The Baltimore Orioles traded both Koji Uehara and Michael Gonzalez to the Texas Rangers (at different times) over the course of the 2011 season. Speaking for myself, I’m very happy for both of those former Orioles given that the Rangers are now going to compete in the World Series. However there’s a rumor floating around out there to the effect that Texas manager Ron Washington might leave the 36-yr old Uehara off of the World Series roster in favor of Mark Lowe. Presumably, this has something to do with Koji’s playoff ERA of 33.75 in 2011. Lowe was injured in the last week of the season, however according to manager Ron Washington he’s been getting progressively better.Over the course of the season we heard a lot about guys “knowing how to win” and so forth. As an example, James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays has the nickname of “big game James.” So do you need to “know how to win?” Survey says: that appears to be the case. This is something that I’m going to spend some time on this off season, because I think it’s a very interesting point. At various points I heard people saying that Jeremy Guthrie was a good pitcher but that he didn’t know how to win. I’m not sure how consistently giving up a few runs and having the team shutout means that you don’t know how to win, but I digress. Uehara has an above-mentioned 33.75 ERA in the playoffs. Since being traded to Texas, he has an ERA of 4.00. Prior to leaving the Orioles, he was throwing an ERA of 1.72. Kind of a big difference…
So what am I saying? Perhaps you do in fact need to “know how to win”…to a point. The fact is that Uehara didn’t pitch in too many big games over his two plus seasons with the Orioles. I remember just prior to the 2009 season when the Orioles had just acquired him, I saw Uehara pitch in one of the final Grapefruit League games against the Washington Nationals at Harbor Park in Norfolk, VA. I thought he had great control and decent velocity; however my first impression was that he didn’t have the necessary endurance to be a big game pitcher (and in fact he ended up a reliever after awhile). However what in fact does being a big game player or knowing how to win mean? I suppose that the best I can do is say that we know it when we see it. Think of the great athletes throughout your lifetime (whatever that might be); in my case Joe Montana, Derek Jeter, and Michael Jordan come to mind among others. On the flip side, you have many gifted athletes that never seem to make it over the hump, such as Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Ryan Sandberg, and Don Mattingly. What do the likes of Montana have that the likes of Kelly and Marino don’t?
To stick with baseball for a moment, I think that hitting in the clutch is a big part of this. Don Mattingly and Ryan Sandberg weren’t necessarily bad clutch hitters, but Jeter is noted for it. (Keep in mind that there are always exceptions to these rules.) The Orioles as a team have had trouble over the past few seasons when it comes to hitting in the clutch. Does this indicate some sort of character flaw in the Oriole players, or perhaps an organizational weakness? Not necessarily, however the fact is that some people tense up at key moments and others don’t. It’s kind of a personality trait if anything. But is this the entire point about knowing how to win? Probably not; however I’m not sure that it’s anything upon which we can tangibly focus aside from that. It’s probably one of those things whereby if you’ve got it you’ve got it, and if you don’t, you don’t.
Knowing how to win is one thing, but actually doing it is quite another. Coach Jimmy Johnson “knew how to win” when he went to the Miami Dolphins after coaching the Dallas Cowboys to Super Bowls and the Miami Hurricanes to a National Championship. He never achieved that success with the Dolphins. Joe Torre obviously knew how to win when he went to the LA Dodgers, however he couldn’t put that franchise over the top. In contrast, Bill Belichek was never a guy that one would have said “knew how to win” after his tenure as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach, yet now he’s thought of as one of the best coaches in NFL history. As I said, Uehara didn’t have the opportunity to pitch in too many games of this magnitude (playoff implications) with the Orioles, so if you have to “know how to win,” that’s probably something he doesn’t know yet.