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In the most stunning October example of “they just don’t get it” since Clarence met Anita, Jeff Blauser stood in the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse rhapsodizing to reporters about the glories of the Braves, despite the team’s defeat in the National League playoffs. Blauser talked about the emotions of the playoff loss, or at least tried to.
“I don’t think you could ever understand what it means to be a player,” he said. “People think they want our jobs. They want our money, but they don’t want our jobs. [Emphasis added.] They don’t know all the things we go through, physically, emotionally.”
Please, Jeff, and you 700-odd other guys playing major-league baseball, and the rest of you oppressed athletes like poor harassed retiree Michael Jordan, lighten up. You’re not the only people who have to work hard for your money. Plenty of people work at least as hard for much less, and then must cope with the financial pressures of trying to make ends meet on salaries several zeros short of yours. Emotional pressure and physical strain are part of virtually every job. Millions face workplace hazards far greater than those facing baseball players. Few knees are blown out or limbs broken sitting at a desk, though weight gain and lack of exercise lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other ailments.
Anyone who attains major-league status in their profession does so through the same kind of dedication, sacrifice, and exertion required of baseball players, and because so many more people (that female majority of the population deemed physically unsuited for baseball, for instance) are able to compete for the brass ring in other fields, their climb may be tougher than a ballplayer’s. Whatever form it takes, W-O-R-K is the ultimate four-letter word, Jeff.
Not everyone wearing a baseball uniform so thoroughly lacks perspective. Early this season, Oriole Manager Johnny Oates was discussing a lineup decision, and a reporter pointed out that the player—perhaps Glenn Davis, though the identity is really irrelevant—left on the bench said he was ready and willing to play. “Of course he says he wants to play,” Oates replied. The circle of reporters prepared for Oates to unroll the standard line from the managerial script, something to the effect that no one would want a player on his team that didn’t want to be in there. Instead, Oates offered his wry smile and paused. As reporters looked up, he said, “Did you get that last word?”
Oates repeated it. “Play. This is a game, just like when you were a kid. And when you were a kid, everybody wanted to play. They’re getting paid for it now, but it’s still playing. Who doesn’t like to play?”
Roy Campanella said, “You’ve got to be a man to play baseball, but you’ve got to have a lot of little boy in you, too.” Cooperstown inductee Willie Stargell put it this way: “The umpire says, “Play ball.’ He doesn’t say, “Work ball.’ ”
The team that beat Blauser’s Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, haven’t forgotten Pop’s adage. The Phillies genuinely seem to have fun on the field, and their enthusiasm is both good for the game and positively uplifting for fans. Enjoying the game doesn’t mean players don’t take it seriously, don’t want to win, don’t prepare, don’t concentrate, or don’t practice. It only means that they realize baseball is a game. As Oriole philosopher John Lowenstein noted after a game-winning home run, “Three billion people in China don’t care.”
The Blue Jays are a bit more of a corporate outfit, but they’ve got a fair measure of joie de jouer, too. Devon White loping after a fly ball, toying with the hitter, then, after raising his hopes, extinguishing them with flick of the glove, is playing. Rickey Henderson, crouched to barely half his height to take Ball 4, is playing.
This approach does not work for everyone. RobertoClemente didn’t play baseball, he attacked it, ferociously. Every at-bat, every ball hit in his direction was not an opportunity to play but a challenge to his being, and he never backed down. That was fine for Clemente, playing for the pride of Puerto Rico—and for Cal Ripken Jr., perhaps haunted by the ghost of his father or Lou Gehrig or Rogers Hornsby—but few players can maintain that drive and determination over the course of a six-month season.
Two-time Blue Jay Tony Fernandez was an enormously talented bundle of existential angst during his first tenure with the Jays. General Manager Pat Gillick traded him after the 1990 season, the last time the Jays didn’t make the playoffs, because he feared whatever Fernandez had was contagious and felt his clubhouse needed a personality transplant. Two years in San Diego and half a season in the Mets’ zoo should have shown Fernandez how much worse things can be, and he has been seen smiling since returning to Toronto.
Dozens of other players—Darryl Strawberry leaps to mind —seem trapped in this middle mode of failing to enjoy their work and lacking the single-mindedness to succeed without finding joy in it. Along with Jeff Blauser, they need to be reminded that, for all its difficulties, they have one of the greatest jobs on earth.
And Jeff, you’re right, we’d take your millions. But millions of us play at your profession for free. Call me the next time you sit down at a keyboard just for fun.