By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer -
When people ask me about Mike Scioscia, the first thing I say is that he runs a great clubhouse. The atmosphere is so conducive to winning; it is unlike any I have ever experienced. From the player personnel to the coaches on his staff, it all seems to jell inside the inner confines of the ballpark. Make no mistake, it is all a part of his master plan. Every spring the seeds of team chemistry are sown in what most players would say is the best-run training camp in the game. Just about anyone new to the Angels comments on how much fun that morning meeting is and how it sets the tone for the days work. Scioscia creates a mood of excitement that really builds team unity and camaraderie.
My favorite memory of Scioscia occurred in one such Spring Training morning meeting. But first I have to give some background about the situation. Sosh is big on player introductions and getting to know some of the new or younger guys on the team. Humor is usually the icebreaker, and a player’s ability to play along with it is key. Often a player’s favorite hobby or activity provides the fodder necessary for his comic genius. Typically, the result will be a “project” for the player to bring back to the team meeting on a later date.
To use an example, a player from Texas, John Lackey’s home state, might be required to put together a chart featuring all the current Angels players from Texas and any pertinent information about them. Sosh usually finds a way to make the situation hilarious. He is a prankster—and he won’t get bent out of shape when the joke’s on him. One spring training, Sosh dispatched a couple rookies to the local renaissance fair. Their assignment was to give an investigative report and videotape the medieval festivities for the team. Unbeknownst to Sosh, the rookies had a little support from some of the veterans, looking to turn the tables on the manager. Taking one of Sosh’s jerseys with them, these guys were able to recruit a renaissance actor to team up with them in their ploy.
The actor weighed about 350 pounds and sported long hair and a shaggy beard. Squeezing him into Sash’s jersey, they made sure he was in the background of every scene, doing subtle but weird things. During a sword-swallower demonstration, the 350-pound behemoth was in the background simulating the feat with a turkey leg bigger than a Louisville Slugger. The background effect wasn’t noticed immediately, but when it was, it was priceless. There were several similar scenes, and as the video ran, everybody picked up on it—except for one person. Sosh was oblivious that the joke was on him.
The final shot featured Shakespearean actors performing in front of a giant Trojan rocking horse. After several moments the camera gradually panned up the rocking horse, and the huge guy in the Scioscia jersey was rocking away on it like a little kid, and yelling “Wheeeeee!”
After the roar of laughter, Sosh finally caught on to the prank,demanding to know what was so funny. When his hefty screen counterpart was pointed out wearing his jersey, nobody laughed harder than Sosh. In fact the tape was rewound so Sosh could see what he had been missing out on all along. Seeing Mike’s hysterical response was almost as funny as the video. You can learn a lot about people who can laugh at themselves. When the Angels hired Mike Scioscia as manager in 2000, there were some questions about what they were getting in a rookie manager. The previous coaching staff had been cleaned out from top to bottom, so Scioscia had to come in and clean up the mess. Names like Jim Fregosi and other veteran managers had been thrown around, so I was a little bit surprised when they went with a first-time manager. As history would have it, he ended up being the wise choice. He gave the team a transfusion of Dodgers blood: the tradition of excellence, the philosophy of doing things right from top to bottom.
Love or hate them, the Dodgers have always played a style of ball that includes manufacturing runs and a reliance on great pitching and defense. An emphasis on stable pitching and sound defensive play was ingrained in Sosh, and he brought it with him across town to Anaheim. He figured that with the right kind of hitters, runs can be manufactured, but good pitching and defense are mainstays that require constant emphasis. The Angels, on the other hand, had enjoyed some great offensive clubs and solid defenses, but holes in pitching were a constant problem. From day one, the manager’s main focus was pitching and defense.
One reason Mike is such a successful manager is his preparation. With the help of his coaching staff, there is not one aspect of the game that is overlooked. A master planner, he has every conceivable drill, scenario, and option available to him covered by the time he gets to spring training. In the last couple of years I’ve had the privilege of sitting in Mike’s spring-training staff meetings. I have always come away impressed with his sound input in every facet of team preparation. He is a micromanager at times, but it is because he understands what needs to be done in every aspect of the game. This is the reason he’s rarely caught off guard. He has planned for every possible scenario far in advance.
