Motivating players Black's greatest strength
Bud Black's real gift as a manager can't be weighed or measured. It can't be found in his defensive alignments or how he organizes a bullpen. It has nothing to do with the construction of lineups or figuring out when a guy needs a day off.
Black actually is good at all those things, but the thing that makes him really special is hard to explain and occasionally hard to identify. It's there, though, real and critically important.
In fact, it probably is what all of baseball's best managers have. Joe Maddon and Jim Leyland have a gift for it. So do Bruce Bochy and Dusty Baker. Mike Matheny and Bob Melvin appear to have it.
In an era when managers have binders of statistical help with matchups, defense, etc., the thing that's left to them and them alone is building relationships with players and creating an environment that compels everyone to play hard and put the team first.
If that sounds simple, it's anything but. Managers must be competent in running a game and all of that, but beyond those things, they absolutely must keep the lines of communication open and to always be honest with players, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.
"What never changes is the importance of being able to create an environment of winning," said Padres executive vice president and general manager Josh Byrnes.
That's an enormous assignment when you consider that a manager typically is dealing with a blend of younger and older players and with players from various countries and backgrounds.
There are guys making big money and others who think they should be making big money. Some are approaching free agency, seeing it as their personal lottery ticket. Others have more yesterdays than tomorrows in the game.
To take all these people, to put them together for six months and get them to play with a singularity of purpose, is a very special gift. In six seasons as the manager of the San Diego Padres, Black has distinguished himself in the things that are really important. Even though the Padres have had just two winning campaigns in Black's six seasons, the Padres appreciate all the gifts he brings to the table.
That's why they announced Monday that they've picked up his contract options for the 2014-15 seasons. With Byrnes about to begin his second season on the job, with new ownership in place and with a foundation of young talent finally Major League ready, there's a sense that special days are ahead for the Padres.
First, though, the manager. Byrnes has known him since the mid-1990s when both men worked for the Cleveland Indians. That they would end up together years later as a respected young executive and talented manager was too much to imagine at the time.
"He's gifted at creating an environment that's fun and inclusive," Byrnes said. "He creates an expectation of success and no excuses. People know what's expected of them. He's bright and engaged and helps us make decisions. He's a great person, a great guy to be around. I consider us lucky to have him."
Baseball's best managers make the job look easy. In fact, they never seem to be doing much at all. They juggle a dozen different things at once and never let anyone see 'em sweat.
"Buddy is very competitive, but he's steady and positive," Byrnes said. "A manager has to be able to form a relationship with a lot of different people."
The Padres haven't been to the postseason since 2006 and were thrown off track in 2012 by a numbing number of injuries to the pitching staff. At one point, they were 22 games under .500.
To keep a club together and playing hard under those circumstances might be the toughest test for a manager. Black passed with flying colors as the Padres went 42-33 after the All-Star break despite using 15 different starting pitchers.
Among the position players, they appear to be building a nice core of talent around third baseman Chase Headley and outfielder Carlos Quentin. Shortstop Everth Cabrera and second baseman Logan Forsythe are both 25 years old. So is outfielder Cameron Maybin.
The Padres hope to have Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez and Eric Stults in their 2013 rotation. They have an impressive array of quality, unproven arms behind them, and a bunch of others still recovering from injuries. That's why Byrnes will be shopping for a veteran starter -- or two -- this winter.
"I was really impressed with how we played and the energy of our team," Byrnes said. "We played with a fearlessness. Our position players played a lot better. We scored runs and played defense. We were pretty good and pretty deep. I think we've definitely taken strides. At the end of the year, we were playing teams fighting for playoff spots."
The National League West has become one of baseball's toughest divisions, with the Giants winning the World Series again and the Dodgers spending like crazy to get back to the postseason.
"They're going to have better resumes and get more attention and have a bigger payroll," Byrnes said of the Dodgers. "That doesn't mean we can't beat them. We have to embrace who we are and embrace the challenge. They're going to have good players, and so are the Giants."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.