A Tale of Two Players

7 Aug

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In 1961 a man was booed, reviled, and generally lambasted by fans and press alike for doing a good job. He was Roger Maris, and he was en route that summer to breaking Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Even baseball commissioner Ford Frick was against him, stating that Maris’ record could not be compared to Babe Ruth’s because Ruth did it in a 154 game season while Maris had 162 games. (Though it should be noted that Maris hit his 60th homer in his 684th plate appearance and Ruth did it in his 689th.) It’s a misconception that there is an asterisk next to Maris’ name in the record books; but it’s a misconception so prevalent amongst fans that it might as well be there anyway. The stress took a powerful toll on the Yankee slugger: at times his hair would fall out in clumps, and after a while he couldn’t even face a hostile press that did not want this no-name to break their beloved Bambino’s record. On the last day of the season Maris broke Ruth’s record. But there were a mere 23,154 fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium, partially due to Commissioner Frick’s pooh-poohing of the record, partially because of the Yankee management’s lack of publicity. Despite basically everyone hating him – just for being really good at his job, remember – Maris won his second consecutive MVP Award that year.

In 1961 a man was cheered and rooted for to break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. That man was Mickey Mantle, future Hall of Famer, and so beloved that a fictional character wanted to name his first born son not after Mantle himself, but after his number.

The media portrayed Mantle and Maris as bitter rivals. In actuality, they were good friends who shared an apartment in Queens. When Maris was sidelined with an injury – and with 54 homers – he cheered for his teammate to break Ruth’s record. Maris has never been fully recognized for what he accomplished in 1961. His number was only retired by the Yankees in 1984, the year before his death.

To be fair, Mantle was always a better player than Maris. Even in 1961. The statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt to determine a player’s total value to a team, basically how many wins this player contributed compared to a replacement player at the same position. Roger Maris’ WAR in 1961 was 6.9, Mickey Mantle’s was 10.5. Maris’ lifetime WAR is 38.3, while Mantle’s is 109.7, good for 15th all time.  

In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had their own home run chase. There was minimal animosity towards these two players, partially because there was still very little appreciation of Maris’ record. There was however a sharp contrast in how the media portrayed the two sluggers. McGwire was the more silent, stoic type. Up until June, he was the story, but not a particularly interesting one. Mark McGwire was boring. Once Sosa got in the chase, however, the media found their story. Sosa was fun. He had a great origin story: a poor Dominican kid who made a glove out of a milk carton. While McGwire was a player almost every fan knew, Sosa seemed to come out of nowhere. McGwire was workmanlike and always seemed to take the game too seriously. Sosa played baseball like a kid, full of unabashed glee and wonderment at being able to play the game he loved. Add to this the fact that the two men played for rivals – the Cardinals and the Cubs – and it seemed like the story was writing itself. Many credit the outgoing Sosa with taking a lot of pressure off the more introverted McGwire. In the end, McGwire broke the record, but Sosa had won over more fans (and the MVP).

***

Stories need good guys and bad guys, or at least characters that oppose and balance each other. Mantle was the hero, Maris the villain. Sosa was the likeable upstart, McGwire was the brooding veteran. The Yankees are the Evil Empire, the Red Sox are the rebels.

Of course many of these stories are manufactured. Maris was anything but a villain. McGwire was a nice guy, just not the most talkative. And Yankee fans never think of themselves as the bad guys. (When the opposing lineups are announced, the background music is the Imperial March, when the Yankee lineup is announced it’s the main Star Wars theme.)

But stories are necessary. Maris had to be the villain because nobody could succeed Babe Ruth except for another true Yankee like Mantle. The Sosa-McGwire race was the perfect feel good story to finally wipe away the stain of the 1994 strike.

And Alex Rodriguez is the perfect scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb to absolve the game of its varied sins.

Let me be frank, as I wrote about earlier hereI believe that there should be rules in sports about using performance enhancing drugs, especially those that are either unsafe or have not been fully tested. Steroids also create a disadvantage to those who do not want to take them.

While I’m sure there are a lot of players who would like to take steroids legally, there are also plenty of people who don’t want to take them because they shrink your balls and grow your boobs. This is where competitive advantage and player safety collide. You either have to put something into your body that is known to be not just unhealthy, but ridiculously unhealthy, and in some cases unhealthy in a completely unknown way because there have not been any real scientific studies done on them. Or you possibly lose your job to someone who cares less about his gonads.

It appears that Alex Rodriguez broke the rules, and as such he should be punished. He may have gone further than simply partaking of the drugs; he may have tried to cover it up, to buy up the evidence. Basically, he lied, cheated, and stole.

There were a dozen other players who were suspended – for fifty games each – for similar doping infractions, but, outside of Ryan Braun, I bet you can’t name more than one or two of them. Alex Rodriguez is the only one that matters.

Rodriguez’ real sin, however, is not doping. It’s DWD: Doping While Douchey. Alex Rodriguez is kinda, sorta an asshole. There is a profound phoniness about him. The words that come out of his mouth sound full of self-satisfied bullshit. He’s a prima donna. Most of all, A-Rod seems to be pretending to be what he thinks we want to see in a baseball player. But he is a terrible actor. This lack of genuineness ricochets back to Rodriguez: the more he tries to get people to like him, the more people see through his invented persona and dislike him.

A-Rod is a readymade villain. Therefore, it was easy for Commissioner Bud Selig, the Yankees, and the media to draw out the rumors of a potential suspension for weeks. ESPN and sports radio covered it non-stop. Articles and essays – like this one – have debated the issues of steroids and what they mean for the game, but mostly we’re just talking about one man.