Mike was a gritty, hard-nosed player in his day and understands what players respond to. He also possesses a sophisticated understanding of the game. It is in the finer points of the game where he is most impressive. Countless times I have passed by his office and seen him sitting at his desk scouring the stat sheets or reading the MLB rules handbook. He analyzes complex numbers and on-base percentages, thinking beyond the box and translating it into a game-day strategy. He can break down these 21st-century stats like very few other managers can. And how about all the times Sosh runs on the field to argue a call? Those poor umpires are in for an education. I guarantee that he knows more about the rules in the book than most of those umpires do. Often you will see Sosh question the most innocuous play and think there can’t possibly be anything to argue about. But trust me, he is always looking to stretch the boundaries of the rulebook, taking advantage of any gray area that might benefit him. On the rare occasions when he is wrong, you can find him after the game, flipping through his worn-out rulebook and looking for a loophole.
He is consistently able to see the whole picture. The game is not a sprint but a marathon, and that concept is central to his managerial decision-making. Many times managers get caught up in the mindset of Win today and worry about tomorrow when it comes. If this is done without planning and discretion, it can cause all kinds of problems over the course of a season. While winning is always a priority, Sosh isn’t afraid to rest a key player or hold off rushing someone back from the DL in favor of guaranteeing their long-term health and production. It is his patience and perspective that keep him from making rash decisions. Sure, it helps to have a deep bench or good minor league talent from which to draw, but those are other aspects of his preparedness. Coming out of spring training, he knows exactly which players can help him on the bench or in the minors, and he makes sure that they are ready to contribute when called upon. It is a message that is heard loud and clear throughout the organization: Be ready, because he’s not afraid to use you if needed.
Most people don’t know that Sosh is a bit of a master psychologist. Just ask any player or newspaper reporter who has sat on his couch in his office. Anyone who has been on that couch usually finds himself walking out the door having agreed to something but not exactly sure what it is they agreed to or why. It is Sosh’s unique ability to sway just about anyone to his position. I can’t tell you how many times I walked into his office determined to do one thing and came out wondering how I’d just been talked into doing just the opposite. Many a player has stormed into his office hell-bent on rejecting a day off only to leave his office convinced that he probably could use one.
The man has a golden tongue. As a motivator, he’s in touch with the inner workings of his personnel, and he knows what makes them click. Part of his process involves breaking down the old-school barriers that kept the veterans and the rookies in their “proper” places. Under Sosh, the playing field is level—and that includes the clubhouse. Egos are checked at the locker room door. Young guys still need to rely on the veteran leadership, but they need to know they are respected and accountable for doing their part, just like the veterans. Having that comfort level is something that has helped build team unity and chemistry.
I believe it is a combination of all these attributes that provided what the Angels organization needed to get over the hump and win our first-ever world championship in 2002. Mike’s focus on the little things leaves nothing to fall between the cracks. His mantra of “one game at a time, one inning, one at-bat, one pitch,” has narrowed everyone’s approach down to the smallest controllable detail. His managerial prowess is no better bolstered than by the fact that two of his former coaches are now big-league managers. I’m sure that there will be more to come as organizations seek to tap into his methodologies and pluck those disciples out from under him.
Sosh’s influence has not gone unnoticed in me. I have had the opportunity to be around him as a player and now in retirement as a guest coach in spring training. As I become more involved in my own kids’ lives, coaching their Little League teams, I often find myself quoting Sosh’s mantras to the kids. Managerial trends are part of all professional sports. Every decade or so, someone comes up with a new style of coaching that sets a new trend. Without a doubt, the Angels were lucky to land a manager like Mike Scioscia and get on the front end of that wave. I’m convinced when it is all said and done, he will go down as not only one of the all-time great managers in Angels history but in the history of the game as well.
© 2006, Always an Angel, Playing the Game with Fire and Faith by Tim Salmon and Rob Goldman