Scenes from Spring Training: A day with the Twins, Part 4

Leave a comment

La Russa closeup.jpgSeeing as though I spent some time in the Twins’ clubhouse that morning, I figured I’d spend the postgame with St. Louis.  Helping me make this decision was the fact that MLB.com’s Matthew Leach and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold are two of my favorite writers going, and I wanted to tag along and them do what they do.  Finally, given how much ink I’ve spilled over Tony La Russa in the past, I figured he might be fun to watch do the little postgame thing, so it was off to the visitors clubhouse.

La Russa was showering, so we were kept out of his office for a few minutes, and instead waited in the main area of the clubhouse. Same basic scene as the Nats the other day: boxes of pizza and lots of dudes in their underwear. A little less morose than the Nats’ clubhouse, probably because the Cardinals are a generally successful team and, unlike the Nats, realize that they will, in fact, win a game at some point soon.  Biggest takeaway while we waited: Colby Rasmus has the same laptop bag I have.

After a few minutes we were ushered into LaRussaLand. La Russa was asked what he thought about Adam Wainwright’s tough outing. He wasn’t worried, he said, stuff happens.  On a followup, one of the reporters informed La Russa that Wainwright had said earlier that his problems weren’t physical. Rather, he just wasn’t mentally prepared for the game. This got La Russa a bit pissed. He said that was “not acceptable,” and that “Adam knows better than that.”  I think he was really mad. And poor old Wainwright was gonna skate on it until the sporting press ratted him out.  Tough break.

More interesting than anything La Russa said, however, was how he said it. He’s a lawyer by training, and it shows.  He parses every word of every question to make narrow distinctions between what is being asked and what he wants to answer. If someone premises or qualifies a question, he pounces on the premise or qualification to, again, answer what he wants to answer instead of what was asked or, in some cases, to deflect the question entirely.

And it doesn’t matter if everyone knows what the reporter is truly wanting to know, which I’m sure a man as smart as La Russa can tell. It’s not some Socratic exercise in which he’s trying to get the reporter to ask the right question in as specific terms as possible. It’s a word game, not unlike the kind of stuff I used to see — and do — in depositions where the defending attorney will try anything he can to thwart the purpose of the exercise — the extraction of information — and instead just try to vamp until it’s over.

It’s not so clumsy and transparent in La Russa’s case as it is in some normal lawyer’s case. He’s a much more seasoned pro with much more experience in his particular arena — postgame interviews — than any lawyer has experience defending depositions. Indeed, his tactics are quite subtle and maybe even invisible to La Russa himself. After all, law school changes the way a person thinks, more so than he realizes, and I’m sure La Russa’s interview m.o. is so ingrained in him that, to the extent there was ever any calculation involved, it’s long been replaced by reflexes alone.

But this lawyer recognizes it. And though La Russa’s particular brand of circumlocution may ultimately have the same deflecting effect of “we just gotta take ’em one game at a time”-style cliches, it’s decidedly more hostile and, in my personal opinion, distasteful.  Though he’s probably the best manager in my lifetime, I’ve never thought that highly of Tony La Russa the man, and after observing what I observed today, I am less impressed with him than I ever was before.

The gang bang broke up and I left the clubhouse and sat by the dancing waters outside of Hammond Stadium for a spell. As I watched the traffic dissipate, I wondered about the whole process of reporters collecting ballplayer and manager quotes, whether they matter and whether there isn’t a better way to present the game of baseball to readers who thirst for information about their favorite sport, their favorite players and their favorite teams.

I have a few ideas along those lines, but they’re only half-baked at the moment.  It’s something I’m going to think about a lot in the near future, however.  By midseason the ideas will have either ceased to interest me or will have coalesced into a scathing manifesto.  I don’t think there will be any middle ground.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
14 Comments

It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.