The opening of the baseball season has fans excited about seeing our national pastime again. For some teams, though, the truncated 60-game season will be a challenge. Everyone knows about bitter inter-team rivalries, such as that between the Red Sox and the Yankees, or the Cardinals and the Cubs. But a more important dynamic is the cohesion within teams. Teams need to gel to win — and resolving discord takes time.
Perhaps the most famous rival-laden team was the late 1970s New York Yankees. Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle called his memoir about the team "The Bronx Zoo." They had talent galore, but also outsized personalities and prickly egos, and lots of conflict. Reggie Jackson, who signed a high-priced (for the time) contract of $3 million over 5 years, alienated teammates, especially Yankee captain Thurman Munson. Jackson's comment that he was "the straw that stirs the drink" particularly rankled him.
Yankees manager Billy Martin exacerbated matters. The hard-drinking, hard-charging Martin was a brilliant tactician but also prone to fighting and bad judgment. Nevertheless, he got a lot out of his players. He had a track record for improving the record of teams he helmed, even as his abrasive approach meant that he rarely lasted long.
Martin's troublemaking went back to his playing days in the 1950s. Once, when Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto received death threats, Yankees manager Casey Stengel suggested that he switch uniform numbers with Martin for protection. Rizzuto demurred, saying he'd rather take his chances with a guy with a gun than have to be on the lookout for Martin's many enemies.
Tensions came to a head in June of 1977, when the Yankees played the Red Sox in a nationally televised Saturday Game of the Week. Jackson failed to hustle after a ball to right field, allowing Jim Rice to turn a single into a double. An enraged Martin pulled Jackson from the game mid-inning, replacing him with Paul Blair. Jackson felt that Martin was showing him up on national TV, saying, "You're an SOB. You're nothing but an old bleep-bleeper . . . You're too old. Do you want to fight?" Martin was always up for a fight, and the two men went at it in the dugout before being pulled apart by teammates and coaches.
The 1977 Yankees did get their act together and went on to win the World Series, but that was in a full 162-game season. At the time of the Jackson–Martin fracas, just over 60 games into the season, the Yankees were in third place. In a 60-game season, they would not have made the playoffs.
The 1978 Yankees, with a similar cast of characters, got off to a terrible start, wracked again by infighting. They famously came back from a 14.5-game deficit, but only after Martin was gone. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner fired Martin — the first of five times he would do so — and replaced him with the more even-tempered Bob Lemon. Lemon's approach to the players was, "Why don't you just go out and play the way you did last year and I'll try to stay the hell out of the way."
The 1978 team also benefited from the onset of the New York newspaper strike. Those Yankees leaked against each other relentlessly in the first months of the season, rivaling a White House staff in their public dysfunctionality. As Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci later wrote, "the 1978 Yankees were baseball's greatest gift to newsprint." That changed on August 9, with the start of the newspaper strike. Without the tabloids printing quotes of players ripping each other, the team went on a 37–14 tear. Once in the playoffs, they once again won the World Series over the Dodgers, a team that had its own internal tensions between All-Star first baseman Steve Garvey and future Hall of Famer Don Sutton. The warring 1978 Yankees also would not have made the playoffs in a 60-game season.
The 1979 Yankees demonstrated the limits of infighting. Star reliever Goose Gossage and catcher and designated hitter Cliff Johnson got into a well-publicized fight in the shower. Gossage hurt his thumb, and the Yankees not only failed to make the playoffs but they would not win another World Series until 1996. Of course, the late 1990s Yankees had a much more cohesive team, which featured a "core four" of players who went up through the Yankees' system together — Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera — and a manager, Joe Torre, who was far more easygoing than the irascible Martin.
That the Bronx Zoo Yankees managed to win two World Series despite their internal battles was an exception. Much more common is that a team whose players are at one another's throats does not win: the San Francisco Giants with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent; the Tampa Bay Rays with B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria; and troubled outfielder Milton Bradley and every team he played on ("I was a good ballplayer with no friends," Bradley would later admit). None of those teams won the World Series.
More recently, fans saw the costs of internal strife with the Washington Nationals' ace reliever Jonathan Papelbon and star outfielder Bryce Harper. In 2015, Papelbon criticized Harper for not hustling, and the two got in a tussle that ended with Papelbon choking Harper. Those talented Nats suffered another of their many disappointing seasons that year, failing even to make the playoffs. Tellingly, neither Papelbon nor Harper was on the roster in 2019 when the Nats finally won the World Series. And even those Nats got off to an awful, 19–31 start, and only once they gelled were they able to win. That team would not have gotten anywhere near the playoffs in a 60-game season.
As in any other high-stakes endeavor, whether in corporations, politics, or other sports, baseball attracts accomplished and talented people who are also ambitious and competitive. In all these arenas, teams need time to sort through differences and personal friction so that they can succeed. In a 60-game season, the time for resolving conflicts will be extremely brief. To succeed in 2020, teams should look to the 1979 Willie Stargell–led Pittsburgh Pirates, who succeeded the Bronx Zoo Yankees as World Series champions. Those Pirates took their motto from the Sister Sledge disco song popular at the time: "We Are Family."