Hayhurst: Jays not going down without a fight

Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista have played well for the Toronto Blue Jays despite team struggles. (CP/Chris Young)

People ask me if I’ve ever been in a team-only, closed-door meeting?

Yes, of course.

In a nine-year career, you’re bound to play on a team so bad that a come-to-Jesus meeting is in order.

The follow up question is always: Do these meetings equate to increased team production and/or winning?

Usually not.

But that’s not because team meetings aren’t a good idea, rather, it’s because by the time things come to the closed-door meeting point, there’s usually so much wrong that one meeting isn’t going to take care of it all.

You don’t need to be a 10-year MLB veteran to understand that communication is key to a healthy work environment. But in baseball, it’s not as simple as a round of ice breakers in the boardroom and a chance to hold the conch. Who talks, how they talk, who gets to comment about whose attitude? It’s complicated.

This is where folks like to insert comments about the role of leadership on a baseball team. How the older players who have clout should seize the reins, round the boys up, sit ’em down and light a fire under their asses.

Well, for starters, baseball players are not great communicators. Some can handle an interview better than others, but that doesn’t make them ready to play Rudy with their peers.

Older and more established doesn’t necessarily mean consummate orator.

Older players have been around so long because they were good enough at baseball to hang on — not because they can lecture. They may command respect for their career accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to repair downed communication lines, or motivate effectively.

Worse still, even if a good leader holds a productive meeting, if the following games aren’t wins, it may be written off as a failure.

Take last night’s Toronto Blue Jays vs. Los Angeles Dodgers game for example. Things were going great until about the eighth inning when Darren Oliver, an older, leadership figure, gave up a three-run homer that gave Dodgers the lead. All that fire going into the game could/might have been put out when back-to-back L.A. homers sucked the oxygen from the Rogers Centre.

That’s a brutal reality of a sport where everything is secondary to division standings. Real, fruitful communication can be wantonly trumped by the bounce of a little white ball and piss-poor, ineffective communication can be justified for the same reason.

All is subject to the great truth of the game — once the ball leaves your hand the rest is out of your control.

But this leaves room for a very important counter truth: You can’t control the outcome, only the level of preparation and effort put forth and, ultimately, this is why you have a closed-door meeting.

Whatever the words shared during these meetings are, whoever the speaker, or target, the closed-door meeting is the group’s way of acknowledging the effort level.

It’s a reckoning. The team, as a whole, seeing the situation as it stands and agreeing to address it, soberly.

Yes, results are what they are, and that they may not get any better, but, as a point of pride, a meeting says to all: “We must put forth a better quality product. We must come together and compete like professionals.”

Struggling teams have a way of splintering into water cooler groups, giving into their own grumbles and letting personal career preservation mode take over. Calling a team meeting when it gets to this point is ironic really, since the concept of team itself is usually starting to unravel.

Going into the closed-door meeting, the Jays were riding a five-game losing skid capped by five errors the night before. Players were getting caught up in media criticisms and the fallout. Older players were making public statements that the team was overrated and that their talent level was reflected accurately as that divisions’ basement dwellers.

Even if the team doesn’t win another game, that stuff can’t stand.

It’s no longer about a title or heading to the post-season; it’s about pride, effort, and respect. Not the kind derived from sating would be fans looking to associate with promised greatness, but the simple peer-to-peer respect that that slips away when you start to venture into the realm of embarrassing yourself.

With 63 games left, the Jays — the projected division champions — are nine games below .500, 14.5 games back in the division, and 11 games from the wild card.

There are certainly those who will ask how a team so flush with talent and leaders can have a get-your-head-in-the-right-place meeting now. Why did it have to come to this point?

Why did it not come sooner?

But that’s what happens when teams are assembled in the off-season, lashed together by hype and promises.

They all look at each other’s previous accomplishments and give each other the benefit of the doubt, one that defaults back to all the great things they’ve been told they’re capable off, not the bad. Never the bad.

The bad is only truly acknowledged when the team has no other recourse than to gather together and stare at one another across the locker room, trying to forget about how it all went wrong, resolving to make what they have left right.

If I had to guess, the fact that the meeting went for 70 minutes implies that there was some back and forth between the players. That the definition of what it means to play baseball at the top needed to be clarified, and personal measures needed to be taken.

And, despite Tuesday’s loss courtesy of a habitually over-taxed bullpen, I’d say that the Jays did play better, more focused baseball.

The bottom line is the gel period has long passed. The belief that their individual talents will coalesce naturally is a false one. From here on out, it requires work and sober commitment. It’s one thing to be called a team by outsiders. It’s another to know and believe in the personal definition of the word as agreed upon by you and your peers.

The Jays held a meeting to define that. Whether it means they’ll win more games is anyone’s guess, but it does mean they are not going down without a fight.

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