Picking up baseballs

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This fascinating interview of Tino Martinez by Kenny Rosenthal reminds me again that I planned years ago to write a book called “Moneyball.” Obviously it was going to be nothing at all like Michael Lewis’ classic. The idea was to write about the late 1990s Kansas City Royals and their, um, rather awkward efforts to win.

The name Moneyball in my title came from a game that George Brett introduced at training camp one year. Players would take batting practice with no fielders. Then, at the end of the session, players would run to the outfield and collect the baseballs. One of the baseballs were specially marked by Brett — and whoever found it would get 100 bucks of Brett’s money.

It was awesome and hilarious to watch those players race to the outfield to find the Moneyball — more so because there in the group, running as hard as anyone, was George Brett himself. “I’m going pay myself!” he yelled as he ran to the outfield.

Of the many traditions and quirks of baseball, I think my favorite is that baseball players — no matter how good or unknown or famous they might be — collect and return baseballs after batting practice. I love this tradition beyond words. I don’t mind baseball players getting hundreds of millions of dollars, not at all. They are fantastic athletes who play more games than anybody in any other sport, and they provide wonderful entertainment — they should get as much as anyone is willing to pay them. I also understand the money will change athletes like it changes everyone and baseball will never be quite as intimate as it used to be.

But I hope that they always pick up their own baseballs. It’s a small thing, I know — we’re not exactly talking about the days when baseball players had to get winter jobs. But it represents something to me. Every time a coach shouts out, “OK, get ‘em up,” and you see Barry Bonds or Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones or Dustin Pedroia or Miguel Cabrera go pick up baseballs and put them back into the bucket, I feel great. It is something that ties them to the game’s history. It is something that says, “No matter what I get paid, I’m a ballplayer — and while I might have yachts and sports cars and five homes, like all the little kids playing, I have to pick up my own baseballs.”

I don’t know if the Tino Martinez saga really comes down to a couple of Marlins players refusing to pick up baseballs like he says now. As you know, Martinez resigned under pressure as Marlins hitting coach because players said he had been verbally and physically abusive. This was surprising because Martinez had a reputation as a pretty decent guy as a player. So Martinez fought back with this Ken Rosenthal interview, and this is where he talked about guys refusing to pick up baseballs. I don’t know if that’s the story.

But it’s all complicated. This question of where the line between severe demanding coaching and abuse continues to baffle America — it wasn’t so long ago that Martinez would have been fired for NOT being verbally (if not physically) abusive for a Marlins team dead last in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

In fact, in reliving the Martinez story, my friend Chardon Jimmy remembered a football coach who yelled at him: “If you ever do that again, I will reach down your throat and pull out your heart.” And I remembered a little league coach who would throw baseballs (somewhat lightly) at me in order to teach me to not bail out as a hitter. Both of us sort of laughed about it. I’m pretty sure both qualify as abuse, at least by today’s standards.

And I don’t really know what Martinez did or did not do, how far he went, whether he really grabbed a players throat or his jersey, whether that matters, how over-the-line his comments were. Heck, it’s harder all the time to know where the line is drawn. But what Martinez said about two players refusing to pick up baseballs struck a chord with me. I don’t want a generation of players who think they’re too important to pick up baseballs. I realize that’s a silly and probably dumb thing to worry about. But I worry about it anyway.

Kolten Wong lashes out after losing his starting role with the Cardinals

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Kolten Wong is no longer the only second baseman being considered for a starting role on the Cardinals’ roster, and he’s not happy about it. On Saturday, GM John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny hinted that Wong could lose playing time to Jedd Gyorko or Greg Garcia in 2017 — in other words, an infielder who brings a little more pop at the plate. Prior to the Cardinals’ game against the Marlins on Sunday, Wong gave his heated response to the media. Via Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

I don’t think you give somebody a contract for no reason,” Wong said. “When you are given a contract, you are expected to get a chance to work through some things and figure yourself out. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, all these guys never figured their stuff out until later on down the road. It’s the big leagues. It’s tough, man. For me, the biggest thing is I just need people to have my back. When that comes, it will be good. But, I think right now, it’s just staying with my play, understanding I’m working toward getting myself more consistent, understanding what kind of player I can be. If that’s going to be with another team, so be it.

When pressed, Wong said that he would rather be traded away from St. Louis than step into a limited role with the team. “I don’t want to be here wasting my time,” he told the press. “I know what kind of player I am. If I don’t have the belief here, then I’ll go somewhere else.” The 26-year-old was inked to a five-year, $25.5 million extension prior to the 2016 season, complete with a $12.5 million option and $1 million buyout.

Part of Wong’s frustration stems from the Cardinals’ backtracking on their stated commitment to him as their starting second baseman last winter. Mozeliak admitted that while Wong had the defensive tools necessary to hold down the position, he failed to impress at the plate. It’s an argument that Wong hasn’t been able to rebut this spring, going 8-for-44 with two extra bases and 10 strikeouts in camp. He hasn’t looked much better in the regular season, sustaining a career .248/.309/.370 batting line with a .678 OPS and 5.1 fWAR over four years with the organization.

Still, the second baseman feels that he should have been given some heads up that he was playing to keep his starting role this spring, admitting that he entered camp with the mentality of someone who had a guaranteed spot on the Cardinals’ roster and not someone whose job security was dependent on his day-to-day results. “I need the time to consistently figure out how to be me and succeed at this level,” said Wong. “Everybody goes through it. Not everybody is Mike Trout.”

The Tigers are trying to convert Anthony Gose into a pitcher

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Tigers’ center fielder Anthony Gose wants to try his hand at pitching, according to comments made by manager Brad Ausmus on Sunday. Gose is poised to start the year in Triple-A Toledo after receiving a midseason demotion to Double-A last summer following an altercation with Triple-A manager Lloyd McClendon.

While the experiment won’t detract from Gose’s outfield work in Triple-A, the 26-year-old is expected to take on additional bullpen sessions throughout the year. According to MLB.com’s Jason Beck, the left-handed hitter last took the mound in high school, where his fastball was clocked as fast as 97 m.p.h. Gose ultimately rejected the idea of starting his professional career as a pitcher, despite receiving favorable assessments from scouts.

Ausmus said the idea first surfaced at the end of the 2016 season. It appears to be a fallback option for the outfielder, who has struggled at the plate over his five-year career in the majors. Via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News:

Doolittle in Oakland did it and he was in the big leagues a couple of years later,” Ausmus said. “It’s going to take some time. He’s going to have to be a sponge and catch up on experience fast. But we feel it’s worth investigating.