Joe Altobelli loved telling the story about how he pulled Cal Ripken Jr. aside the day after the Baltimore Orioles won the 1983 World Series. The O’s manager noticed that his young shortstop had played every inning of every game that season and postseason, and Alto politely informed Ripken that wouldn’t be happening again. Ripken, then 23, smiled at his manager and nodded in agreement.
“Of course, the following season, he played every inning again,’’ Alto told me several years ago. “So, after the 1984 season, I told Cal he wouldn’t be handling that kind of workload again in 1985. I got fired about halfway through that season, but my successor and several of his successors kept doing what I did — writing Cal’s name on the lineup card, and leaving him in the game until the final out because he was the one guy you could always count on.”
And before you knew it, Ripken had played in a major-league record 2,632 consecutive games, though several years into the streak he did finally agree to take some innings off, here and there.
I bring up the story because in today’s data-driven sports world, Ripken’s streak never would have been allowed to happen. Alto would have been told by his analytics department to force his Iron Man shortstop to take some days off to recharge his batteries and heal those broken bones and strained ligaments he occasionally played with. Ripken would have had no choice but to grab some bench and collect a few splinters. And Alto would have had no choice but to follow orders if he wanted to keep his job.
In the 21st century, “load management” has become all the rage, while enraging old school general managers, coaches and players who were taught to never take a game off, even if you were hurt. Perhaps, nowhere has this new-school, old-school debate become more heated than in the National Basketball Association, where resting seemingly healthy players is a growing trend. The poster man for this sedentary movement is Kawhi Leonard. Last season, while helping the Toronto Raptors win their first championship, the All-Star forward sat out 22 of the Raptors’ 82 regular-season games. He credited the time off for enabling him to go full-throttle during the postseason, when he was named Finals MVP.
Sport is a copy-cat endeavor, and the Los Angeles Clippers are attempting to follow the same formula as the Raptors. This approach actually isn’t as new as we might think. In fact, a few years ago, LeBron James took a multi-week siesta in the middle of the season. The result was a fresh-legged run to Cleveland’s first major sports title since the Jimmy Brown-led Cleveland Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.
Yours truly, along with 9,435 spectators, actually viewed load management in action (or should I say inaction) during an NBA exhibition game at the Blue Cross Arena 13 Octobers ago. That night, the Cavs decided to hold a 21-year-old James out of the game because he had played in an exhibition the night before. Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry told me: “Our goal is to win a championship, and the decisions we make are based on that.” I couldn’t believe my ears. In the next morning’s Democrat and Chronicle, I wrote: “So let me get this straight. Playing LeBron a quarter or less Wednesday night might have worn him out and ruined the Cavs’ shot at a title. Yeah, right.” James did not play. He did, however, tease the crowd by jumping up during a timeout, unbuttoning his warmups and taking a few steps toward the scorer’s table. Irate fans booed him off the court at game’s end, and I ripped him in my column. Hey, how were we to know he was a pioneer on the cutting edge of load management?
Not surprisingly, James’ idol — Michael Jordan — is a huge critic of the practice. His Airness played in all 82 games in nine different seasons during his Hall of Fame career. Somewhere, legendary center Wilt Chamberlain is spinning in his grave. The Big Dipper led the NBA in minutes played nine times, averaging 48.5 minutes per game one season. All the more remarkable when you consider regulation games are 48 minutes long.
Not all old-schoolers believe load management is a load of you-know-what. In fact, many of them are embracing the concept that rested players are more productive. They see the data gathered from players wearing GPS tracking devices during practices as another coaching tool. “In my view, it’s not something you just write off as analytic rhetoric,’’ Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, a Jordan playing contemporary, recently told the New York Daily News. “It’s real and it’s important. We try to stay on top of it.”
Knowledge is power, and I’m not so ancient that I refuse to accept change. But healthy superstars sitting out games is not a good look. And it definitely is creating problems for NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He may not care, as his predecessor certainly didn’t, about frustrated fans traveling long distances and paying top dollar to watch stars sit. But Silver can’t ignore network executives voicing their displeasure when James, Leonard or Steph Curry are spectators because they or their coach doesn’t want them to play on back-to-back nights.
I don’t expect all athletes to have the maniacal work ethic of Ripken or Jordan. And perhaps both might have benefitted from an occasional mental health day. But methinks it’s a real problem when stars take off as many nights as Leonard did last season. If the schedules in the NBA, MLB and National Hockey League are too long and demanding — which they just might be — then you have to look seriously at reducing the length of the regular season.
Of course, that won’t happen because neither owners nor network bigwigs are interested in reduced revenue. And I don’t see players agreeing to smaller salaries. More games mean more money, but with more stars sitting out more games, the product can’t help but be diminished, regardless how much the load is managed.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sport columnist.