And then you’ve got the fans. Almost to a man, there is a smug, self-satisfied schadenfreude at the sad denouement of A-Rod’s career. I’ve heard people say that they “hate” A-Rod, that he got what he deserved, that he should be banished for life. True, much of this animosity probably stems from the fact that he plays for the Yankees. Still, there is a sense that A-Rod is getting his comeuppance. The satisfaction people feel, however, is not because of a punishment for steroids, but for simply being an asshole.

***

I believe that if there is one player in the baseball who, if caught doping, would tarnish the game irreparably, it is Derek Jeter. Even people who hate the Yankees like Jeter. Or at the bare minimum, they respect him. He is the Captain, the golden boy, the consummate professional and the ultimate team player. He’s so beloved that a dead man still says announces when he comes to plate. But the phrase that I hear the most about Jeter is: “he plays the game the right way.”

There is something about Jeter that resonates with people. He is a reminder of players of yore, players we may never have seen perform but who we hear about like heroes in the songs of myth. And if Jeter was caught doping it would destroy the game for years to come.

I spoke recently with a Yankee fan, and I stated that while I love watching Jeter play, A-Rod was the better player. In fact, I stated that there really is little doubt that he was the better player. The Yankee fan then asked me who I’d rather have on my team. I said Jeter, hands down.

A-Rod has had, statistically, a better career. Jeter’s lifetime WAR is 72.2, which is quite respectable. A-Rod’s WAR is 115.6, good for twelfth all-time, and better than Mickey Mantle’s. In fact, in many offensive categories – on-base-percentage, slugging, homeruns, RBIs, runs scored – A-Rod is better than Jeter. A-Rod has won three MVPs, Jeter none.

But read here what Joe Torre about Jeter:

Derek is the best player I’ve ever managed. I don’t think there’s any question…It’s more than just his ability, it’s his dedication to the city of New York, the New York Yankees. It’s just admirable. It never stops being special to him…I don’t think I can compare him to anybody when you consider that he may not have the most ability.” (emphasis mine)

And that is why people like Jeter and not A-Rod. Jeter may not have the most talent – he is arguably one of the most overrated fielders in the game – but that doesn’t deter him from pushing himself to be better, and from being humbled by the fact that he is allowed to play this great game. A-Rod, a man brimming with talent, has always been more in love with his own natural abilities than the game of baseball itself.

***

I’m not a Yankee fan, but I love watching Derek Jeter play. His 3,000th hit was a home run. When he came off the DL earlier this season he hit a homer on the very first pitch he saw. And Derek Jeter is not a home run hitter. But maybe that is what makes him special and what makes A-Rod at worst a narcissistic asshole steroid user, at best just a narcissist asshole. Jeter has always been an overachiever, simply trying to play the game as best he can. A-Rod, not satisfied with being the best in the game, decides to cheat.

And that is how we like our heroes and villains. The little guy who does better than he should wins, and the all-powerful monster who will resort to anything to be victorious loses. No matter how Sabermetric one wishes to get, baseball – like all sports – is at its best when it is not about numbers, but about stories. 

2 Responses to “A Tale of Two Players”

  1. Kiko Jones August 15, 2013 at 14:46 #

    The A-Rod hate has so consumed folks they have willingly put aside any pretense of objectivity. For example:

    Does no one have a problem that a dozen players were suspended w/o failing a test? Does anyone care that of the 104 names on the infamous PED list, Rodriguez has taken the fall for 102 of them. (David Ortiz’s name came out, he threw a hissy fit and has not been asked about it since.) Does no one care that the Mitchell Report did not name a single Red Sox player (a team Mitchell owns stake in) or one from the Brewers (Bud Selig’s old team)?

    More importantly, EVERYONE involved directly in the game of baseball (MLB, teams, media) LOOKED THE OTHER WAY during the ’90s when Big Mac, Sammy and Bonds put fannies back in the seats, after the ’94 strike alienated fans from the game. And now the pious St. Bud wants to railroad a player, who is despised enough that folks might not question his extreme tactics. Sorry, no dice.

    A-Rod is very likely guilty, and if he is, he should get the proper penalty. Not the one labeled ‘we-hate-this-guy-let’s-make-an-example-of-him’. The hypocrisy involved here is mountain size. The cast of holier-than-thous make me sick to my stomach, starting with Bud Selig who now, as he goes legacy shopping, has decided to make himself out to be “The Man Who Cleaned Up Baseball”. He could’ve been throughout the ’90s but he cho$e not to, so fuck him.

    The Jeter worship is fascinating to watch. Here’s a grown man whose main drive is, seemingly, to not disappoint his dad and has a cool and distant relationship with his fans. (Maybe that’s why they love him so.) As a Yankee fan, I like my captains to be on-hand guys (Guidry, Randolph) not aloof, ‘do-as-I-do’ guys like Jeter. But that’s me.

    Meanwhile, A-Rod has been the “welcoming committee” for every arriving new Yankee, be they veteran or rookie, greeting them and welcoming them to the Yankees before any other player. Also, despite A-Rod being the superior player, he moved to 3B and willingly sacrificed his personal numbers because the prima donna at SS would not budge (this is the same guy who was offended when the Yankees offered him a contract for twice what he was worth a couple of seasons ago). He gets no props for this; meanwhile, Derek Teflon can do no wrong. (Curiously, the same Yankee fans who despise A-Rod for being a “cheater” give a pass, and have no such issue with a 2-time PED user who lied about it: Andy Pettite. Hmm…)

    Finally, this Mike Francesa clip lays bare the subjective A-Rod bashing by the baseball press, and the hypocrisy behind the steroid issue. All in 5 mins. (Bill Madden is a stooge. Ugh.)

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