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Pedagogy of the Depressed

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How the 2016 Mariners Are Effecting Organizational Change Through Solid Pedagogical Strategies And Turning These Frowns Upside Down

the best teacher is often unseen
the best teacher is often unseen
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, an MLB club is a classroom writ large. Players go for batting practice, participate in drills, and have their performances assessed through a variety of measures. Even as spring training is dismissed as a holdover from the days when players had to hold second jobs in the off-season and often showed up with all the sleek musculature of a sock drawer, it also provides an opportunity for players to work on a specific skill or skill set under the watchful eyes of the coaching staff—what in education is called "guided practice." In writing about the development of the great Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh, William W. Kelly writes, "all levels and all kinds of sports are, centrally, sites of learning instruction, practice, mastery and judged performance." Leaning on the work of Lave and Wenger (1991), Kelly argues for a vision of baseball as a site of situated learning. As opposed to a traditional view of learning where information flows from master (teacher) to apprentice (student), in situated learning an individual participates in "legitimate peripheral participation" that gradually moves the individual into a position of centrality within the community: an "expert." The traditional view of learning in baseball has been that once a player reaches the major leagues, that player has successfully moved from the periphery of the community—in this case, the lower levels of baseball—to the center of the community, the expert level, "the Show." But if baseball clubs situate players not as experts but as learners within a community of practice, and actively employ scientifically proven, pedagogically sound strategies to increase their learning, it stands to reason this would track to a commensurate gain in their skills. The conventional wisdom may be that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but this year the Mariners have abandoned the conventional in favor of the innovative, and so far it is paying dividends.

When Jerry Dipoto took over as the GM of the Mariners, it was quickly evident that he wasn’t just bringing in a new roster of players, but a new philosophy that would touch every corner of the organization. Dipoto’s trades and acquisitions attracted the most attention, as he dealt away Jack Z’s cache of power hitters and fringy prospects in trade for players he picked up on the "As Is" table at Bed Bath and Beyond; however, it’s the coaching staff overhaul that may be effecting the most change in what fans see in the on-field product. Dipoto’s overhaul of the coaching staff and front office positions was every bit as thorough as his roster churn, and perhaps even more so, with changes becoming more dramatic with each successive organizational level. While Dipoto retained personnel with whom he had fostered personal relationships (Assistang GM Jeff Kingston; scouting directors Tom McNamara and Tom Allison), he and new manager Scott Servais replaced the entire on-field coaching staff: Casey Candaele as first base coach (formerly Chris Woodward), Manny Acta at third base (Rich Donnelly), Tim Bogart as bench coach (Trent Jewett), Mike Hampton as bullpen coach (Mike Rojas), and Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. as pitching coach (Rick Waits, who was reassigned as roving pitching staff). Dipoto did retain Edgar Martinez as hitting coach, a move that was made before his arrival. Dipoto also fired outfield coach Andy Van Slyke, and chose not to replace him, in a move that suggests how the new regime viewed the value of Van Slyke’s contributions. Van Slyke, for his part, responded to being fired by going on a bizarre, possibly toilet-wine-fueled rant on a St. Louis radio station about Robinson Cano, who is currently outhitting God while Van Slyke sits in a corner at Dodger Stadium and berates Scott when he takes a bad route on a fly ball. It would be too easy, perhaps, to anoint Dipoto as Our Personnel Jesus for making the choice between Robinson Cano and Andy Van Slyke in favor of the superstar over the guy who scraped the Canadian flag decal off his helmet during the Gulf War in 1991. However, in probing Dipoto/Servais’s other selections for the coaching staff, a common theme emerges: these people know how to teach, and they are shifting clubhouse culture towards a learner-centered model that so far has the Mariners soaring over .500 in May for the first time in years.

One of the most fun stories to emerge from spring training this year—maybe the most fun—was the revelation that Tony Zych is a pool shark. After he mentioned it at the team’s daily meeting, Servais sent him to whatever store in Phoenix sells pool tables—really, just the logistics of this alone are amusing for me to imagine, Zych in the passenger seat of a rented Ford Fiesta shouting out directions to Mike Montgomery, who’s furiously trying to adjust his mirrors while Benoit and Peralta are in the back arguing about taking the 60 versus the 101—and then Robinson Cano offered to pay for it with the change he found in his couch, and then the clubhouse had a pool table, and a pool tournament, and a bunch of guys who were strangers twenty days ago standing around and bantering with each other. Beyond being fun, this practice has roots in solid pedagogical strategy. The successful classroom addresses not only the cognitive domain—the intellectual process of learning—but also the affective domain, or the environment in which learning takes place. "Morning Meetings" are common in classrooms where the teacher recognizes the importance of the affective domain—discussing issues, setting the tone for the work of the day, generally checking in with each learner individually. Many pedagogical strategies—including Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, or the "Funds of Knowledge" approach utilized in English Language Learner classrooms—emphasize the learning gains that occur when students are able to bring their previous knowledge to bear on current situations. This approach to learning values the "sociocultural" knowledge students bring with them to a classroom, approaching the students as a complete being shaped by their experiences outside the classroom as opposed to the traditional notion of "a blank slate." The morning "getting to know you" meetings that happened each day of spring training didn’t just foster a better team culture; they actually increased players’ abilities to learn and get better each day. As simple as it seems, this apparently wasn't something the Mariners were doing before; in the article linked at the beginning of this paragraph, Kyle Seager is quoted as saying: "[w]e never did this kind of stuff last year; it was nonexistent. . . [Servais] has completely changed the culture."

