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Just stop with all of this clubhouse chemistry malarkey

Let's talk about chemistry.

Just stop with all of this clubhouse chemistry malarkey

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz and closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)

Let's talk about chemistry.

On March 31, the following sentences appeared in a Boston Globe story about the previous season's Red Sox:

More than any player, Shane Victorino is the embodiment of the Red Sox’ new clubhouse culture. The Churls of 2012 are the Charmers of 2013. And Victorino is Captain Charm.

On Feb. 13, the following sentences appeared in a Sports Illustrated story about the previous season's Giants:

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All around the world, at every level of competition, coaches and players try to figure out how to create a true team -- how to mesh, how to play for each other, to take isolated sets of individual acts and piece them into one. And then a team like these Giants comes along, and it all happens so naturally. Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence arrived and it was like their parts in the play were already written. They just had to read the lines.

On Feb. 24, the following sentence appeared in a Philadelphia Daily News story about the previous season's Phillies, whose clubhouse featured Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino.

"It was just a clubhouse that didn't have an identity and didn't have leadership, I felt," Jonathan Papelbon said.

Papelbon recently offered a similar take on this year's version of the Phillies, which is well within his constitutional rights, as I'm sure he would inform you. But the logic that is usually employed when issuing one of these good clubhouse/bad clubhouse proclamations is so dizzying. . .well, let's just stop right there, because the reality is that these proclamations do not employ any logic at all. Logic would suggest that if Pence and Victorino both possessed the kind of GRIT and LEADERSHIP and FUN that cures clubhouse cancer and prompts newspaper articles about GRIT and LEADERSHIP and FUN, and if both players moved on from the cancer-stricken 2012 Phillies to teams that rode their overwhelming supply of GRIT and LEADERSHIP and FUN to World Series titles (which Pence's Giants and Victorino's Red Sox both ended up doing), then either the 2012 Phillies clubhouse should have been GRITTY and LEADERSHIPY and FUNNY, or that clubhouse featured a malignant force so dark and destructive that it was able not only to neutralize the vast quantity of positive energy provided by Pence and Victorino, but suck both players into its vortex as well.

And then you consider the fact that Jim Thome was a part of that team before moving on to play in the postseason for the Orioles (another team that attributed its success to GRIT and LEADERSHIP and FUN, some of it provided by Thome, who GM Dan Duquette said he acquired "for both his presence in the lineup and the clubhouse"), and the fact that GRITTY veteran Michael Young tried and failed to cure the Phillies' cancer in 2013 before helping LEAD the Dodgers to the postseason ("I see Mike as a plus-plus on the makeup scale," former teammate Gabe Kapler told the L.A. Times in a story that featured the word "clubhouse" six times after the Dodgers acquired him from Philadelphia); and the fact that John McDonald beat the Phillies cancer to blossom as a leader in the World Champion Red Sox clubhouse ("Mentoring a budding star is just one of the roles McDonald is playing as the Red Sox march through the postseason," the Hartford Courant reported), and the fact that even Delmon Friggin' Young moved on from the Phillies Vortex of Suck to play in the 2013 postseason while having things written about him like, "Rays manager Joe Maddon called Young a "pleasure" when asked about having him back in his clubhouse."

And you might then recall that Chase Utley was on the disabled list for a total of three months in 2012 and 2013, and Ryan Howard missed half of both seasons, and Carlos Ruiz appeared in just 92 games in 2013, and you might start to wonder whether Papelbon realizes that he is complaining about a clubhouse that essentially consisted of himself and Jimmy Rollins on a consistent basis (Kevin Frandsen is clearly not the culprit because he wears unkempt facial hair and slathers pine tar all over his helmet). 

But we're not going to go there. Because the whole clubhouse chemistry thing is bulls--t. Believe me, I used to write the same kinds of stories that I quoted above. And they were true. Because the Phillies were a good team . And being good at something creates a positive energy that is infectious, and that positive energy allows everybody to relax and be themselves, and the leaders feel comfortable enough to lead, and the goofballs feel comfortable enough to goof, and everybody likes each other because, hey, when somebody is playing well, how bad of a guy could they really be? Just ask Riley Cooper.

In Papelbon's recent batch of comments, which he made on a New England radio show, he compares the Phillies' clubhouse to that of the Red Sox, which features veterans like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.

"I knew what kind of leadership they had over there with David and Dustin," Papelbon said.

What he failed to mention is that David Ortiz hit .309 with a .959 OPS and 30 home runs in 2013, which, in addition to helping his team in a more measurable way, also can make a guy feel like he has enough capital amongst his peers to gather them together in the dugout and yell at them like second-graders. What if Ryan Howard and his .784 OPS had hobbled out there and done the same thing? Carlos Ruiz has been known to do that kind of thing, but he missed a third of the games, and posted career lows in the ones in which he played. Jimmy Rollins' supposed capabilities as a leader have a suspicious correlation to his performance at the plate: in 2007, when he was MVP, he was Mr. Team To Beat, the straw that stirred the drink, in 2008, when he was still pretty darn good, he was giving Pat Burrell a pep talk in the dugout tunnel before Burrell's big double in Game 5. Now that he is a more average hitter, he's suddenly capable of turning everybody else into crappier versions of themselves?

I was covering the Sixers the other day, and head coach Brett Brown said something that I found interesting. In praising the attitude, effort and cohesiveness -- chemistry call it -- of his team, he observed that they were "the happiest team I have ever been around that has a losing record." That observation makes a ton of sense. The only losing teams that are happy teams are teams that know they are losers and can't do anything about it. This is exemplified by the aforementioned Red Sox and the narrative that evolved in the wake of their collapse in 2011 and 2012. Boston allegedly righted itself by excising the cancerous players in its clubhouse. They sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers. They fired Terry Francona. They allowed Papelbon to leave via free agency. Voila! The Red Sox, cancer free, won the World Series. But the narrative breaks down when you look at who else made the playoffs. Whoops, there's Francona leading the Indians to the postseason! And over there are Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez winning the National League West, aided in no small part by Hanley Ramirez, who was jettisoned from the Marlins clubhouse because of his reputation as a malign tumor, and by Zack Greinke, who has had whispers of CANCER trailing him throughout his career. Maybe the cure to CANCER is multiplying it? Or maybe Papelbon is the REAL CANCER, as he was the only member of that Red Sox clubhouse that made his new team worse. Except he's not. Because CANCER is a bunch of malarkey.

In 2012, this is what I saw: The offense sucked. The pitchers became frustrated that the offense sucked. The pitchers started to suck. At some point, reality set in and everybody realized they sucked as a team. And everybody became miserable. Because losing sucks, and the only people that react in a positive way to losing are losers.

As Chase Utley said a few days ago: "Winning cures a lot of different things. And losing can really get tiresome, so it's not a good environment when you lose. Now having a good clubhouse, does that create winning? Or does winning create a good clubhouse? That's a question we could all debate all the time."

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