By Stephen Zielinski
This will be a short essay which takes player bashing and a few related issues as its topics. I wrote it, I must admit, because I find puzzling the frequency of and the intensity which some display when tearing into ball players. ‘Why bother?’ is a question I occasionally ask myself when I read someone’s harangue. That is, why trouble oneself with the game if… Yet, many do trouble themselves!
Generally speaking, I like baseball players. I suppose I like them because I enjoy watching professional baseball games. Duh! I’d find it very difficult to watch a game if I hated the players who played it, especially if I hated every one of them. If I hated the players en masse, for whatever reason I might give to myself, it would be as though I were drawing their faces with charcoal on a black canvas. Every player would become indistinct in my eyes, a near formless splotch barely distinguishable from its kin. Like beauty, hate is the creation of the one who hates, even when the hated is truly hateful.
Since I tend to like the players, I’m not strongly inclined to rip them when they play poorly. My gratitude, which is what I’m referring to here, extends to the fact that I even excuse their mental mistakes. I’d like to think I respect the skill it takes to play the game at a professional level. I believe having this respect to be important. After all, baseball is a difficult game to play. It’s so difficult that the players who are professionals earn extravagant salaries, in part, because those who hire them find them difficult to replace. If the owners could substitute cheaper players who possess skills of equivalent value for the players they already have, we should not doubt that they would do so, and quickly. But, they can’t. Thus, the replacement value for each player is determined not simply with respect to the fact that so many want to play baseball professionally but also to the fact that so few can successfully play the game professionally. This point is often lost on those who want to bash the players. Keeping these difficulties and this respect in mind, I’d rather root for the home team than bash it. I’d rather cheer the players while they distinguish themselves on the field. Their gifts provide us with extravagant displays of physical brilliance. I’d like to believe I can appreciate their brilliance.
Since I’m a human being as well as a fan, I also wonder how I could hate a group of individuals I don’t even know? By ‘knowing these individuals’ I mean recognizing their humanity, seeing them as persons, as human beings with a larger and richer life than the kind of life we perceive when they take the field. It’s not that I’m incapable of this kind of failure, namely, hating a human category. It is, after all, a widely distributed human failing. I just try to keep a tight lid on it.
If one believes recognizing the players as human beings to be an important goal, as I do, and if one ought to commit to keeping a ‘tight lid on’ one’s prejudices, as one should, then we should ask about the possibility of achieving these goals. How likely would this be? Achieving them would be difficult, I believe. I would find it difficult myself since I don’t personally know even one professional baseball player. For that reason, I can’t know all the players by definition. Lacking this comprehensive knowledge, how could I manage to accomplish what I ought to? If I were to hate the players qua players, if I were to blast them willy-nilly for obscure reasons or for no reason at all, if I were to detest a whole human group just because they were professional baseball players, if I were to draw their faces with charcoal on a black canvas, I believe I would find myself hating them without regard to the facts established by their actual lives, personalities and actions. In short, my hatred would be a prejudiced affect, not an affect based on a defensible belief about a collection of individuals. (I believe this distinction to be an important one. After all, we wouldn’t want to identify Nazi hatred as being irrational! The players, on the other hand, are not evil, as the Nazis were. They do nothing to merit being treated as objects of scorn and suspicion. The Nazis did plenty.) This is what the failure to achieve these goals would mean. How could this failure be avoided?
I actually find it difficult to work up a good hatred for a player, any player. But, I realize I can manage it in some cases because I’ve hated Pete Rose with an unholy passion ever since he took the 1969 batting title over Clemente (he bunted for a base hit on his last PA of the season)! I once hated Tom Seaver nearly as much as Rose because he was a Mets pitcher, mostly beat the Pirates and was the best righthander I often saw pitch when he was in his prime. Yet, my Rose-hatred has more to do with hero worship on my part than good sense. Hating Seaver was just plain old homerism. If you ask me now how great Seaver was in his prime….
On the other hand, if you were to ask me about Rose! What makes Rose an interesting case for this discussion is his rather crummy personal habits and the noticeable lack of remorse he showed when those personal habits got him into trouble with the legal and baseball authorities. Should this combination be enough to hate Rose? Should I — or we or any rational person — hate Rose just because he’s been a #### on so many occasions? Considering these questions while keeping history’s grand scheme in mind, I must emphatically say: No! After all, ‘no’ is the appropriate answer since most baseball players — including Pete Rose — fail to soar high on the Evil #### scale. Their low score is due to the fact that they generally lack the opportunity to kill innocents in the tens/hundreds of thousands, to lead death squads, to radically despoil the environment, to rob the elderly of their posterity, etc. It’s also due to the fact that, even if some players were to gain the opportunity to commit horrible crimes such as these, crimes which are rather common in the world as we know it, they just might choose to walk the right path instead. Clemente certainly was a player of this kind. The manner of his death brought great honor to his life. But, Clemente’s sacrifice and Rose’s mendacity remain known quantities in this world. They were men, like so many others.
