Reminder: athletes are not heroes

Associated Press
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This is something of a “greatest hits” piece and it’s topic I’ve talked about here before, but I’m reminded of it again because of Facebook’s memories thing which tells me I wrote about it seven years ago today back when I was still doing stuff at my old Shysterball blog at the Hardball Times.

The topic: ballplayers as heroes. The subject of the 2009 post on the matter was Zack Greinke, who was then beginning his breakout year with the Kansas City Royals. A columnist talked about how uplifting Greinke’s story was, what with him having overcome some struggles with anxiety disorder which had caused him to leave the game for a brief period. In early 2009 he was back, baby, and better than ever and many wanted to turn him into something larger than just a ballplayer excelling at his craft.

In the post I wrote about how, while such an impulse was understandable, it was a dangerous one as athletes have been made into heroes for years and years and, so often, they end up disappointing. Because we built them up so high, however, we don’t see such instances as the mere exhibition of human fallibility. We see them as some greater failure or even a betrayal, which is both ridiculous and unfair to these men and women, even if they have failed in certain ways. They have worked hard all of their lives to be good at a particular sport. They did not promise us glory or inspiration, yet we assume that they owe us those things. Their failures, however they are manifested, are matched by our failures at expectation management.

But it’s even more pernicious than that. Because, as I wrote at the time, when we create heroes, we necessarily create the need for villains and we will go out of our way to find those too, justified or otherwise:

“Hero” is too strong and baggage-laden a word anyway. As [Bill] James notes, it places a heavy burden on young men, and these guys are under such scrutiny day-in and day-out that they really don’t need it. What’s more, the term hero it necessarily assumes its opposite — villain — and demands that we search them out too. You know, to restore balance to the universe and everything. Often — as in the case of A-Rod and Gooden and Bonds and all of the others — they’re the same people, just older . . . Hero creation, worship, and subsequently, destruction has long been a part of baseball. But it’s not an essential part, and in my mind not a desirable part.

Seven years later we’re still doing this. As Bill James noted in his “Historical Baseball Abstract,” “When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent.” Many of them, like Zack Greinke, will prove to continue to be fine older men, just as they were fine young men. Some will not. Would it not be better if we didn’t get so invested in how fine a young man any one of them is? Or, short of that, if we didn’t act so betrayed and victimized if they turn out not to be such a fine young man?

I like to hear a good story about a baseball player who, by all outward appearances, seems like a good person. But I’m content to give such a story a smile and leave it at that. If we require heroism, there are people who do truly heroic things in the world beyond throw baseballs.