Maddon said. “He’s ready.”