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OC Register: Alexander: Dodgers, Angels in good hands in weird circumstances

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Let’s face it: Pandemic Baseball is already a squirrel derby, to use the pet phrase of one of This Space’s favorites, the late Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College football coach Gene Murphy. It is going to be different, it is occasionally (often?) going to be chaotic, and the normal boundaries aren’t always going to apply for players, fans, executives, whatever.

Under those circumstances, if you are a Southern California baseball fan, you should be heartened. From a managerial standpoint, at least, the Dodgers and Angels are in good hands as they try to navigate whatever craziness is ahead.

Dave Roberts has already created and nurtured a Dodgers clubhouse philosophy of flexibility, especially with a position player group where, with a couple of exceptions, nothing is guaranteed night to night. New Angels manager Joe Maddon believes in the comfort of being uncomfortable, acknowledging the hurdles and working through them, and keeping the lines of communication open to a greater degree than most managers.

It would be easy to be thrown off by this new (temporary?) normal, right down to a list of protocols previously unimaginable in this most traditional and routine-oriented of sports.

“You got to roll with it, man,” Maddon was saying the other day. “You just can’t be inflexible right now … I mean, I can’t say anything’s been difficult.

“It’s really weird, though, when you really have to spit, how tough it is to spit. I mean, that’s probably the most difficult thing. Otherwise, it’s not been that bad.”

In such moments are we again reminded of what the title of “manager” means. So much is made of lineups and in-game strategy and how much of a role front-office functionaries play in each, but the real heart of a manager’s work is in managing personalities and creating the right atmosphere.

(And, these days, also reminding them to avoid high-fives and leave the sunflower seeds at home.)

“You’re always trying to make sure the players are physically, mentally and emotionally prepared, and things are always kind of unknown and unpredictable,” Roberts said. “But obviously, like everyone else, (with) this kind of layer with the global pandemic, I never really thought I would have to try to educate myself so I could kind of help the players along and really keep their psyches positive and focused on baseball.

“Everyone is in that same bucket, I guess … There’s a lot of logistic things that are still kind of coming towards us as you get closer to the season. So I’m just trying to be open-minded (and) nimble, and hopefully our players will follow suit.”

The Dodgers have had a player opt out in pitcher David Price. Both teams, along with just about every other team, have had players who have reported late or haven’t yet arrived at Training Camp 2.0, for reasons the managers have said they couldn’t describe but very well might be coronavirus related.

There are new additions to the language of baseball, satellite camps and taxi squads, and the hallowed routines of baseball – including the clubhouse as refuge/hangout/bonding space – are being revised out of necessity.

There will be unforeseen twists and turns going forward, and everything is overlaid with the possibility that in the event of a major outbreak within the sport, the season doesn’t get completed at all.

Amid all of that, players still have to perform.

“I’m just trying to, no pun intended, take a daily temperature, like trying to figure out everybody’s comfort zone and how everybody’s processing all of this,” Maddon said.

“… There’s so many different ways that our mood is influenced before we ever get here, and then you have to come here and be a major-league baseball player and try to park it all. I’m a feel guy, and as much as ever I’ve been attempting to keep the feelers out there and try to understand where everybody is at every day. This includes the coaching staff, too, and I got to be aware of that. It includes my family, my daughter, my granddaughter, my wife.

“You can look at somebody’s face. There’s something, concern or preoccupation. We all know what that feels like when you’re preoccupied with different thoughts to take you away from this exact moment. You get out of the present tense. That’s very concerning, and it could take you away from your ability to play this game. … I really believe empathy and the ability to be aware of who’s next to you and how they’re feeling matters now more than ever.”

The mind reels at the idea of a Billy Martin or Dick Williams or Leo Durocher – the crusty old-school type of manager who believed feelings were for wimps – trying to navigate these choppy waters. It would be ugly.

There are other factors here. Maddon turned 66 in February. Roberts is 48 and a cancer survivor. Both could be considered part of the group that could be hardest hit by COVID-19, but neither has shown any hesitancy in pushing forward. Roberts had previously said he had consulted with Dodgers’ medical people who told him people with prior cancer history “haven’t been prone to be at higher risk.”

“I thought about what was at stake, given my health history,” Roberts said this week. “I talked to my wife and family. I just wanted to make sure, you know. I had to make sure that I’m responsible. But I never really considered opting out or choosing not to manage.”

For his team, that’s a very good thing. Pandemic Baseball is an environment that’s uncertain and in some ways scary. The steadier the hand at the helm, the better.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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