On the Death of Dick Williams

Manager of the Impossible Dream 1967 Boston Red Sox

The passing of Mr. Dick Williams on July 7th at the age of 82 reminds me of a great example of setting expectations.  The Hall of Fame baseball manager took three teams to the World Series – one of only two managers to do so.

Dick Williams took over as manager of the Boston Red Sox after their 9th place finish in 1966.  Back then the American League had ten teams and no divisions.  Boston had finished the previous season with 70 wins and 92 losses, a half-game out of last place.

In contrast to the modern Red Sox, a quality franchise that sells out all their games, the Red Sox in the early 1960s were lousy.  As a kid growing up playing and watching baseball, even I could tell that their pitching was poor, with opposing hitters lofting baseballs over the Green Monster (left field wall) with great frequency.  They fielded poorly and were even worse on the bases.  I remember the sports page of the Boston Globe toward the end of the 1965 season showing a picture of the Fenway stands.  The total attendance that day was 500 people and change.  Most of the scattered few were lying down on the bleachers, apparently there just to get some sun.

Dick Williams came with a taciturn attitude and didn’t offer any warm and fuzzies.  Nor did he engage much with the Boston media, who then, as now, were attentive to all of Beantown’s sports.  But during Spring Training Williams did make his famous pronouncement regarding the team’s prospects for the 1967 season:

We’ll win more than we’ll lose.”

While many characterize his statement as a prediction, I believe that Dick Williams’ was setting expectations.  This wonderfully simple statement was a means to motivate each person involved in the effort.  It served to focus attention on each contest and the moments ahead.  And of course it conveyed optimism while allowing for the inevitable fact that while the team would win, it would also lose.

To appreciate the beauty of Dick Williams’ approach to setting expectations, one needs to know at least two things about baseball in the U.S.  First, the 162 game baseball season is a torturous grind.  Individual games often take 3 hours and most of the time, nothing happens.  There are delays within games.  When there is action, the sport doesn’t look particularly strenuous but it is.  Players develop various injuries, ranging from nagging to awful.  Most players sit on the bench or are reserve pitchers in the “bull pen.”  Then there is travel across the country.  The outcomes of many games – enough to make a big difference in the standings, i.e., rankings – turn on some whacky plays that seem to take on a random character.  Does the right fielder, when a right-handed pull hitter is at the plate, pay attention and react quickly to the ball that is rarely his way?  Does the second middle-relief pitcher get prepared to pitch even though most games, there is no call for his services?

Second, great baseball teams win only slightly more than 60% of their games and often a league champion does not reach that mark.  So Williams’ statement that the Red Sox would “win more than they would lose” implied that the Red Sox likely could contend in 1967.  With its record of 70 wins and 92 losses in 1967, the team would have to win 12 more games to finish with the barely winning record of 83 and 81.  If the Red Sox were to achieve that objective, then who knows?  It wouldn’t take many more wins to …

Of course the 1967 season became the dream season, as the Red Sox won American League pennant in an extraordinarily tight race involving four teams.  Finishing with 8 wins out of their last 11 games, the Red Sox ended with 92 wins and 70 losses – a twenty win improvement over their 1966 season.

The headline contributors were left-fielder Carl Yazstremski, who won the “triple crown” (league leader in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in) and pitching ace Jim Lonborg, who won twenty-two games and pitched in two of the last three regular season games.

But Red Sox fans remember many other moments when Williams’ “winning more often than not” expectations somehow came to the fore.  There was the 9-8 comeback win from an 8-1 deficit against the California Angels on August 20th.  It seemed that everyone in the batting lineup got hits late in the game and it was the case that an odd collection of relief pitchers held California to zero runs after they had scored 8 runs in first four innings.  I wonder as the Red Sox closed the deficit, what was going on in their minds?  … OK, we win more than we lose and maybe this is going to be one of those games?

My all-time favorite turning point came a week later on August 27th.  The Red Sox were up 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th inning at Chicago with one out.  Chicago’s Duane Josephson was at the plate and Ken Berry was on third base, ready to tie the score.  Irony of ironies, Berry was “gold glove” outfielder with a great throwing arm and playing right field for Boston was Jose Tartabull, with a notoriously weak arm.

Josephson, a right-handed hitter, hit the ball to right field … but shallow.  Jose Tartabull caught the ball for the second out and Berry runs for home to tie the game.  Elston Howard, the veteran catcher acquired earlier in August from the Yankees and approaching retirement, had seen it all at the plate.  Tartabull’s weak throw was high, but it was right above the plate.  Howard somehow reached up and caught the ball, blocked the plate, and stunningly tagged out Berry for the double play.  Boston had its 75th win against 57 losses.

July 11, 2011

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