Saturday, June 23, 2012

Happy Ball Clubs Are All Alike -- Unhappy Ones Are, Too

Think about your job. Envision about 35 of the other employees where you work, your closest peers, a couple supervisors, some people from other departments whom you seldom see. A cross-section of your human interactions in the workplace.

Now, imagine that to do roughly six hours of work, you're going to spend between 10 and 14 hours a day with those 35 other people. Every day. For six months. And you're going to do it in extremely claustrophobic spaces in which personal space is nonexistent, many of the spaces being airplanes. Twice a day a large group of annoying strangers will invade one of the small spaces to ask you impertinent or worse, banal questions. Oh, and every day is a de facto performance review, where you will be judged by both your superiors and the customers.

Almost forgot. For half of the days of those six months, you will eat your meals with some of those 35 people and they will be your only social companions -- unless you know somebody else in Cleveland who feels like going out for a snack at 1 a.m.

How do you feel about your co-workers and bosses now? How do you think you'd feel about them if they never got out of your sight? How long do you think it would take for office gossip and office politics to become the stuff blood feuds are made of?

Think about all this for awhile. Now you have approximately one-third of the picture needed to understand the baseball concept of "clubhouse chemistry" and why it's one of those sports commentator fantasies indicating my former peers and myself had an important part of our brains fail to get out of fourth grade.

The other two-thirds of the picture are the people who actually endure the work environment described above, the ballplayers themselves. Like almost all people who excel at incredibly difficult disciplines, major leaguers are supremely focused/self-centered on their own performance, extraordinarily sensitive about that performance, and most of all, have a borderline psycho level of competitiveness in a profession where one loses and/or personally fails a great deal of the time. It always kills me when outsiders say players don't care. If only. Hell, half the instruction in the sport deals with trying to teach relaxation during performance, i.e., not caring as much.

In short, baseball players exist under stress. They then spend most of their waking hours in an environment designed to create stress all by itself.  Any industrial psychologist could predict what comes next. These chaps aren't going to be a band of brothers -- not until they retire and can swap lies at team-sponsored reunions.

Any industrial psychologist could predict what defense mechanisms player use to cope with their stresses, too. The sport's cruel and wonderful gallows humor is one. So is a determined effort to protect psychic personal space. That is to say, minding one's own business is as close to a Prime Directive as baseball has.

But no amount of coping can force human beings to like each other, not even, maybe especially, when they need each other. It was a manager, utterly dependent on the performance of players for his paycheck, who said of Curt Schilling, "he's a horse every fifth day and a horse's ass the other four." Schilling was a difficult teammate, primarily due to his inability to observe the Prime Directive.

And among young men under stress, dislike can become hatred. Cliques exist in all social groups. Do pitchers and position players get along? Do Marketing and IT always see eye to eye?

All these dynamics exist whatever the scoreboard says. The only difference is, when a team's winning, it's easier to ignore them. The gallows humor trends from bitter to lighthearted. Dislike can mellow into grudging respect. The media questions become less impertinent and more obsequious. It's not all good, but it's all easier to take.

Losing of course breeds the opposite reaction. That's why Bob Hohler found so many stool pigeons in October for his story on the Red Sox collapse of September. And when, as most teams do most of the time, a club bumps along within the .480-.530 mean, you get the idea everyone in baseball has undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

David Ortiz took considerable umbrage this week at a report that the 2012 Red Sox had a "toxic" clubhouse. Ortiz is an old hand, and should have known better than to go off. Writing that stuff is what baseball scribes do, and have done since before the American League came into existence. The fantasy that group dynamics influence performance, the exact opposite of reality, will never go away.

Yet at the same time, one sympathizes. Ortiz looks around at the 2012 Sox and almost surely thinks, "there's nothing REALLY different about this clubhouse." And he's right if he does.

Buster Olney, who wrote the report, is another old hand who should have known better. Teams that believe they are contenders who are scuffling to stay above .500 are newsworthy only when their interpersonal relationships AREN'T somewhat toxic. If there was a specific inter-Sox beef Olney knew about, he owed it to ESPN's vast audience to provide more information than a pointless generality.

As someone exposed to the Oakland A's of the 1970s, a dynasty that won three straight World Series with a clubhouse whose internal dynamics bore a striking resemblance to the politics of Lebanon, I have never really bothered to follow the "dissension" stories that make up so much of baseball (and all sports) commentary. Guys who had fistfights in August looked happy enough at the victory parades.

