Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Measure of Genius

I was recently given the last CD by Ray Charles, "Genius loves company". No matter what kind of music you enjoy, this is an electric collection. The duets are performed with some of today's best artists. It is truly a work of genius.

That got me thinking. The word genius is used frequently in sports, particularly when discussing managers and coaches. Phil Jackson is a genius. Joe Torre is a genius. Bill Bellicek is a genius. But to me the question is "How do you measure genius?" when discussing guiding a team to the pinnacle of your sport?

I suppose the first thing you need to do is define what the word "genius" means. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the following are the first two definitions of "Genius":

1. a. Extraordinary intellectual and creative power.
b. A person of extraordinary intellect and talent: "One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius" (Simone de Beauvoir).
c. A person who has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient, typically above 140.

2. a. A strong natural talent, aptitude, or inclination: has a genius for choosing the right words
b. One who has such a talent or inclination: a genius at diplomacy.

Using these, then I think the second definition applies to the prowess of a leader in a sporting capacity. A strong, natural talent, aptitude or inclination.... sounds as if genius is something you are born with.

Perhaps it's because he's the manager of the Yankees and, as such, is in charge of the baseball team I loathe more than any other, but I feel compelled to look at the "genius" of Joe Torre. Can you identify these stats:

  • 709 286 420 .405
  • 486 257 229 .529
  • 706 351 354 .498
  • 1618 982 634 .608

They are Joe's records at each of his managerial stops. The first is tenure in New York, with the Mets (from 77-81), the Braves (82-84), the Cardinals (90-94) and the Yanks (95-05). How is it that Joe became that much more of a "natural talent" during the between Oct 94 and April 95? Is it, perhaps, not his natural talent but rather the talent belonging to the 25+ players assigned to him each year while he wore the pinstripes?

During the 80's, KC Jones took over the coaching duties of the Celtics from Bill Fitch. It is alleged that he would frequently comment that his duties consisted of nothing more than rolling the balls onto the floor and getting out of the way. Whether that was true or not is less important than the fact that no one considered him a genius because of the talent on that team. Not only were the players talented, but they were smart (of the starting 5 that were generally on the court, 3 of them currently hold GM or equivalent positions in the league).

I don't mean or intend to disparage the job that Joe Torre has done. He's a very good manager, I truly believe that. But if as the manager you don't have the players to put on the field or into the rotation, there's little you can do. Since there is no way to prove how some other manager would have handled the exact same situations that Joe faced while with the Yanks, we can't say that he did exceptionally better, marginally better or no better at all than you or I would have done. And without that ability, how can we realistically call him a genius?


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