As the Astros Turn

added 4/14/2007 by Scott Barzilla

As some of you may know, I took charge of my first program this year. I'd been an assistant volleyball coach in the past and had coached my own club team, but when you are in charge of a whole program it's an entirely different ballgame. Of course, being in charge at a Catholic school of 193 students isn't nearly the same as being in charge at a large public school. However, coaching is coaching. Every coach enjoys the Xs and Os portion of the job, but it takes the great ones to enjoy the personality problems that usually crop up.

Naturally, it would be silly for me to compare teenage girls to grown men, but many of the elements of team chemistry are common to all athletes. One of the most difficult situations to deal with is the precarious situation of removing a player from the lineup for lack of performance. Every coach finds themselves in a pickle. They can try to preserve the ego of the player or they can do what they think is best for the team.

The Astros hoped to go through the season drama free. The hanging spectre of Roger Clemens has been like a threatening cloud the last couple of seasons until he decided to rejoin the team. Of course, the quest for 3000 hits has created some tension outside the team, but none of us can really know how it affects the interested parties. The recent demotion of Brad Lidge has definitely created a stir.

Who's Running the Ship?

Alyson Footer did a great job of reporting this story as she normally does. She implied a great deal in her report, but I think we all understood the implication. Garner came out and reported that Lidge was still the closer. An hour later, Lidge had been "demoted" to the middle innings. Obviously, an order came from on high to make the change.

Lidge's reaction was understandable, but still a little puzzling. He groused about being demoted after only two outings. Clearly, he has to know it isn't that simple. He has the 2005 post-season, the 2006 season, and this Spring Training to add to that inauspicious resume. Still, this is yet another case when there was a communication breakdown in the Astros chain. They aren't looking very good.

The way this situation was handled left a lot to be desired. First, why in the heck was ESPN reporting the demotion on their ticker after it happened? Closers lose their jobs all the time. When I saw the word "demotion," I thought he had been sent to the minors. You won't help Lidge's confidence by announcing to the world that he has been demoted. However, this belies a more obvious question: wasn't he already demoted at the end of last season? What exactly did he do to earn the job back?

The problem you run into as a coach in these situations is that you have to decide how much rope to give the player. A lot of that depends on how much past success they've had. Obviously, Craig Biggio is going to have more rope than Morgan Ensberg. Roy Oswalt should have more rope than Wandy Rodriguez. This doesn't make this particular decision any easier. Garner obviously wanted Lidge to have more rope than those higher up on the food chain. It's a judgement call no coach wants to make.

Serving Two Masters

There was a player on my team that was unhappy about not playing. As a junior, she felt she deserved the spot more than the freshman I was playing. Obviously, she and her parents didn't see that the freshman was playing much better and the team was better because of that. This created tension on the team and more importantly, made my life a living hell.

The situation came to a head when she complained loudly at a tournament about her lack of playing time. This had been the second time she had made such a complaint. In our final match, we won the first game easily (best two games out of three,) so I put her in to give her some time. We proceeded to get our butts kicked largely because she played horribly. The tension cost us a trophy. I learned a very valuable lesson that day.

Brad Lidge is complaining about being demoted and about a lack of work. So, Garner has to walk the thin line between accomodating Lidge and going for wins. Ideally, the two wouldn't be mutually exclusive, but even in his scoreless inning last night, there were serious cracks in the Lidge veneer. He left the inning with two men on base and every Astros fan could envision a three run home run (putting the Phillies ahead.) So, Garner must now decide what situation is safe enough for Lidge to get work without putting the game in jeopardy.

How do you deal?

My situation was easy to deal with. After the tournament, I told the player to hand in her uniform. I had warned the girl not to question her playing time in front of the team and she had broken that rule. As you might expect, that decision didn't sit well with her parents. Over time, the situation blew over, but the affect on the team was immediate. The team went from zero wins the year before to ten wins this past season. Part of that was the notion that playing time had to be earned.

As a professional, the ball is in Lidge's court. If he accepts his demotion and works hard, everything will return to normal. If he continues to grouse it will be a signficant problem. Part of the problem is that you can't simply ask him to leave and hold a parent-teacher conference with Lidge's folks. You must find a suitable trade partner and get something of use for him. Accepting less than 50 cents on the dollar is a tough pill to swallow.

I personally wasn't encouraged when I saw another quote from Lidge in this morning's Chronicle. He's still complaining about lack of work. Team chemistry was always a nebulous concept before, but it became very real for me this year. If Lidge continues to be unhappy, the Astros might have to see what they can get for him just to recreate a happy and harmonious clubhouse. Drama is never a good thing on any team.