If You Haven’t Got Anything Nice to Say…
by Rebecca Rollett
…come sit by me. Or so the late lamented Mae West was heard to say. I don’t know if Ms. West was a sports fan, but she would have fit right in with some of the sites I’ve seen.
I love reading about the Steelers and interacting with those who love them too. But I encounter wince-worthy comments on a regular basis. There seems to be an unspoken rule that once someone makes more than x dollars per year (“x” presumably being more than about 5 times the commenter’s annual salary) he becomes public property and may have his name bandied about at will. And since pretty much every guy on an NFL roster makes what seems like a lot of money to most of us, it would appear they are all fair game.
Naturally the nature of the bandying about varies tremendously according to the current status of said player or coach. Is he playing well? Does he appear to be sufficiently humble? Fine, we’ll say good things about him. Is he struggling? Does he look insufficiently repentant? In that case, there is no limit to the ways said player may be spoken of. His antecedents, personal hygiene, sartorial choices—they are all up for grabs.
On the occasions where such a commenter has been questioned, the response is generally two-fold:
1) I help support this team with my hard-earned cash. I can say anything I like.
2) They don’t care what we say anyhow. They are laughing all the way to the bank.
The fallacy in 1) is obvious. Yes, if it weren’t for all the passionate fans, the teams wouldn’t be successful businesses. But the fact that one supports, say, a department store by shopping there doesn’t seem to make people feel entitled to say appalling things to the employees. Or not usually, anyhow.
2) is much more subtle. There may be tens of thousands of words written about a given player or coach during any given week. If they are smart, they will take as little notice as possible of the vast majority of what’s written. But this doesn’t mean they don’t hear the general tenor of the public discourse, and it certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t bothered by it.
This was brought home very strongly to me last week when I read an article in one of my very favorite sports sites, Bucs Dugout. A Pittsburgh Pirates site, the articles are generally of excellent quality, and there aren’t an overwhelming number of them. One has an opportunity to savor them and discuss them.
The article in question was written by staffer David Manel, and was part of his excellent series of interviews with the Pirates’ pitching staff. This was an interview with the No. 4 pitcher in the rotation, Charlie Morton. Or I suppose he is the number four pitcher—this seems to be a fungible list at the moment.
I am going to quote extensively from the article, but I hope you will nonetheless follow the link and read the original. It’s worth your time, even if you couldn’t care less about baseball:
Two Thursdays ago, as the Pirates clubhouse was closing to the media, Charlie Morton and I were finishing up an interview. It had been a long conversation, so I felt bad that we were now going over the time allotted for media availability. With the doors closed and the press gone, players were appearing from the different rooms that encircle the clubhouse and were beginning to prepare for the game ahead. Now I felt like I was intruding on the players’ private time. But Morton was making a point that he seemed to want to finish, so I stayed.
The normally soft-spoken Morton, who is cautious with his opinions and typically speaks with a deliberate and halting cadence, was, on this occasion, speaking more directly and emotionally than I had heard from him before.
He was responding to my final question of the interview, which was about the maturation of the two younger pitchers on the staff, Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole…[H]e started talking about Locke, and began by expressing frustration with way that the left-hander has been treated by the fans and media.
“I still remember the boos at the end of the 2013 season, when we were struggling, and feeling disappointed at what people perceived Jeff to be,” Morton said. “I don’t want to offend anybody, but that upset me. Because without Jeff Locke, who knows where the 2013 Pirates are. You can safely say, with Jeff, we make the playoffs and he was a huge part of that.”
Morton also brought up an incident that to this day that still bothers not only Locke, but many of his teammates. It happened during the time in the 2013 season when Locke was way over-performing his peripherals and the hot topic was whether his success was sustainable. While he was riding high and getting ready to head to the All-Star Game, Locke started to regularly face questions about whether he was aware of the discontinuity between his success and peripherals — indeed, he was even asked about the difference between his FIP and ERA.
“In 2013, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball for three, four months of the season — legitimately one of the top five pitchers in baseball,” Morton said firmly. “Then the questions started coming in, people started asking him about sabermetrics and regression and ‘You’re due to fail.'”…
Morton admires how Locke has rebounded from a strange 2013 season and some struggles over the past two seasons.
“For him to wind up in Triple-A and to struggle while he was there in 2014, then come back up and do a really good job — he was solid last year,” Morton said. “Then this year to struggle and now I don’t know how many good outings it’s been in a row — six really great outings? Now, he’s back to where he was. … I know exactly how hard it is to deal with struggle. I don’t know what it’s like to not have a job after an All-Star season.”…
“You don’t think of major leaguers as having struggles,” Morton said. “Like, legitimate real world struggles. But Jeff has had those struggles. I don’t know if you know about his mom being diagnosed with cancer. It happened recently and then [his pitching has been] up-and-down. And he cares so much about baseball. He cares so much about the team and doing his part. There are [real] burdens [he’s had to face] and he’s done that and overcome it.”
And you think they don’t hear what we say? They are listening, all right. It’s fair to criticize where criticism is justified, but it’s also possible to do it in a kind way.
We would all be better for it if we cut them the same slack we give ourselves when things aren’t going so well, and refrain from putting them on such a high pedestal when they are. They aren’t worthy of your worship, even Troy Polamalu, (who would be the first to tell you that,) and they don’t deserve your vitriol when they screw up, either.
It has always astonished me that fans would appear to think players could play better if they only tried harder or cared more. Obviously there are very occasional exceptions. Albert Haynesworth comes to mind. But even in such a seemingly obvious case there may be reasons for his behavior other than the obvious takeaway that once he had a big contract he stopped caring.
Nor can you judge how much a player cares by their expression and/or demeanor. To take another Pirates example, the struggling Pedro Alvarez has never shown much emotion on the field either way, whether he was tied for home run champion in the National League or moved off of third base because he couldn’t reliably throw to first base anymore.
But his manager, Clint Hurdle, who knows his players extremely well, assures us that Alvarez works hard and cares very deeply about his current lack of production. It won’t stop Hurdle from sitting him if need be. Lack of motivation is scarcely the problem. If nothing else, Alvarez needs a new contract, and you can believe that if he knew how to be hitting better and throwing more accurately he would be doing it.
Of course there will be individual variations in how much time and effort a player puts into preparing. There are probably not a lot of players who spend as much time working on their craft as Antonio Brown. But even the players who don’t seem to be spending every waking moment working are putting in a substantial amount of time on conditioning, studying, and so on, because if they weren’t they wouldn’t be on the team.
The amount of money someone is paid to do their job shouldn’t have any bearing on how they are treated. (This goes for the bottom end of the pay spectrum as well as the top, in my opinion. But that’s a subject for another day.) And the way I have seen people spoken of is appalling at best. “I hate so-and-so.” “He’s a fat waste of space.” We all know it gets way worse than those, and those are bad enough. It’s entirely possible to separate the performance from the person, and to realize that the player would almost certainly be better if he could.
I’m happy to see that Cortez Allen, Dri Archer, and Landry Jones are doing well enough in camp that they aren’t this year’s whipping boys. Yet. But you know someone will be, whether it is one of them or some newly designated goat(s) upon which to hang our animus. It will be someone who struggles to pick up the playbook, or isn’t as physically gifted, or who just isn’t developing on our timetable. If they struggle too much, and the timetable is too extended, they won’t be here long. In the meantime, perhaps we could extend them a little grace.
Maybe some of last season’s goats will surprise us. Maybe one or all of these players will end up on the NFL scrapheap. (NFL stands for “Not For Long,” remember.) But they are also men, and deserve to be treated as such.