Take this quote from Cubs President Theo Epstein and remember it the next time a coach or manager is supplanted by a better option.
“The organization has priority over any one individual.”
It sounds cold when pulled away from the other, more specific words around it in the statement explaining the team’s pursuit of free agent Joe Maddon to replace manager Rick Renteria, and perhaps it is. But it’s true.
Plenty of people around baseball still don’t think so, however, as shown by enough anonymous grumbles about the unfairness and indignity of a team and a manager conspiring to push a good man out of a job. But you can bet these nameless folks speaking out of their own insecurities would have no problem whatsoever installing a newly-acquired, better player over an incumbent, all in the name of winning.
Pro sports are big business, and business can be heartless. Publicly-traded corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders that supersedes that to any individual, and Epstein’s stark comment places an entire fanbase in similar context. He’s telling all who care about the Cubs that he’s working for them.
The Cubs said Renteria “deserved better,” not hiding from any of the inherent discomfort. They went out of their way to praise him while swiftly showing him the door to propel their team closer to their stated goal of sustained contention for championships.
Larry Drew may also have deserved better, possibly, but after leading the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks to a league-worst 15-67 record last season it’s hard to make that argument. In July, the team traded two second-round picks to the Brooklyn Nets for coach Jason Kidd and sent Drew packing. There were the same kind of murmurs in league circles then as there were regarding Maddon, the key difference being that Kidd has many more people who simply don’t like him.
This dynamic will likely be in play soon in the NFL, too, with Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers management believed to be headed for divorce at season’s end. The widely-held assumption of his availability is already creeping into discussions in more than one disappointed city, only halfway through the year. Harbaugh played half his 14-year pro career in Chicago, where Marc Trestman’s 3-5 Bears have disintegrated under his questionable authority. Some are hoping that the checkbooks come out soon there, with organizational priority asserted similarly.
Coaches and managers have contracts that guarantee compensation over a given period of time. Arguing fairness and ethics regarding their employment tends to presume entitlement, when both sides have actually negotiated the specific terms of something other than that. If a better option becomes available, there is a known cost to the team to make a move.
The quick swap-out of one coach for another is better than alternatives, too. Allowing for lame-duck seasons only to justify a sunk financial commitment is a loser’s game that insults both players and fans. Also awkward is the hiring of the obvious coach-in-waiting to some newly contrived executive position, when everybody can see the wheels turning. He’s usually a Special Assistant to the General Manager or a Director of Operations, but he has the ear of ownership and a fast track to the job he really wants, and is just biding his time until the inevitable.
None of this is to justify or excuse either tampering – a bad business practice that deserves to be policed and punished, or genuine back-stabbing by rogue individuals driven by malicious ambition. Both do happen, and it’s the responsibility of the organization to avoid the former and be able to spot the latter.
Ultimately, however, a team must be able to act in its best interests to improve at one of its most important positions, pursuant to league rules and individual deals and without the complaints from those unable to understand the nature of business.
And any coach or manager can keep control of his destiny by winning. If he performs well enough, none of these considerations will ever have to exist.