In Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon decided to roll the dice and start 23-year-old Josh Beckett on only three days' rest against the favored Yankees. The move was much debated in the press beforehand as many felt that it was too much pressure to put upon such a youngster to pitch a potential clinching game at Yankee Stadium. Yet Becket put together a masterpiece, shutting down the Yankees, winning the World Series and McKeon was rewarded for his aggressive decision.
Looking back, McKeon's decision was the not just gutsy but, in actuality, the only logical choice. If he had gone with another starter and lost, the likelihood of winning Game 7 on the road - even with Becket rested - would have been a far more daunting proposition and greater risk, as winning deciding games on the road is a rarity in the postseason. And the notion of inexperience being a significant factor is the most overhyped supposed negative.
Go back a couple of more years to 2001. While the Arizona Diamondbacks were by no means underdogs against the Yankees - they were in fact slight favorites - Bob Brenly also went with his gut and started Curt Schilling on three days' rest in Game 7. And even more remarkably, with the Diamondbacks down 2-1 in the eighth inning in that deciding game, Brenly called on Randy Johnson, who had pitched the night before. Johnson retired all four Yankees he faced. This kept the game close and then in the bottom of the ninth, Mariano Rivera committed a rare error and on a weak hit from Luis Gonzalez with the infield drawn in, the Diamondbacks won the thrilling series.
So in these two object lessons, though the circumstances were different - underdog in one, favorite in another - the aggressive and unconventional moves by a manager was no doubt the difference between victory and defeat. It is further proof that eschewing the notion of "playing it safe," opting instead for the gutsy or aggressive move lends itself to a winning formula.
And this baseball postseason offered yet another example of contrasting managers and their differing styles. To continue along the lines of the examples above, examine Game 6 of the NLCS. With the Giants leading the series three games to two but with the series now in hitter-friendly Philadelphia, Giants manager Bruce Bochy most definitely did not want to play a Game 7. For him and his team, they had to close it out in six. So clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth inning, Bochy brought in Tim Lincecum, who had started the previous game just two days before. And though Lincecum yielded two hits, he nonetheless struck out the most dangerous batter in the Phillies lineup - Jayson Werth - to lead off the inning.
It is such a difficult thing for anyone to go against the prevailing wisdom, letting go of their habits and allowing instinct and gut feelings take over. And to do it in a public forum where every decision is endlessly scrutinized, as in sports, is even more difficult. But rarely is it regretted.
Which is why Ron Washington's opting to rest his ace Cliff Lee for Game 4 will be debated for some time. It's impossible to say if pitching Lee on Sunday would have made any difference. But more specifically, pitching Lee in Game 4 would have applied some pressure on the Giants and there's no telling how that would have played out. It was the forceful and - that word again - aggressive move to make.
And by pitching Lee in Game 4, the Rangers could also have used him in a Game 7. And even if Lee had won Game 5 the Rangers would still be down three games to two. The only chance the Rangers had of winning this series was going back to San Francisco up three games to two, considering the awesome pitching awaiting them on a return to the West Coast.
Of course there have been many conservative managers and coaches who have gone on to multiple victories in championships. But when the names come to mind - think of Don Shula with the Dolphins, Sparky Anderson of the Reds (and Tigers), these were often leaders of dominating teams.
It's hard to think of a team that was a huge underdog that ended up winning that did not possess a manger who took many risks. The football Giants, except for 1986, were never overwhelming favorites in the modern era, but they won another Super Bowl in 1990 after shcoking the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game in large part due to coach Bill Parcells' unorthodox and undoubtedly aggressive ways.
Reason vs. instinct is a constant battle in all of us. We all have trivial decisions on a daily basis that involve sticking with habits or going with the alternative route. But I'd bet that the most fulfilling moments for the majority of people have come when they took chances. Which is why it's still surprising to me that more managers don't opt for their gut over conventional wisdom more often. It's unquestionably what separates the very good from the great.