December 2, 2010


A Dream In The Making: Drawing on a lifetime of lessons and a network of like-minded confidants across sports, Scott Pioli is rebuilding the Chiefs based on his ideal of what makes a winner (Joe Posnanski, 12/06/10, Sports Illustrated)

Scott Pioli's friends in sports think about things the way he does. They include:

• Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who says, "From the first time Scott and I talked, there was this kinship."

• Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who says, "Scott is like a brother."

• San Antonio Spurs president R.C. Buford, who says, "We just had a connection."

• Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro, whom he's known longest of all of them.

He has other friends in sports, of course. Pioli has spent most of his professional life seeking out anyone he thought had good ideas about how to put a team together. He's on something like a quest. He learned more about team-building from Belichick than anyone else. He has learned plenty more from his father-in-law, a pretty fair coach and G.M. named Bill Parcells. (Pioli and his wife, Dallas, have a daughter, Mia.) But those four friends are all about his age, and they have similar ideals. They have all had success—they have been part of four pennants, two World Series wins, three Super Bowl victories and four NBA championships. They talk about many things, as friends do, but mostly they talk about how you build teams, real teams, in this crazy era of big contracts and Nike commercials and a million other distractions.

"Obviously," Francona says, "our sports are different." Francona likes to bring Pioli into the Red Sox' clubhouse a few minutes before a game and watch him do a slow burn when he hears the loud music and sees how relaxed all the players look. Where's the passion? Where's the fury? What are those guys doing over there—dozing? Are you kidding me?

"I have to tell him all the time, 'Scott, we play 162 of these things,'" Francona says. "It's different in football, where they play one game a week and [game day] is, like, sacred. We do this every day. And if we put too much emphasis on one game, if we have too many team meetings, if we get up for every game the way they do for football, it's not going to work."

In the end Francona feels sure there are more similarities than differences between baseball and football. He and Pioli had met briefly a few times but got to know each other on the night in November 2005 when both were inducted into the New England Chapter of the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. That night, Francona says, they talked about a million things and came to realize that they saw them precisely the same way. By the end of the night they were finishing each other's sentences.

"How often does it happen," Francona says, "when you are talking to someone and you realize that you know exactly where that person is coming from, and they know exactly where you're coming from?"

And so they have leaned on each other about what kind of players you need to make a team, what kind of leaders you need, how you handle the roughest situations. Just this year, when the Red Sox struggled in April and early May, Francona would often talk to Pioli about David Ortiz. Ortiz, of course, is a Boston icon, one of the best and most popular players in recent Red Sox history, a leader on the 2004 and '07 World Series winners. And Ortiz was utterly helpless at the plate. He was hitting .143 with one home run on May 1. He looked sapped and old at 34, and Francona felt utterly conflicted.

"What do you do when an icon is not playing well?" Pioli asks. "Terry and I talked about that a lot. That's one of the toughest questions we face. On the one hand the team always matters more than the individual. But on the other hand there are questions about loyalty. I mean, Big Papi, there you have a great player who has done so much for the team both on the field and off. And everyone is watching—the fans, the other players, the media. Everyone is watching."

Francona admits he wasn't sure if Ortiz would come out of it. "I think you just try to be aware," Francona says. "That's one of the things Scott and I talk about. You just try to be aware of everything, let it all in, and you don't make decisions with your emotions. I know David felt we weren't staying with him. And I know a lot of other people thought we were staying with him too much. It's all how you look at it."

In the end Francona mostly stayed with Ortiz—who went on to hit .286 with 31 homers and a .558 slugging percentage from May 1 through the rest of the season.

"It was difficult," Francona says. "I know Scott feels this way. You have to look at the big picture. Then you have to look at the small picture. Then you have to look how the small picture affects the big pictures. Let's face it. There are a lot of pictures."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 2, 2010 3:11 PM
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