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March 7, 2005
Close Doesn't Always Count in Winning Games

TAMPA, Fla. - The most extravagant collection of celebrities this side
of Oscar night meets in a windowless bunker every workday before 9 a.m.
Here in their stocking feet are Jason Giambi, who has emerged at the
center of a nationwide steroids controversy; Alex Rodriguez, who has
been fending off insults in the news media from opposing players; Kevin
Brown, the pitcher who last year broke a hand by punching a wall; and, a
few lockers away, the newcomer Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 pitcher
whose first visit to New York as part of the Yankees resulted in a
public scuffle with a cameraman.
Looming nearby, always, is the principal owner, George Steinbrenner, who
on Feb. 26 vented his anger at Giambi's agent, using a profanity when
referring to him and producing more tabloid headlines.
Yet at the eye of this hurricane, the clubhouse feels as sleepy as a
back porch on an empty afternoon. This is not a team on the verge of a
nervous breakdown. Nor is it one that - like its archrival, the world
champion Boston Red Sox - exhibits the kind of passionate team
cohesiveness that analysts and many sports psychologists consider
critical to success.
But social scientists who have studied group performance under pressure
say that often it is decentralized groups (like the Yankees) that prove
more resilient than strongly connected ones (like the Red Sox); they are
better able to weather outside criticism and internal quarrels.
Evidence from personality profiles and from studies of military,
corporate and space flight crews suggests that looser ties between group
members can be a strength, if the team includes individuals who can
generate collective emotion when needed. And the Yankees have several of
"So much of psychology and sociology emphasizes the importance of
communicating and creating strong bonds to improve group performance,
but in a lot of situations that is just not how it works," said Dr.
Calvin Morrill, a professor of sociology at the University of
California, Irvine, who has studied group behavior in competitive
corporate situations and in high schools. "Baseball is an odd mix of an
individual and team sport, and an ideal example of where a diffuse team
with weak ties to one another may help the overall functionality of the
In interviews during the first week of spring training, Yankees players
said there was no single dominant personality in the clubhouse, no
boisterous leader. The diffuse nature of the group seemed evident. The
team's stars have corner lockers, or lockers next to open spaces, and a
few of them are centers of gravity. In one corner, pitcher Mike Mussina
anchors a group of pitchers and other players. In the opposite corner,
outfielder Gary Sheffield centers another small group. And in a third
corner, catchers Jorge Posada and John Flaherty sit. A clutch of
Spanish-speaking players occupy a bank of lockers in the center of the
room. Shortstop Derek Jeter, the team's captain, made the rounds of the
clubhouse on his first day, then settled at his locker like any other
teammate: hardly a portrait of the take-charge leader many imagine.
"You could be a fly on the wall in the clubhouse all season long, and if
you didn't know already, you couldn't even tell who the leaders of this
team are," Flaherty said.
Insulate the Team
But the culture in the Yankees' clubhouse seems to put the team first,
in one often overlooked sense: It presumes that front-line players can
handle their own problems, and that they will protect the team from
controversy, rather than the other way around.
"I certainly like it" when players take individual responsibility,
Manager Joe Torre said in an interview in his office in Tampa. Torre
said he made it clear to players that they would not be insulated from
criticism, from the news media, from Steinbrenner or from anyone else.
He said that he expected players to address controversy or criticism
immediately and that his role was not to shield them but to reduce the
stress it causes "by letting them know that they're not the only ones
getting criticized, and that it does go away."
When reporters early last month invited Yankees players to defend
Rodriguez from barbed comments in the newspapers that were attributed to
Red Sox players, they declined, saying the issue was between him and his
accusers. A few days later, Rodriguez shrugged off the comments in
interviews and even suggested a mock headline for his response: "A-Rod
Doesn't Back Up A-Rod."
When Giambi, the first baseman who reportedly admitted using steroids,
arrived for his first spring training workout, he entered the clubhouse
just after the coaches and the other players left for the field. With
his career in the balance, and his integrity under question, he faced a
swarm of reporters with queries about his personal and professional life
for more than 20 minutes. He was the only Yankee in the room.
Johnson, who pushed aside a cameraman on his first visit to New York as
a Yankee in January, said, "My understanding of the way it works is that
everything you do or say gets noticed, and if you make a mistake you are
personally accountable for it." Johnson made a public apology within
days of the incident.
Winning is more likely to create team unity than vice versa, Torre has
said repeatedly, and the evidence backs him up, said Dr. Richard
Moreland, a professor of psychology and management at the University of
Pittsburgh. Team cohesion is a hard thing to measure in the first place,
Dr. Moreland said, and dozens of studies of sports teams find that,
although having players who feel team unity helps performance, "it is
not a strong effect, compared to the effect of performance on cohesion."