Reports from spring training about the actions of one particular coach also support the idea that the Mariners are doing a better job this year attending to the affective domain. Casey Candaele was an intriguing hire at first base, taking over for the seasoned Chris Woodward, who left after saying he wanted to be closer to his family in Florida before promptly accepting a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, because geography is tricky. Candaele had no big league coaching experience before this year, but what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in interest. To wit: His mother and aunt were part inspiration for characters in the movie A League of their Own. His brother Kelly might be more famous than him. He once took batting practice naked. At 5'9"/160, he earned the nickname from Hall of Fame Announcer Milo Hamilton of "Mighty Mite" for his gritty style of play as utility infielder. Candaele was the one who christened the spring training play where the ball caromed off Romero’s leg the "knee-six-three double play." Back in 2000, ESPN's Jayson Stark began a tongue-in-cheek campaign to get Casey Candaele named to the Olympic team (in a weird twist, Bill Bavasi was the co-chair of the Olympic team that year. He said no. "I don't understand," said Candaele, "How could they not need a short guy who doesn't have any talent?").  By all accounts, Casey Candaele is really, really funny (apparently, so is Scott Servais?). Sure, the funny friend is always a hit at the bar, but this might bear out in the workplace, as well, at least as far as communities of practice go. Multiple studies suggest that when students laugh, they retain material better. And Candaele certainly provokes laughter. Case in point: an instagram Manny Acta posted of Candaele wearing the #swelmet, the "sweeping helmet" purchased off a fan in Oakland (a trade: a signed Robinson Cano bat in exchange for the swelmet).

Speaking of Manny Acta, he is another addition to the coaching staff that represents sound pedagogical practice in action. Many fans embraced the hiring of Edgar Martinez, and for good reason: prior to his hiring last year, the Mariners had a wRC of sub-100; after his hiring, they rocketed to 116 wRC+ in July and 121 in August. Edgar isn’t just a great hitter; he is a self-made hitter, necessarily intellectual in his approach after he struggled during his first year in the majors. Furthermore, Spanish is his first language, as it is for about half of the Mariners’ hitters. Supports for non-native speakers are embedded by law in U.S. schools, but this is the first year MLB is requiring Spanish-language translators, despite the fact that a full quarter of players originate from Spanish-speaking countries. Dipoto and Servais doubled up on bilingual staff, retaining Edgar and hiring Manny Acta to take over for Rich Donnelly at third base. Language learners can grasp social language within two years of arrival in their new country, but technical language (or CALP - Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), the kind used in difficult or abstract concepts, can take upwards of five years to develop. Having bilingual coaches like Edgar and Manny Acta allows for direct communication with players who haven’t yet acquired a deep knowledge of English with no need for another player to take time from his own work in order to act as translator. So far, Acta has shown he is conversant not only in English and Spanish but also in social media, maintaining an active Twitter account as well as an Instagram, where he documents the day-to-day life of the ballclub. Some may scoff at the idea of social media being a signifier of intellectual rigor, but Acta’s ability to harness multiple social media platforms suggests a fluency with technology as a tool for communication, not just with players but also with the world at large. Or, as Manny puts it when tweeting about sabermetrics on his dugout-issued tablet: #InformacionEsPoder.

Contrary to the teacher-centered Hollywood fantasies of Dead Poets Society or Dangerous Minds, in the best classrooms the teacher is nearly invisible. In the ideal classroom, students direct their learning; they ask questions that matter to them, seek guidance, confer with each other, and arrive at their own answers, rather than having them passed down from a "sage on the stage." Creating such an environment takes trust, and faith, and a good deal of humor. It requires that students value each other as people, feel their personal identity has value to the community, and possess the belief that they can and will get better. Building a community like this might seem like magic, but it’s not. Like Jerry Dipoto, you just have to know the right people.