To put the matter bluntly, most baseball players are average Joes and Freds apart from their rare athletic skills. Consequently, we would mostly expect to find their bad behavior to be similar in kind and degree to the bad behavior we find among the average person. They have not earned the hatred of the fans just because they are professional baseball players. To hate them for the game they played and because they are paid so well is just a kind of prejudice — a fantastic mental artifact and a prejudgment which the prejudiced person substitutes for the real thing.
That said, I do find it difficult to abstain from using some Pirate players to ‘bash’ what Pirate management, the Federales, sometimes — mostly! — gets up to. Why? If, for instance, we want to credit Dave Littlefield for trading Brian Giles, as he approached the end of his prime years, for Oliver Perez, Jason Bay and Corey Stewart, as they approached the beginning of theirs, we should also want to take him to task for trading for Randall Simon and Matt Herges, for losing so many players in the 2003 Rule 5 Draft, for trading Jason Kendall for veterans with no long-term future, for trading a young Leo Nunez for an ancient Benito Santiago, etc. In short, as fans, we measure (judge) and critique the abilities and actions of a team’s General Manager by the players he acquires and those he fails or refuses to acquire. His acquisitions will mark him as a savvy builder of baseball teams, as a dunce run amok or as finding a spot somewhere in between these two extremes. That is the kind of assessment we fans often make. The players thus stand before us as the best source of evidence we have when we want to assess and then draw conclusions about the performance of a GM. Yet, it’s difficult to assess and criticize a GM without also doing the same for the players.
I thus found it difficult to pass on cursing Littlefield when Simon and Stynes came to the plate last season. Why? Well, if the knowledgeable non-professionals on OBN and elsewhere could make the following prediction — that acquiring Simon and Stynes would prove to be a mistake — and if they could identify the two as candidates for a collapse while also giving sound reasons in defense of their judgment, then what conclusion might we draw about professionals like Littlefield and Creech who chose the two to play for the Pirates? It wouldn’t be a good one, would it? Based on this and similar cases, we might find ourselves motivated to concluded that the Pirates lack either the scouting resources or analytical skills to identify players who can play the game well. We would draw this conclusion before considering the financial wherewithal of the franchise.
On the other hand, Simon and Stynes appeared to be decent human beings, Simon’s clubbing of the Milwaukee Sausage Lady being the exception that proves the main point about Simon. I found watching these two a very painful experience just as I could not help but to conclude that Littlefield was an imbecile for acquiring these two stiffs. But, is this the right way to go? I wouldn’t think so.
Of course, I’d have no reason to curse Littlefield or bash the players on the team if he had drafted better players, made better trades, signed free agents who could actually play the game well, had a better strategy than the ‘Drive for 75’ business he’s inflicted on the fans since the Ramirez giveaway, etc.! And that’s the rub, isn’t it? The Pirates need a great General Manager (and owner!). We know this because the Pirates haven’t put a competitive team on the field since the early 1990s. We even can doubt that they are now trying to field a competitive team. In the end, I’m more of a Pirate fan than a baseball fan. I am not made content by watching great players come to Pittsburgh, play a series and then leave. I want the Pirates to succeed some seasons. I don’t want the team to settle for 81 win seasons. I want it to compete for and — yes! — win championships. That’s how I define success. I believe I’m not alone in this regard. My — our! — wish — demand! — thus produces a reversal of a sort. I and others may find it difficult to root without qualification or hesitation for players who are incapable of competing for championships. The relative lack of such players in Pittsburgh is a management failure.
Whoredom in Mudville
What truly astonishes me is the often expressed belief that it’s OK to rip the players because they make so much money! Excuses, excuses… So many excuses....
To be sure, only some fans and sportswriters make a point to say something this daft in public.
How silly is this assertion? Consider this comparison: if, as some believe, Arod (or Manny or Vlad or Nomar or…) deserves abuse and should accept the abuse he gets because he makes $25 million per year, I can’t imagine what those who believe large incomes merit bashing would want to do about Bill Gates? Gates, as we know, was the man who once accumulated more than $100 billion and had acquired this unfathomable wealth by selling DOS 4.x, Windows 9x to and by forcing Internet Exploder on an unwitting and coerced market. Given these financially successful indiscretions, I would suspect that nuking Redmond might be too lenient a punishment for Gates and Microsoft in the eyes of those who believe bashing Arod an acceptable way to follow professional baseball! Again: How silly is this assertion? Very silly, it would seem.