Torre puts it this way: "Look, I was on teams in St. Louis, we would go
out 10 or 12 of us at a time, but we finished third or fourth. We got
along, we liked each other, all that stuff, but all that meant is you
weren't alone a lot."
When a common purpose is shared, loosely tied groups can function better
than strongly bonded ones when it comes to containing dissent or
bickering, research suggests. In studies of neighborhood organizations
and corporate teams, social scientists have observed that members with
weak ties can withdraw from disagreements without disrupting the group
or their own work.
On a tightly knit team, by contrast, a falling out between key members
can divide a squad, forcing people to take sides, psychologists say.
"The idea is that any sort of problem is likely to ripple more strongly
and quickly through a close group than one with weak ties," said Dr.
Mark Granovetter, a professor of sociology at Stanford.
Psychologists who have studied the personality profiles of people who
face far greater pressures than winning in October - including
special-operations forces and astronauts - agree that those who do well
share distinct qualities: they tend to be independent, confident, able
to tolerate uncertainty and socialize easily with others.
"But they are not too outgoing, not socially needy, not the sort of
people who need others for support," said Dr. Lawrence Palinkas, an
anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the chief
adviser to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which
studies spaceflight.
Whether such independent, loosely tied people ultimately succeed as a
unit depends not only on strong management, researchers say, but on the
presence of individual group members who can circulate through disparate
parts of the team, reduce conflict and help generate collective spirit
when it is needed.
In one continuing investigation of a highly diverse high school of 1,600
students, Dr. Morrill found that a single 16-year-old white skateboarder
had been critical to the reduction of conflict. "He moves between black,
Asian, Hispanic and white groups, and he's one of these kids who's
always bringing good news," he said. "He's a very important person in
this school."
The Go-To Guys
While high schools are hardly baseball teams - there aren't many A-Rods
on skateboards - ballplayers acknowledge the same kinds of people can
keep a clubhouse united despite multiple strong cliques. "I can attest
that on the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks," Johnson said of the team that
beat the Yankees in the World Series that year, "we had a couple players
like that, Craig Counsell and Danny Bautista, that helped keep us
playing as a unit."
Torre says he pays close attention to who socializes with whom, and is
pre-emptive if he perceives a problem between players or groups. "If I'm
uncomfortable with a situation, I'll ask a player to check it out for
me, because as a player you can get in where I, as the principal,
can't," he said.
In the 1990's, he said, he often asked catcher Joe Girardi, now a coach
on the team, to help head off potential problems between players. Now,
he said, he may ask Jeter, Posada or outfielder Ruben Sierra, whom Torre
sees as a kind of prodigal son. The Yankees traded Sierra away in 1996,
despite his power, because of what Torre called his "self-involved
attitude." Sierra later asked for his job back and returned as a backup
player in 2003, a source of good cheer in the clubhouse and one of
Torre's most important conduits to Spanish-speaking players.
Several players also note that Posada, who is bilingual, moves easily
throughout the group and may support as well as challenge individual
players, as needed. In an interview, Posada acknowledged that he would
immediately approach other players if he saw them having trouble,
whether mechanical, baseball-related or personal. "If I see a problem, I
say something right away," he said. "I don't wait two or three days."
He may not be able to wait two or three pitches, come October. If the
Yankees do go down to the wire again with the Red Sox, a single signal
or word from Posada, Jeter, or Torre may be enough to change a game or
turn the tide in a series. And no researcher can predict at that point
which system will prevail, the centralized passion of the Red Sox or the
diffuse professionalism of the Yankees.
One thing is certain for the Yankees, though: if they fail, they will
face another off-season of hearing how soulless they are compared with
Boston's band of brothers.

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