|Jorge Posada’s struggles at the plate and with his role typify the difficulties when stars hang on past their primes. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)|
Yankees go up against an age-old question
NEW YORK — You’re overseeing a stellar work staff that’s maybe a little past its prime.
The boss is complaining that performance is off and says the old guard must go. A little gray now, they once were your top employees. They’ve given their professional lives to the company.
But someone needs to take on the challenge of managing them out. So congratulations, Joe Girardi, it’s your job.
From his dugout perch, the Yankees skipper has seen Jorge Posada flail away at the plate, he’s watched Derek Jeter hit dozens of routine grounders.
It all raises an age-old question: What’s the best way to handle stars when they near the end?
Mike Schmidt, he retired the day he made a key error. Cal Ripken Jr., he went gracefully. Brett Favre, not so much.
To Linda Hill, these breakups are not limited to the sports world. She’s the Wallace Brett Donham professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and sees similarities when corporate boards part with long-serving chief executives.
“Usually we don’t tell people, particularly superstars — because we’re too dependent on them for the business, whatever it is — we don’t tell them that frankly people don’t see them as credible as they were before,’’ she said.
“And so you hope that they figure it out for themselves, because it’s a difficult conversation. And then you spring it on them and you often do it in a way that doesn’t allow them to maintain their dignity,’’ she said.
While CEOs usually stay sharp into their 60s, the drop-off in baseball players most often occurs in the mid-to-late 30s. Jeter, who turns 37 next month, is right on schedule. Posada, 40 in August, has outperformed most catchers his age.
It doesn’t figure to get any easier for them.
Jeter’s decline over the last 1 1/2 seasons and the ruckus caused by Girardi’s decision to drop Posada to ninth in the batting order point to prickly times ahead.
Starting with Jeter and Posada, but then expanding the discussion to all established stars, Girardi says they deserve an added degree of communication when lineup shifts are contemplated.
“Especially if you have veterans in certain cities, just because it just might be a little bit more of shock for them,’’ he said.
“But I try to give all my players warning, show them respect, talk to them before I make moves, so when they look at it, they’re not shocked or someone runs and puts a microphone in their face and they haven’t seen that it’s happened yet.’’
Sage advice Mike Hargrove managed three teams over 16 seasons and guided Ripken through his final two seasons with Baltimore. Hargrove thought back two decades, to when he was an up-and-coming coach on the Indians and John McNamara gave him some advice.
“When you get a manager’s job, one thing you’ve got to remember: ‘Never let a star fall on you,’ ’’ Hargrove recalled his boss telling him. “Said that to me a thousand times.’’
Ripken often batted seventh in his last season, waved to the adoring Orioles fans a final time, and headed to the Hall of Fame.
“The more people can make those choices themselves, opt in or opt out of jobs and giving them graceful exits into a different role — a role, for example, that might appear to have high status but maybe doesn’t pay as much — is usually a good way to get people to make the transition,’’ said Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor professor of management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Cappelli is the director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources and co-author of “Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.’’
“Older employees want respect and acknowledgment,’’ he said. “The one thing that’s different is that now, at least in the corporate world, almost nobody makes it to retirement age. In the modern corporate world, people take buyouts before then, they move, they do something different.’’
Nolan Ryan went on to own a team, Don Mattingly became a manager, and Magic Johnson and Troy Aikman wound up as broadcasters. But most players who leave their games are gone for good.
In a sport that venerates its greats, baseball managers have no tougher task than easing the best of the best through their final years, from the seasons when they were the fulcrum of the franchise through the inevitable decline that leads to retirement.
When a player has spent his entire career with a single team, as Ripken did, the burden multiplies. Add in a trove in titles, and it becomes close to unprecedented.
In good company Jeter, Posada, and teammate Mariano Rivera are in a select group of sustained success, among just 11 major leaguers who have been with only one club, played at least 15 seasons, and won three or more World Series championships.
Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Frankie Crosetti, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Bernie Williams of the Yankees, Stan Musial of the Cardinals and Jim Palmer of the Orioles. Among those who have appeared on the ballot, all but Crosetti are in the Hall of Fame.