And since no team, not even the champion, wins all the time, or even 75 percent of the time, I'm never surprised when players don't get along with managers, coaches, and each other. They may be strange human beings, but they are human beings all the same, and humans weren't meant to live in the world known as the baseball season.

There's never been a murder in a clubhouse. In some ways, that's the most remarkable record in the sport's long history.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Vengeance Is Ours, Saith the Scribes

Opinion among sports commentators, especially baseball commentators, is unanimous. They are very, very disappointed in and angry with the U.S. Department of Justice. It's the prosecution's fault that a jury decided Roger Clemens wasn't guilty of perjury when he told Congress he never used performance-enhancing drugs. There's no other possible explanation.

It couldn't be because the jury believed Clemens instead of his accusers, and more to the point, instead of all the sports commentators who've said they know Clemens was guilty. That's unpossible.Why? Because and shut up, that's why!

Just heard Kevin Blackistone on ESPN say "Clemens lost the trial in the court of public opinion." By which Kevin, a good fellow, meant of course "my opinion." That juries are members of the public seemed to escape him.

That perjury is a charge where legal technicalities don't come into play too much escaped everybody I heard. It's simply a judgment call on credibility by twelve good citizens and true. Whatever it thought about what happened or didn't, this jury believed Clemens more than it did his principal accuser Brian McNamee. Is it too much to suggest that maybe this point of view has some merit? They're the ones who had to spend two months of their lives on this petty, vindictive, insane waste of the ineffable energy (not to mention of money it ain't got) of the Republic.

Once again, we see the overcompensation of the baseball journalism community for having basically ignored or refused to admit the prevalence of PEDs in the 1990s. It's the guys who slobbered over Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa the most in 1998 who lead the lynch mobs for Clemens, Barry Bonds, etc. in the 21st century.

I was there, a working scribe. I missed the PED story big time. No excuses, it's a blot on the old record. But I also feel that if possible, it's best to avoid letting one big mistake lead one to a series of other big mistakes. And becoming a PED crank would be a doozy. Getting worked up over athletes taking drugs to be better athletes is a gateway drug. Fool with it, pretty soon you're mainlining idiocy.

Ladies and gentlemen of the electronic jury (there are 12 of you out there, aren't there?), I wish to enter the following comment in evidence. Let it be marked Radio Talk Show Lunacy, Exhibit A.

"What did Roger Clemens really gain today," Tony Massarotti declared as I fought not to lose control of the steering wheel. "Not much, when you think about it."

Not much. What's not having to spend time in a federal prison? In all seriousness, Tony went on to claim that whether or not Clemens gets elected to the Hall of Fame is more important than whether or not he retained his liberty -- not just as an issue, mind you -- but to Clemens himself.

I covered Clemens a long time. He's stubborn, not too swift on the uptake and cosmically self-centered (traits he shares with more great athletes than I can count). But Roger's not that far gone, trust me. I'd bet any sum of money that yesterday afternoon he didn't give a shit about Cooperstown because he never thought of it at all.

What is it about baseball that destroys the perspective of otherwise bright and perceptive human beings? What is it about a life of gathering early notes or soundbites in clubhouses that leads them to regard the national pastime not as the wonderful, more than slightly goofy game that it is and see it as one of humanity's greatest and most solemn institutions? Show a true seamhead Nationals Park in D.C., he or she believes they're looking at the Lincoln Memorial.

Stung by the vandal wrecking the steroid crowd did to the statistics that are their sacred texts, and even more stung by the fact the American public at large has obviously decided it's way past time to move on from the issue of drugs in baseball, it said issue ever had a time with said public, which I doubt, the commentariat seeks its revenge, the only one it's got left. Surely the purity of the Hall of Fame can be defended.

It can be. It might be. But if I have anything to say about it, it won't be. And I DO have something to say about it. I have a vote. Clemens will get it. So will Bonds.

It's probably a personal weakness, but I'm more inclined to trust juries than people I hear blatting on the radio and TV.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Superstar Social Status Questions

So is LeBron James a bum, like he was Wednesday or is he back in the "hero who'll make 'em forget Achilles" category ESPN has carved for him since high school? His image changes faster than the nameplates on the executive suites in Hollywood, and I can't keep up.

And if James has another 40-point plus game tonight and the Celtics win anyway, which is a totally plausible scenario, will LeBron be a choking dog, a gallant hero, or both?

Or is it just that the commentary on professional basketball has not been able to grasp since the 1960s that teams win and lose games as a group? And that therefore it is by far the most ignorant and hysterical bloc of opinion offered for all of the four major sports, and always has been?

The last questions are the only ones for which I have an answer.