Craig Calcaterra

Goose Gossage doesn’t want “a bunch of Cam Newtons running around”

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Rich Gossage, who last week made waves after blasting bat-flippers and “nerds” who “don’t know [expletive]” for ruining the game, has doubled-down on his belief that baseball is going to hell in a hand basket.

The Hall of Famer is doing a guest instructor thing for the Yankees at the moment. Despite the fact that Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi called him into the office to have a chat with him on Friday about his comments, he is still taking aim at modern baseball with both barrels. Yesterday he name-checked a notable young football player while talking to Kevin Kernan of the New York Post:

“It’s a shame, it breaks my heart to see the direction this game is going, What, do we want a bunch of Cam Newtons running around? So, if no one keeps it in check, which there is no one keeping it in check . . .”

Gossage also blasted instant replay.

On the latter count, OK, sure. It’s here to stay and if it corrects clearly bad calls it’s a good thing in my view, but replay is often annoying in practice and remains controversial among some so it’s not like Gossage is on some far end of the bell curve in ripping it. Indeed, with respect to at least some of its applications I imagine Gossage and I are in pretty close agreement on the matter.

As for the other comments: what, exactly, about Cam Newton doesn’t Gossage like and how, exactly, are we supposed to “keep it in check?” From where I’m sitting Newton is an exciting, athletic and entertaining player who led his team to the Super Bowl and who provided a lot of enjoyment for a great many fans, possibly even some who might not have been paying attention to the game otherwise. This is a bad thing? This is something that must be policed?

Of course Gossage is likely referring to the Unwritten Rules aspects of Newton’s demeanor and deportment, believing that he is the football equivalent of all of those bat flips he hates. That’s a conversation NFL fans had to endure a few months ago and, to the extent it bleeds into baseball, we’ve had it many times here as well. No one is going to change many minds about it by having it again, I don’t suspect.

But there is one interesting aspect to this latest foray into this territory. Last night, after the Post article was published, its author, Kevin Kernan, and another veteran baseball scribe, Tracy Ringolsby, took to Twitter after people began ripping Gossage. What they had to say was quite telling:

This is pretty familiar stuff to anyone who spends any time talking about politics: the phony claim that, just because someone’s views are being criticized, their free speech rights are somehow being trampled. As this perfectly succinct comic on the matter reminds us, this is not the case. Contrary to these reporters’ beliefs, one’s First Amendment rights do not entitle the speaker to unquestioned nodding and agreement or, short of that, silence. They do, however, entitle people like me to say things like “Goose Gossage is an out-of-touch guy raging against the dying of what passed for light 40 years ago and he looks silly for doing so.”

Indeed, the “safe places” reference is actually ironic in the extreme. Kernan and Ringolsby are talking big and tough about free speech but they clearly would love a safe pace for Gossage where his critics cannot offer any dissent.

In addition to misunderstanding how the First Amendment works, those tweets are pretty telling. Their view that criticism of Gossage’s comments are tyranny and the complete and utter lack of pushback on Gossage’s views anyplace in Kernan’s article (was there a followup question about how one might put Cam Newton “in check?” Inquiring minds want to know!) make it pretty clear that they agree with him wholeheartedly when it comes to baseball going to hell, bat flips being the work of the devil and Cam Newton being some punk who needs to be “kept in check.”

Which is fine. Again: they have the complete and utter freedom to believe and say anything they want about the sports they cover. But it also tells us exactly where their sentiments lie. It suggests that they harbor no small amount of contempt for the games and athletes they cover and allows us to grant their views and reporting very little weight accordingly.

Hunter Pence: “All of this is just for fun”

Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt
Associated Press
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SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ — The N.L. West is going to be a tough division. The Dodgers are the defending champions and still have all of that talent and financial muscle we’ve discussed at length. The Diamondbacks, though coming off of a couple of sub-par years, are featuring an increasingly crowded bandwagon this spring due to their abundance of offensive talent and their acquisition of two great starting pitchers.

