ST. PETERSBURG — Andrew Friedman was going to dunk the small basketball on the small rim attached to the top of a locker at one end of the Rays’ spring training clubhouse.
That’s what the club’s executive vice president of baseball operations announced to the handful of players who had been shooting baskets before the final game at Charlotte Sports Park.
The rim wasn’t set very high, and Friedman could dunk without leaving his feet as he would soon prove, but that didn’t stop him from dribbling with purpose as he made his approach.
And that’s when third base coach Tom Foley raced across the room to block Friedman’s dunk, careful not to be called for an intentional foul on the architect of the 2014 Rays, who this afternoon begin a run at what many predict to be a championship season.
The room erupted in laughter at Foley’s failed defensive stand, with Friedman laughing the hardest.
“It’s impossible to be in a bad mood in the this place,” Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings said.
Post-win dance parties complete with a disco ball, strobe lights and pitcher Matt Moore wearing a Chewbacca head are part of the routine. So are the occasional visits from a 20-foot snake and some penguins, though not on the same day. And, of course, what would a flight to a distant city be without the Rays decked in varsity jackets or wearing pajamas or sporting wigs?
“This place is like nowhere else,” well-traveled reliever Joel Peralta said.
Relaxed is good, and the Rays have taken up residency among the elite teams in the American League mainly because of their pitching and defense and also because of a healthy dose of the type of chemistry that enables a team to succeed.
According to ESPN The Magazine’s baseball issue, the Rays are projected to win the World Series. Their projected 93 regular-season wins were, according to Katerina Bezrukova and Chester Spell, experts on group dynamics, the product of good team chemistry, which they calculated to be worth two wins for the Rays. That would give Tampa Bay the division title by four games over the Boston Red Sox, whose team chemistry was worth minus-1 victories.
“I don’t know if there’s a way to quantify chemistry,” third baseman Evan Longoria said. “But I will say this: If you’re around a club on a daily basis, if you’re around a club that wins championships, the people around those clubs would say everyone was on the same page. The guys loved being around each other, they laughed and talked and enjoyed each other’s company, and when they went out on the field, they won together and they lost together.”
Bezrukova and Spell think you can quantify team chemistry just like you can quantify Wins Above Replacement.
Bezrukova, an assistant professor in the psychology department at Santa Clara University, and Spell, an associate professor of management at Rutgers University, devised a way to identify team chemistry and came up with a complicated mathematical equation to measure the impact of each.
They broke each team into three factors — demographic, isolation and ego.
The Rays have a diverse roster with players from across the United States as well as the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Also factored in are race, religion and age.
Position, years or service and salary come into play in the isolation factor. Yet, the overlapping of the subgroups help teams mesh. Shortstop Yunel Escobar is the lone Cuban, but he is a member of the elite infield. His seven years in the big leagues places him among the veterans on the team, another subgroup.
“You have to have enough diversity, differences, because that’s what helps good teams adapt quickly to changing circumstances,” Bezrukova said.
As for egos, today’s starting pitcher David Price is the highest paid Ray at $14 million, yet he is also the team’s biggest cheerleader.
Mix them together and you have dance parties dress theme road trips and 90-win seasons.
“Those things, I would think, are a reflection of good chemistry, of a good mix of demographics,” Spell said. “That’s the outcome of that. They get along well.”
Manager Joe Maddon, not surprisingly, is a big believer in the good team chemistry = wins theory.
“It’s almost like having faith in a religion,” Maddon said. “If you don’t see the entity, how can you possibly believe in it? So it’s either something you believe in or you don’t. I believe in it, and I can believe it can be nurtured.”
Hence the clubhouse visitors that cause some eyes to roll and others to walk out of their comfort zone and hold a 20-foot snake.
But what comes first? The chemistry or the egg?
Maddon said it begins with trust. If Player A trusts Player B, then the support remains regardless of the game’s outcome. And the trust comes with honesty between coaches and players and the acceptance players from vastly different backgrounds have for each other.
On most teams, former closer Fernando Rodney would not have been allowed to fire an imaginary arrow skyward after a save. In Tampa Bay, his teammates gathered near him and looked to see where the arrow landed.
“I know when things are loose, you don’t have all that outside stuff coming in here, and when you go on the field, you’re united,” outfielder David DeJesus said. “But I wouldn’t say because of this it’s worth this many wins. But it puts you in a better position to win. It helps you play better.”
Maddon agrees with Bezrukova and Spell. He thinks good chemistry is worth X amount of wins.
Maddon even developed the formula in 2008. Remember 9 = 8? Nine players playing hard for nine innings will become one of the eight teams to reach the division series.
“That,” Maddon said, “is still the perfect mathematical equation.”