Would you rather play for someone whom you're scared of, or whom you get along with? That's a terribly thorny question, and I think it goes well beyond the realm of sports. Just take out "play for" and insert "have as your boss," and you have a query which any employee in the world will likely have a strong opinion. It's something we all deal with. Do you want to be buddies with your supervisor, or do you want to keep it professional all the time?
The occurrence that spurred me to pose that question to myself was the managerial switch at Ripken Stadium between this year and last. At the helm of the IronBirds this season is Matt Merullo, who replaced Gary Allenson, Aberdeen's manager in 2012.
Now, let me set this up so I don't offend anyone. Both Merullo and Allenson were catchers in the Major League for several seasons. I don't care how you carry yourself, if you're a total flake or a mean so-and-so, you don't get to that level of baseball without being, at your core, a stomp-their-guts-out competitor. I think that's what Leo Durocher was getting at when he said, "Nice guys finish last." If you don't have that killer instinct, you won't make it.
Allenson, though forthcoming and, at times, jocular, was an intimidating guy. I would rehearse my questions over and over again before going into the clubhouse after games, because I didn't want to stutter or sound stupid in front of him. He called me, and I think everyone else, "slick." Merullo, though we're just three games into the season and I've only interviewed him a handful of times, is a lot more approachable, and he addresses me by my given name.
It isn't the job of professional baseball managers to make me comfortable. Actually, that's probably about the last thing they need to worry about. Still, the difference between the two IronBirds skippers brought me to the question I started this column with.
Looking at it as an athlete, I saw both ends of the spectrum. I was intimidated by, and did not get along particularly well with, my high school soccer coach. I hated the way he made us run endlessly in summer practices. My thought was, "We're soccer players, we can all run, let's get to the field and play." But, come the regular season, we could out-run any team we played, and we eventually won a county title under his direction.
On the other hand, I adored both of my track and field coaches. They let me set up my own training regimen and asked only that I try to stay healthy during the season (i.e. don't get fat, don't start smoking cigarettes). I didn't win a county title under their direction, but a came a hundredth of a second from doing so.
I think the common denominator was always whether the person in charge made me and my teammates want to perform. Like or dislike, intimidated or not, if the coach could put us in the us-against-them mind set, we'd go out and get at it.
As a coach, I never, ever had the stuff to be effective. I don't like ordering people around, and even the coaches you get along with have to be able to yell when they think you're being lazy. If any of the baseball or soccer teams I ran were any good, and some of them were, it was because of the players.
I don't think there's any answer to the question I began with, other than, "balance." That's what we're all looking for, whether we're the players and employees, or the coaches and bosses. Find a way to rule with an iron hand, but earn the admiration of your team, and that's when you start winning titles.