The Giants, meanwhile, are winners of three World Series championships in the past six years and added two pretty stellar pitchers of their own. Various projection systems don’t see them improving dramatically, however, and they’re not even getting the same sort of hype that other, lesser teams like the Boston Red Sox have gotten on the basis of free agent signings. They certainly haven’t been disrespected in the way athletes often use that term, but people outside of San Francisco aren’t rushing to proclaim them a top choice for 2016 either. I asked some Giants players how that feels.

“That’s OK. We almost prefer that. We’d rather fly under the radar,” starting pitcher Chris Heston said. “It’s nice if people do call you the favorites. We get excited when people are talking a lot about us. We get fired up. You can’t believe it or buy into it. You still have to do your job, but it’s better to hear that than nothing.”

Hunter Pence is a bit more zen about it all.

“I don’t know. I’m not, like, a media analyst or any of that. All of this is just for fun,” Pence said, referring to preseason chatter. “We play. You guys talk about stuff. We’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” he added with a smile.

After a little small talk Pence warmed up a bit more to the concept of expectations and acknowledged that while it’s not really important for him, it can be important for other players.

“Everyone’s different,” Pence said. “Some players may read a lot into the prediction stuff and the analysis. Some people in the game might hear that they’re good or they’re supposed to be good and that makes them better. Some might hear that they’re good and that makes them worse. Some take motivation from hearing they’re not good. Some can’t handle hearing negative things,” he said. 

Pence clearly doesn’t pay attention to the expectations or the larger external conversation about the Giants or himself. So I asked him whether, despite the fact that some of his teammates may pay attention to it and may even thrive on it, it’s a waste of time for fans and the media to invest themselves in all of the chatter and whether it might not be better for us all to forget that stuff and just watch and enjoy the games. His answer surprised me a bit.

“No, because what [the fans and the media] talk about is part of the fun of baseball. It’s part of the experience of being a fan. It’s the whole drama the whole season has. It has no effect on most of us, but it’s cool,” Pence said. Then, echoing the catchall expletive I used in my question as a shorthand for the off-the-field-conversation, Pence said “It’s not bullshit. It’s fun.”

Fun. A simple but somewhat elusive concept in baseball lately. Certainly when it comes the way players approach the game. In the words of Terry Collins, “fun time is over” for them. To the extent some fun is still allowed, there continues to be a robust conversation about the form it may or may not properly take.

For Pence’s part, however, he’s not interested in telling fans or the press how to talk about the game. He’s not, like some players seem to be, invested in having us concentrate solely on their execution of baseball skills or to buy into the notion that you gotta take ’em one game at a time. 

I asked Pence if, in light of that, he considers himself an entertainer. He doesn’t, but he certainly allows some room for that notion.

“I don’t think of myself as that. An entertainer. I’m a baseball player and my direct goal is not to entertain but to be the best baseball player I can be,” Pence said. “But I understand that that’s what our business is. That the whole point is to provide entertainment. I don’t have to think of myself as an entertainer to give that to people but I do know that’s what people are looking for in the end.” 

In the past five days here in the desert I’ve heard a lot of different things about the relationship between how we as fans view a baseball season and how players, in contrast, view it. The Cubs brass has adopted a line about embracing fan expectations, but in reality their players dismiss expectations as important to them and their preparation. The Dodgers and their new manager are actively and explicitly working hard to view their season as a more granular, day-to-day experience rather than think about drama or the external conversation. For good reason, I think, given what’s gone on with them over the past few years. Against that backdrop I’ve heard a lot about how, no matter how one balances all of that stuff, real life still exists for these players and that these players don’t exist solely for the fulfillment or disappointment of our expectations.

Hunter Pence’s philosophy seems to encompass all of these competing approaches and somewhat contradictory forces and, in some ways, simplifies matters. Or, at the very least, serves as a reminder of what the whole point of it all is anyway. Do what you need to do prepare yourself mentally. Embrace or shun expectations. Listen to the critics or tune them out. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun, OK? If you’re not having fun, what the hell is the point, really?

As philosophies go, you could do much, much worse.