Staying with one team through an entire career has become rare. Some of the biggest stars in sports have switched sides, with Favre leaving the Packers, Johnny Unitas departing the Colts, Emmitt Smith moving on from the Cowboys, and Bobby Orr exiting the Bruins. The Knicks traded Patrick Ewing after 15 years.
When Favre was 35, the Packers drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Favre retired after the 2007 season, then wanted to come back, but by that time the Packers had moved on after 16 seasons. Coach Mike McCarthy said he held six hours of what he called “brutally honest’’ conversations with the player in August 2008. Within two days, Favre was traded to the Jets.
Fans and media are quick to point out a decline and push for immediate change. Modern media, such as 24-hour talk radio, cable television, and Twitter have sped up the news cycle. But, to some extent, nothing has changed.
In New York, someone wrote this about a couple of baseball All-Stars: “These statistics become a sad requiem, especially when a fellow remembers those two as they were once not long ago — crowd-pleasing operatives whose brand of instant magic could lift an entire ballclub . . . But now their value has shrunk.’’
No, that wasn’t a reference to Jeter and Posada. It was New York Times columnist Arthur Daley referring to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in 1967.
“There is a tendency to want to hold onto people who’ve been productive for far too long,’’ said Canice Prendergast, professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek said the erosion of ability is inevitable, mostly because it takes longer to bounce back from a strenuous activity.
“Sports are traumatic. Every time they swing the bat that hard, particularly when they swing and miss, there’s trauma to their forearm muscles, their shoulder muscles, their abdominal muscles, their intercostal muscles, and those have to recover,’’ he said.
Dr. Anders Cohen, chief of neurosurgery and spine surgery at The Brooklyn Hospital Center, said it’s not the reflexes that decline.
“The brain reaction in milliseconds to a stimuli is pretty close — it’s not 100 percent but it’s still in the 90s,’’ he said. “The brain recognizes it, and then the body says do it, but the body itself doesn’t quite respond or get to the peak point it did at a young age. All of a sudden, he doesn’t get around on the fastball like he used to.’’
Return to norm In the late 1990s, some baseball players seemed to defy time, maintaining power strokes and fastballs into their 40s. With the start of drug testing with penalties in 2004, the norm returned.
“Certainly, the ability to work out longer while on steroids may be a factor,’’ said Dr. Gary Wadler, former chairman of the committee that determines the banned substances list for the World Anti-Doping Agency. “Ultimately, we all age, and with aging, physiological functions decay or decline.’’
Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame manager who led the Dodgers for 22 years, said accepting that decline all comes down to preparing veteran players for change.
“You’ve got to treat them for what they’ve contributed and you’ve got to be able to communicate with them,’’ he said.
“I can remember a time when one of my outfielders came in to me and he asked me, ‘Why aren’t I playing?’ I could have very easily have said, ‘Well, I don’t think you’re good enough to play.’ Now what am I doing when I tell him that? I’m knocking him down. I’m taking his confidence away from him, right?
“So I say to him: ‘Look, have you ever seen a stage play in New York? Well, there’s always a standby there, and if anything happens to the star, this guy’s got to do the job,’ ’’ Lasorda recalled.
But as a player gets up in age, self-doubt increases, even for players accustomed to success.
“For these guys, the only thing they’ve done in their adult lives is play baseball,’’ Hargrove said. “So any time it looks like the door may be closing on you, it’s as scary as anything else, and leads to all kinds of emotions and problems.’’
Complicating the matter for managers, sometimes, are owners who depend on the aging stars to help sell tickets, even if those players are no longer productive.
“You still may be the reason why people are coming to the game, even though you’re not the one that’s doing the hitting anymore,’’ said Hill. “Then maybe you’re still worth some money — seriously, for some period of time.
“Once the public realizes you’re not worth seeing, I suppose then your contribution goes down and you’re not being paid for that part of it either, or you shouldn’t be. That may be a fair exchange. It’s sort of the equivalent to the star who has had three bad movies.’’