Jacksonville Dragons manager Harlan Davidson’s frustration with his team has been a running theme in his postgame press conferences and interviews. His jibes and complaints about his players had been growing more frequent and more pointed as the season wore on, and it seemed inevitable that matters would come to a head. They did a week and a half ago, when Davidson blasted his team in a memorably vicious press conference. As expected, Davidson’s words had a huge effect in the Dragons clubhouse. The surprise: Rather than obliterate team morale, the verbal assault seems to have brought the Dragons together. They’ve been virtually unbeatable since.
“Christ, if I’d have known, I’d have reamed them out months ago,” Davidson said.
The manager’s rant came after a particularly ugly loss in a season that has seen a lot of them. Facing the last-place Orlando Calrissians, the Dragons blew an early 3-0 lead and staggered to a 5-4 loss. Starting pitcher Tony Harris lost the game when he allowed a two-run homer to Orlando DH Arnoldo Nabors, who is hitting under .200 for the season. Something about that particular loss struck in Davidson’s craw.
“We’d been treading water for weeks,” said Davidson. “Our season was circling the bowl. And then we couldn’t even hold a lead against a team that’s already given up. I wanted to slash my damn wrists. I just couldn’t take it any more.”
Davidson faced the press after that loss and began a 25-minute rant against virtually every player on his roster. He began by venting his frustration at that day’s game. “I’m tired of making excuses,” the manager snapped. “We should be wiping the walls with these guys, but instead we’re treading water, just like we have been all year. Have you seen [Orlando’s] lineup? It’s a joke, pathetic. I could probably throw a no-hitter against them. Anyone in this room could beat that lineup. But not us! I’m so disgusted I could puke.”
He laid into Harris, claiming that the starter was finished. “Tony’s a nice guy and he can hold his liquor,” said the Jacksonville skipper. “But he’s done. Let’s face it. He can pack his little hobo bindle and hit the road.”
Davidson then tore into his team’s offense, expected to be the team’s strong point but producing middle-of-the-pack numbers. Davidson fumed, “Before the season, everybody was telling me what a big, powerful lineup we had and how we were gonna score all these runs. Well, where the hell did those guys go? Because what I’ve got is the most mediocre offense in the league. And when your pitching sucks like ours does, that won’t get it done.”
The manager proceeded to call several of his players out by name, including LF Rob Hartley (“needs to spend less time in the weight room and more in the batting cage”), 1B Jake Kapoor (“publicity hound”), RF Roderick Hopps (“he’s gone missing for the last month”), SP Biggs McGee (“okay pitcher, world-class mouth”), and the entire bullpen, which he dubbed the “Surrender Squad.”
As you would imagine, Davidson’s angry oration went off like a bomb in the Dragons clubhouse. Several players were already annoyed at the manager’s penchant for slinging barbs in the press, feeling that Davidson was throwing his players under the bus to distract attention from his own performance. Informed of the manager’s remarks, one player replied, “Well, it’s official. He’s as sick of us as we are of him.” Kapoor was more diplomatic, saying, “I completely understand his frustration. I think we all feel that; things haven’t gone the way any of us expected. But I don’t think comments like those are going to help.”
It came as no surprise when the Dragons stumbled to a 2-0 loss against Orlando the next night. It was widely expected that Davidson’s comments would further divide an already shaky Jacksonville clubhouse, and that the team was likely to implode completely over the rest of the season.
No one expected what came next: a winning streak that stands at nine games and counting as of this writing. Were Davidson’s words a bracing shock of cold water, the slap in the face the team needed? Did the team band together in dislike of their manager? What happened?
It seems to have been a combination of factors. The players held a closed-door meeting after the shutout in Orlando to discuss the situation. “At first, we were all pissed at [Davidson],” said Hopps. “A lot of guys wanted to punch him in the face. But eventually, we realized that some of the things he said, we were all kind of thinking too. It was making us mad, but he was saying thing that none of us wanted to admit.”
The Dragons locker room has been shy of vocal leaders, but during the meeting, Kapoor and Hartley stepped up to fill that role. “There was a lot of low-level grumbling all season in the clubhouse, but nobody was willing to step up and call anybody out,” said Kapoor. “So I said we needed to start holding each other accountable if we’re going to get where we want to go. Nobody’s happy with where we are now, but if we’re going to get better, we’re going to have to get together and step up to the next level ourselves.”
The next day, before batting practice, the players met with Davidson for what Kapoor described as “an open, honest conversation.” Davidson apologized for his press conference eruption, saying that he should have shared his grievances internally rather than going to the media. Several players, in turn, admitted that they were frustrated with their performance and wanted to improve.
“We cleared the air, man-to-man,” said Davidson. “We were overdue for a talk like that.”
Since then, the Dragons have been unbeatable. Even the manager has been impressed. “They’ve showed me something that, frankly, I wasn’t sure we had,” said Davidson. “They’ve been tough and resilient, and they’ve stepped it up. It’s been nice to watch.”
Many questions remain, of course. The Dragons are hot right now, but can they keep it up long enough to catch Knoxville and Jackson? Will the current detente between players and manager last the next time Jacksonville hits a slump? Will the team finish the season well enough to save Davidson’s job, or that of key players?
Only time will tell the answers. “Right now, we’re just focused on keeping things going,” said Kapoor. “We’ve got lots of season left.”