“There’s a sense from a lot of people that our lives are not real”

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez stretches before the Dodgers' exhibition baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Associated Press
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — We turn on the game at 7pm. We turn it off at, maybe, 10:30pm. For most of us baseball occupies a three hour window of our lives each day. During those three hours fantastic physical specimens in matching uniforms and, part of the time, helmets, compete for purposes of our entertainment. In an age of bread and circuses, they’re the closest thing we have to a gladiators.

While there are frequently good stories written about the personal lives of ballplayers (this one about Ian Desmond’s family is one I still remember well), most fans still forget that they’re human beings who exist in the same world we do between the time we turn that TV off and the time we turn it back on again. They forget that they have families and responsibilities. That they have stress. That their days are longer than we typically see and that despite their wealth and despite the fact that their jobs are pretty great, those days aren’t always easy.

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez knows one thing the fans don’t see: when they get to work.

“They really think we get to the park at six o’clock,” Gonzalez said. “And they think we leave ten minutes after the last out. They don’t always understand how long we’re here. It’s a great job, I’m not complaining, but we have really long days. Eleven, twelve hours and that’s without the traveling.”

And it is absolutely that long of a day. For night games, players will leave their homes at noon. Earlier if they live farther from the park or if they’re rehabbing something. They’ll eat and prep and see the trainer or take hacks or whatever in the hours before the game. Then the clubhouse opens up to the media. Then the game, of course. Afterwards most stick around for a good extra hour after giving their quotes to the media, either to ice down, do post-game “recovery” cardio or to watch film. Gonzalez says it’s rare for him to be home before 11:30 and most nights it’s midnight. For day games — which come on the heels of a night game, remember — the players may leave as early as 7am.

Again, baseball is a sweet job, but 12 hours at the office is 12 hours at the office regardless. And that’s before you take the travel into account. Oh, and some of these guys have families too, you know.

Brad Ziegler

“There are times guys go to the field and, you know, their kids are sick and they’ve been up all night with a crying baby,” Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler told me. “And no one has any idea about that. And you get to the field and you’re not the same as you’d be if you had a good night. Or you have a grandparent who has been moved to hospice. When you get here you’re supposed to block all of that out but can’t ever just completely get rid of it.”

Ziegler notes that these real problems are often invisible to fans.

“There’s a sense from a lot of people, especially the casual fan, that our lives are not real. That we don’t have the same problems because we have money.”

It’s certainly a mindset we’ve all encountered. Maybe one we’ve even harbored before. Just think of how many conversations you’ve had with fans which have included the phrase “. . . paid to play a kids game.” I’ve lost count of how many comments I’ve seen here in which a fan offers some variation on “[Player] should just shut up. He makes millions” in response to one of them offering a comment about the grind of the season or the travel.

It’s not an easy dynamic for players to combat. They’re well aware of the fact that any time they publicly reference such off-the-field things they’re liable to be accused of making excuses, which is a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. There’s also the media dynamic. In an age where players are trained to give inoffensive, cliche answers to virtually every question, even the slightest deviation from the “we just gotta play them one game at a time” line is seen as “controversial.” When even a mild critique of something is called “an evisceration,” the mere acknowledgment of some negativity is seen as “entitled athlete whining.” It’s something which may be the fault of a small handful of talk radio goons and agenda-driven bloggers or columnists, but it’s something which has made its way into the general sports discourse as well.

They are big boys, of course. They can take it. They can take the travel and the long days and the misapprehension of these things by fans. As both Gonzalez and Ziegler noted repeatedly, they have fantastic jobs they wouldn’t trade for the world and they are very well paid to do them. Several months off come October or November helps a lot too.

But we as fans should not forget that ballplayers are, more or less, working 180 or so straight 11-12 hour days, often in the heat, always under media scrutiny, with a lot of travel in the middle. We should remember that when the fatigue sets in and the injuries mount. We should remember that before we moan from our bleacher seats, our barstools or our couches about how any given player is pampered, coddled, soft or fragile. We should remember that though ballplayers are, for many of us, modern gladiators, their lives are every bit as real as ours are.