Clubhouse chemistry in digital age: Winning still cures all

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Relaxing with a cup of coffee in the Minnesota Twins' clubhouse one day last year at spring training, Eddie Guardado looked around.

All the heads he saw were down.

"Nobody's talking to anybody," said Guardado, then a guest instructor during camp, in discussion with the team's equipment manager.

Dejection? Contemplation? No, mostly consumption, made convenient by those ubiquitous hand-held electronic devices.

Baseball is an atypical workplace but just as prone to the proliferation of smartphones and tablet computers as any social or professional setting. With vast information instantly accessible via a simple tap or swipe, many players have adapted by downloading video clips to an iPad of past games, for example, to study their swings or deliveries.

Technology, though, carries the potential to distance people as much as it connects them. Team building can be limited by staring at screens. Even in this individualized sport, strong chemistry has often been a trait of winning clubs.

Guardado fondly recalled the scrappy, spunky 2002 Twins that reached the American League Championship Series after the franchise was considered for elimination the preceding winter. Torii Hunter, who returned to the Twins this season after a seven-year absence, was on that team, too. Hiring Guardado as the bullpen coach and signing Hunter to play right field was designed, in part, for the sake of camaraderie and personality on a squad that averaged 96 losses the past four seasons.

"It's the team stuff that people can't see. You can't get that bundle. It's always individual on your TV screen, but as a team, stuff you can't fathom that goes on," Hunter said. "That's what chemistry is: You can't see it. You feel it."

Seeking that intangible benefit, new Twins manager Paul Molitor made this decree at the start of spring training: From a half-hour before first pitch through the end of the game, the use of hand-held devices will be prohibited.

That's actually a rule straight from Major League Baseball, which bans the use by players, coaches and other staff of any portable electronic device in the dugout, the bullpens or the field once pregame batting practice has begun as well as in the clubhouse within a half-hour of the start of a game. The exception, of course, is the phone by the bench used to order a relief pitcher to warm up.

"When you play 162 games, there's going to be speed bumps and there's going to be adversity and all those things, and that's where the whole idea of chemistry allows you to get through those tough times," Molitor said. "When it's weak, it's going to be a lot harder to hold it together. And that's what you try to start to build from the beginning."

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jerome Williams was with the Los Angeles Angels a few seasons ago when star slugger Albert Pujols took the initiative to institute an informal clubhouse rule keeping players off their phones for the first 20 to 30 minutes after the end of a game.

"Albert wanted us to take the time immediately after a game to think about what happened out there," Williams said.

The San Francisco Giants, winners of three of the last five World Series, weren't the front-runner for any of them. Their best regular season finish in their championship years was tied for the fourth-best record in 2012. They were tied for eighth last year.

"What we've learned here is you try to empower the players," general manager Brian Sabean said. "You make it their clubhouse, you make it about them, you make it where they decide the season we're going to have. Are you going to help them along the way? Sure. By and large if you have the right group and they've got the right focus, they're going to do good things."

Don't assume the Giants are somehow successful because they puritanically avoid social media. But shortstop Brandon Crawford, one player who's active on Twitter, described the atmosphere as a healthy balance between the extremes.

"You don't come in the clubhouse and see just everybody sitting on their phone. We all communicate and interact with each other and all that. Our chemistry is pretty good," Crawford said. "On a road trip I think you'll see us tweet back and forth a little bit. We have a clubhouse full of guys with a good sense of humor and good personalities, so it's pretty fun to go back and forth with each other."

Baseball has many cultural challenges, with an influx of players from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries and a smattering from Japan and Korea. Teams that get along, then, are usually those with an environment of dignity, maturity and respect. It's not necessarily accurate to view hand-held devices as the hurdle. No matter the era, the state of community will always be tied to human nature.

"I can't imagine that people in the `90s weren't reading Sports Illustrated or the newspaper or whatever," Twin closer Glen Perkins said.

University of Minnesota social sciences professor Douglas Hartmann, a specialist in the sociology of sports, also cautioned against targeting technophiles as the source of superficial relationships. If an absent-minded scroll through Twitter is more of a pregame ritual than strategizing, meditating or self-evaluating, then that can hinder success.

"That's where I think a manager in baseball is really important, setting that tone and that context that each individual is preparing the right way," Hartmann said,

Strong bonds, of course, can only go so far. Starting pitching and power hitting will always be tough to beat as fuel for victory.

"I still think that winning comes first. You can have the most fun team on earth, but that doesn't mean you're going to win. A team that's winning is going to have way more fun than a team that's not," Perkins said, "and that's the way it is."

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