Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sympathy for the Slacker

If honesty matters, then we must give Josh Beckett more credit than his increasing number of increasingly vociferous critics. There's something appealing in Beckett's current public posture, which boils down to a frank admission of confusion along the lines of "Hey, I've always been a self-centered cementhead. Why are people upset about it now?"

Well, it's easy to make fun of ballplayers with Beckett's worldview, as Ring Lardner proved over a century ago. But there's also a truth (well) hidden in Beckett's plaintive response to the suddenly hostile world he inhabits. He IS the same -- except for his earned run average. It's his critics whose perceptions have changed -- because of his earned run average.

Let's review Beckett's career. He's been a pitcher who's ranged from All-Star level effective to significant stretches of dismal. He gets hurt a lot, which is hardly exceptional in his line of work. He has a disturbing tendency to backload his worst pitching into the final six weeks of the season. Since he's a power pitcher and, how to put this politely, not a master student of his trade, the percentage bet is that Beckett's effective stretches will get more infrequent and his dismal ones more common as the seasons roll on.

That's not the kind of paragraph plaques in Cooperstown are made of. But neither is it why Beckett has the Sox community so upset. He's being pilloried for his attitude, which is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocrisy at its hypoest. Because when Beckett was going well, that same attitude was praised as part of the cause of his success.

Don't believe me? Here's an experiment. Every time you hear or read the word "selfish" applied to Beckett, use the word "focused" instead. It's really the same personal quality, just described with adjectives that make it sound either bad or good. How Beckett's personality is portrayed depends upon how he's seen. And that, as noted above, depends on whether or not he's getting guys out, not the morals and ethics of those who're describing him.

Beckett is an extreme proponent of the High Seriousness School of pitching. That is, pitching is a draining professional commitment akin to neurosurgery, and whatever a pitcher does to cope with the unendurable stresses and responsibilities of his life-saving art is OK. This attitude is hooey, and always has been, but it rules an increasingly pretentious sport. The most cheerful and outgoing of starters will adhere to the solemn rule of not talking to teammates, let alone the media, in the hours before a start. NASCAR drivers, in a racket where lack of focus can kill you, conduct schmoozefests with sponsors and their children three hours before the race goes green.

If Beckett was 5-1 with a 2.21 ERA this morning, you'd be told that attitude is part of the reason why. You'd be told it was a big part. Moreover, it'd be presented to you as a virtue, a valuable life skill worth copying. It'd be the same hooey, but the Iron Laws of the Frontrunners' Universe and Scoreboard Morality would say otherwise.

 We've known the tragic truth about Mickey Mantle for about 30 years now, and he's STILL a hero. Willie Mays doubtless remains a misanthropic prick, which he was for his entire historic career. His 81st birthday this week was mentioned as a minor national holiday on network news. And I guarantee that if Beckett goes out and tosses a six-hit shutout in his next start, fools will rush to say his attitude has changed for the better.

As noted before, there have been ballplayers exactly Beckett since long before there was an American League. They've always been kind of a pain in the ass to have around. But not nearly as big a pain as the millions of baseball followers and commentators, who've been around for exactly the same long long time, who rush to say they're looking at a bad person when what they're watching is bad baseball.


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