Baseball's strengthening code of conduct
Thursday, February 26, 2009 | Feedback | Print Entry
A club official stood by a batting cage this spring, as some of his players hit, and he spoke with relief about how great it was to have a troublesome player out of his clubhouse.
"We'd ask the other players to do extra work, and he'd give the other guys a look, like, 'what a waste of time,'" the official said. "It's not that he's a bad person, really. It's just that he really wasn't going along with the program."
Two days earlier, an AL executive spoke of how much it meant to his club to unload a talented player with a difficult personality.
"He sucked the air out of the room," the executive said.
Talent evaluators within the game will make judgments about fastballs, about defensive skills, about a hitter's swing. But increasingly, it seems, makeup is regarded as a pivotal factor on whether a player is acquired or dumped -- and this might be part of a broader evolution in Major League Baseball, a shift in focus away from the need of the individuals, to an emphasis on the greater good of the organization.
And a lot of executives view these choices as business decisions. For a small-market or mid-market team -- clubs that operate with very little margin for error -- a problem personality can have a dramatic impact. Imagine a 16-man crew, says one GM, and you have one guy pulling his oar in the opposite direction. "It doesn't really matter what the other 15 guys are doing," the GM said. "It just sinks you. You can't win. You cannot succeed."
The most prominent example in recent years might be the Tampa Bay Rays. After the 2007 season, the Rays moved to trade outfielders Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. Other Rays felt Young simply was on his own program, conducted himself with sense of entitlement, and simply didn't work hard enough; in one memorable moment, teammate Carl Crawford, a player with a staggering work ethic, was ready to fight Young out of his frustration that Young simply didn't try to improve. Dukes played hard, but because of his off-field issues, he seemed unhappy a lot; this sapped energy out of the room.
Young was traded to the Twins, Dukes was moved to the Nationals, and quite suddenly, the team belonged to manager Joe Maddon, who was suddenly free to focus on getting the best out of emotionally invested players and less time on keeping others in line.
The official who stood by the batting cage felt the same way, and he nodded toward an intense and energetic young player. "His voice is now becoming an important voice in our clubhouse," the official said. "He gets the other players going. But that couldn't have happened with [John Doe] here. I don't want to make [John Doe] look bad, but it's just the truth."
Last year, we saw a rash of managers' benching veterans for not hustling -- Charlie Manuel sat down Jimmy Rollins for not running out a ball, and then later for showing up late to the ballpark; Eric Wedge yanked Ryan Garko out of a game for not running out a groundball; and Maddon disciplined B.J. Upton for not hustling.
We saw the Rays' bullpen succeed down the stretch while essentially abandoning the idea of set roles for relievers; rather, Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey, aided by the words of injured veteran Troy Percival, managed to convince the guys in the Tampa Bay bullpen to just be prepared for when they were needed, a culture has a chance to continue into 2009.
More players are speaking out about how angry they are about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, those complaints best embodied by the words of Houston pitcher Roy Oswalt, who said flatly that he felt like Alex Rodriguez went out of bounds to cheat him of something.
The players are in a tremendous position these days, participating in a business that has a relatively strong standing. Maybe it's because the decision-makers and the players want to protect that standing. Bit by bit, there are signs that the game's internal code of conduct is strengthening.
"We're seeing a major change in the game," an AL manager said, "right before our eyes."