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.

Neal Huntington thinks players should be allowed to re-enter games after concussion testing

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Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has suffered many concussions throughout his 12-year career, was hit on the back of the helmet on a Joc Pederson backswing Saturday against the Dodgers. Through Cervelli remained in the game initially, he took himself out of the game shortly thereafter and went on the seven-day concussion injured list on Sunday.

Perhaps inspired by Saturday’s event, Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested that players should be allowed to re-enter games once they have passed concussion tests, the Associated Press reports. Huntington said, “Any player that had an obvious concussion risk incident should be allowed to be removed from the game, taken off the field, taken into the locker room, assessed by a doctor, assessed by a trainer, go through an extended period of time and then re-enter the game. Because right now, all of this has to happen on the field.”

Huntington added, “The player has to feel pressure as he’s standing there with 30,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on him. He has to feel pressure to make a decision whether (he’s) in or (he’s) out of this game. He knows if he takes himself out and he’s the catcher, there’s only one other catcher, and the game becomes a fiasco if that other catcher gets hurt.”

Huntington, who has been forward-thinking on a number of other issues, has it wrong here. The concussion protocols were created because players frequently hid or under-reported their injuries in order to remain in the game. Especially for younger or otherwise less-proven players, there is pressure to have to constantly perform in order to keep one’s job. Furthermore, there is an overarching sentiment across sports that taking time off due to injury makes one weak. Similarly, playing while injured is seen as tough and masculine. Creating protocols that take the decision-making out of players’ hands keeps them from making decisions that aren’t in their own best interests. Removing them would bring back that pressure for players to hide or minimize their ailments. If anything, MLB’s concussion protocols should become more stringent, not more relaxed.

The powers that be with Major League Baseball have no doubt followed the concussion scandal surrounding the National Football League. In January, the NFL settled for over $1 billion with retired players dealing with traumatic brain injuries, including dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. For years, the league refused to acknowledge the link between playing football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia and has many negative effects, such as increasing the risk of suicide. Since baseball isn’t often a contact sport, MLB doesn’t have to worry about brain injuries to this degree, but it still needs to take preventative measures in order to avoid billion-dollar lawsuits as well as avoiding P.R. damage. In December 2012, former major league outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide. Freel, who claimed to have suffered as many as 10 concussions, suffered from CTE. MLB players can suffer brain injuries just like football players.

Huntington seems to be worried about not having enough rostered catchers in the event one or two catchers get injured. That is really an issue of roster management. Carrying only two catchers on the roster is a calculated risk, often justified. Huntington can ensure his team never has to be put in the position of not having a catcher in an emergency by rostering a third catcher. Rosters are expanding to 26 players next year, by the way.