There are historical antecedents to this kind of tough talk about the rich: American history does include a weathered and seldom honored tradition of working folk bashing rich people. We have had our populists who celebrated markets and property ownership while also condemning fat cat capitalists and city slickers with large bank accounts and country estates. But, that’s not what’s going on here. Major league baseball players might be rich or nearly so when compared to most Americans, but they aren’t capitalist entrepreneurs. They are not at all like, say, a commodity trader who creates a syndicate which drives down the price of wheat futures and thereby ruins numerous small holders. Even the player’s union does not function in just this way. At best, professional baseball players have investment professionals looking after their money. With respect to how they get their money, professional baseball players are more like a UPS driver than a small or large entrepreneur, a venture capitalist or the CEO of a large corporation. They may be paid much more than a UPS driver earns but, then again, baseball players are not replaced as easily as the UPS driver would be. They sell their labor in a ‘many are called, few are chosen labor market’. Players are thus not at all like the grand entrepreneurs and large corporations that own major league baseball teams. As individuals, they are far weaker than the corporate entities to which they would sell their skills. Baseball players don’t hire labor and sell products. They must earn their money by working for those who purchase their contracts.
Perhaps, bad mouthing the players because of the amount of money they earn is not a wholly defensible way to use one’s free speech rights!
To explain this bad mouthing business we might wish to consider an analogous relationship, one also sometimes befuddled by mysticism and grudges: In the eyes of some men, any given woman will be either especially good (Madonnas) or especially bad (prostitutes) but can’t be both. (Fess up, you know who you are!) That is, some men idolize women and their idolization takes two forms: A) Women are impossibly good persons who can do no wrong because they are pure of spirit or B) they are whores who sell themselves cheaply to the worst and dirtiest sort of deviant. They are, then, either amateurs or professionals. They can’t be both.
First, we should note that human beings are a bit more complex than the idolater believes them to be. Second, we should also note that words — labels — are not identical to their referents. There is always a remainder which escapes even the best of ideas, descriptions, explanations, etc. Third, as the analogy makes clear, the idol is formed in the eye of the beholder. To idolize a person, a collection of persons or a thing is to miss the point about them. What might the point be? The point, I would argue, is provided by the identity of the person in question, that is, who he/she is. Idolatry always obliterates this point.
Baseball players, more so than professionals athletes playing different sports, come in for just this kind of idolizing treatment, this bizarre programmatic hatred or love. If anyone doubts this point they need only to recall which professional athletes Congress thought to call on the carpet and interrogate about their alleged steroid use.
Like Congress, some fans — a significant and vocal fraction of these fans — focus their attention on professional baseball players. These fans have come to some sort of vague agreement amongst themselves that baseball players are now pampered, rich, lazy prima donnas. Why would they believe this? Where is the evidence which supports this stereotype? A Budweiser commercial, perhaps? Leon — the archetype! Do they trust clichés such as this because baseball players were once so positively idolized that hating their mere existence (negatively idolizing them) becomes an acceptable way to spend the summer? Is it such a bad thing that baseball players make all of the money they do? Do we need to return to the days when players were like indentured servants because their contracts included the reserve clause? After all, if the past was all that great, as pure as the newly driven snow, as honest as the day is long, as clear as the sky is blue, then no one but an insane person would have wanted to change it — indeed, no one would have taken great risks and fought difficult legal and political battles to change it. But, some men fought these battles; they took these risks. They confronted entrenched power, interests and prejudices because baseball’s past lacked something. It lacked the kind of freedom the rest of society had and took for granted. The freedom they lacked? The ability to enter into uncoerced contracts with those who would hire them. Professional baseball players once lacked this right altogether. So, it was not at all an insane act for the players to form a union and to pursue their interests with respect to the owners. It was an effort they made to participate in the common life of the country, the life that a majority of Americans have. If they had refused to form a union and fight for their rights, their refusal would have been insane!
I believe it’s time for us to admit that the days of slavery and indentured servitude are past us and ought to remain the historical embarrassments they are. Only silly people and political wingnuts — like the idolaters we may find in Congress! — wish for their return. Unlike these anachronisms, the Major League Baseball Player’s Association is here to stay. Thanks to MLBPA, much of what made baseball’s ‘golden age’ — which was never as golden for the players as it was for the owners — what it was in fact has been put into history’s wastebasket. This, I believe, is a good thing.