Deion Sanders

My annual confusion at Buster Olney’s annual telling of his Deion Sanders story

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Every year, when pitchers and catchers report, Buster Olney leads off a column with a re-telling of his story about the time he thought Deion Sanders wanted to beat him up.  It’s over at ESPN today, but it’s an Insider thing. For those of you who aren’t insiders, here’s the gist:

  • Olney was a rookie reporter covering minor league baseball in Nashville. Deion Sanders was the bonus baby/superstar for the Columbus Clippers;
  • Olney did a feature on Sanders who, at the time, was the flashiest, money-loving, me-first player around. Olney says it was “harsh — probably too harsh.” But he never says he got anything wrong in it either.  What’s more, he gave Sanders a chance to comment before the story ran. Sanders blew Olney off in the clubhouse without a word;
  • The next day Olney gets a message that Sanders wants to talk to him and “he’s pissed.” Olney tells the messenger that if Sanders wants to see him, he knows where to find him. Sanders never comes.  Later that day he gets an autographed baseball from Sanders with the message “Keep writing like that your whole life and you’ll always be a loser.”

As a story, it’s a good one. Though I’ve never been a Deion Sanders fan, I’ve always found him to be an interesting subject of study and I like hearing about young reporters learning the ropes.

But Olney always tells it as something more than a story. More like a life lesson. The tone and several comments in it seem to say “oh man, I was young and foolish and boy have I grown up and learned my lesson since then.”  He ends it by saying “Words to live by.”

I read this story every year and every year I’m at a loss to understand what the real lesson of this story is. I’ve never seen Olney’s column about Sanders — it’s from a defunct paper in the 80s — but I’m struggling to get what lessons young Olney was supposed to be learning.

OK, it was harsh. Nowhere, however, does Olney suggest he got his facts wrong. Or even that it was unfair (harsh is not the same thing as unfair, no matter what some people would have you believe). Sanders, the older among you will remember, was quite a character back in those days. If anyone was owed some criticism it was a young Deion Sanders. And Olney gave Sanders the opportunity to give his side before the story ran. To rebut the quotes from Olney’s other sources painting Sanders in a bad light. So it doesn’t seem like there’s a lesson about the actual process of reporting. Maybe someone who is a trained reporter can tell me if I’m missing it, but it seems like he dotted what needed to be dotted and crossed what needed to be crossed.

So, tone: Maybe it’s not a story Olney would write in the same way today, but Olney is quite capable of being critical when he wants to be. And I’ve never seen any suggestion from him that he thinks a story about a player’s persona or deportment is off limits. Certainly a lot of things get written about players’ attitudes by established journalists now, so it’s not like Olney learned some important lesson about that either. At least not one with universal application as his overall tone suggests.

There is an element to Olney having to steel himself when he heard that Sanders was angry. He wondered if Sanders was going to beat him up and what he’d do about it if he tried. He made the decision not to run to Sanders’ locker with his tail between his legs when Sanders summoned him, and that bravery played well with the people who witnessed it.  Is the lesson to not be afraid to stand up to the rich and famous people he covers? Possibly. But then why all the apparent self-flagellation earlier? Worth noting that Olney, who hails from a family of Vermont-farmers, has almost zero apparent ego as a writer and never pounds his chest, so it’s hard to feature this as a “I learned to be a big man” kind of thing that you might expect from a lot of the smaller men who cover baseball for a living.

I dunno. I really don’t know what the lesson here was supposed to be. To me it sounds like Olney, in 1989, wrote a tough but ultimately fair story and offended someone who probably needed some offending back then. Maybe I’m just missing something, but I miss it every year.

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)
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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)
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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.