The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Sports Illustrated”

Hero Worship and Baseball: Is A-Rod Today’s Narcissus?

Alex Rodriguez sharing his thoughts on a calle...

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I wrote the following article, which first appeared on the baseball website, “Books on Baseball,” two months ago.  I am reprinting it here in its entirety for those of you who might not have had a chance to read it at that time.

Can a baseball player whose biggest fan is himself still be a hero to others?  Historically, baseball’s great ball players have broken down into two camps:  those who refuse to accept the mantle of role model versus those who understand and accept that with great fortune comes great responsibility.

So may he himself love, and not gain the thing he loves! (Ovid)

Stan Musial, in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, is portrayed accurately as a hero because he has spent his whole baseball life living up to this responsibility in a humble, self-effacing way.  He has always gone out of his way to please his fans, many of whom have worshipped him as a hero now for decades.

Still other players, too numerous to mention, clearly enjoy the fame and fortune that baseball affords them, but refuse to accept any personal, let alone moral responsibility for their actions either on or off the field.  If a fan wants to worship him as a hero, fine.  It’ll mean more money in said player’s pocket.

Among the more recent players who have graced this great game, Cal Ripken, Jr. probably comes closest to embodying the characteristics of a true hero.  Not only was Ripken a great player, he was also a selfless player, putting his body on the line every single baseball game for nearly close to two decades without a break.  Moreover, he was a hero because, as a citizen of baseball, no shadow of doubt regarding his life-style, including his personal or professional choices, ever darkened his legacy.

How ironic, then, that one of the players who grew up idolizing Ripken was Alex Rodriguez, who recently hit his 600thcareer home run, a milestone that even Ripken never reached.

But is Alex Rodriguez a hero?

A-Rod is an interesting case because he doesn’t appear to fit into either of the two camps I outlined earlier.  His fawning, pouting countenance before the cameras betrays an inclination to covet a heroic reputation, but his actual behavior suggests the opposite.  He first lied about, then tearfully acknowledged and asked for forgiveness, regarding his use of steroids.  He also enjoys his association with a true hero, Derek Jeter, despite, at one point, jealously belittling Jeter’s skills and talent.

Alex Rodriguez wants it both ways.  Like a spoiled child, he wants to be loved, but he also believes that he should be immune from the norms and rules that govern the behavior of others, because he believes he is Beauty and Talent personified.

In fact, almost 2,000 years ago, this form of the “human condition” can be found in Roman poet Ovid’s work.

Ovid, a prolific writer who penned poetic tales of erotic love based on Greco-Roman mythological figures, wrote the following about Narcissus, a beautiful young man who stared at his reflection in a pool of water until he died:

“What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more.  That which you behold is but a shadow of a reflected form, and has no substance of its own.”  (Ovid’s Metamorphosis)

Alex Rodriguez wants us to love him as much as he loves himself.  But this is impossible, because no one can love A-Rod as much as he loves himself.  And, like Narcissus staring at his own reflection, A-Rod sees only one man before him; there is simply no room, nor is there any need, to see others as well.

Like Narcissus’ ending, staring at his own reflection forever, A-Rod’s career has been also tragic.  Because of his personality and actions, fans have become numb to his historic achievements.  Even as he his home run numbers hit historic proportions, we have become by-standers in his one-man narcissistic drama.

A-Rod may very well reach 700, or even 800 home runs, a staggeringly high number.  A question lingers for him….

Will A-Rod always be Narcissus, merely a shadow of a reflected form, a hollow image of greatness devoid of humility or gratitude or can he rehabilitate himself–stand away from the reflective pond waters–and earn the fans’ respect?

Can Alex Rodriquez truly become a hero?

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 9 – The Boston Red Sox

Back in the 1970’s, a powerfully built young black man roamed the outfield in Fenway Park.  Although he would go on to hit over 300 home runs in his career, he would never ingratiate himself with the powerful Boston sports media.

Born in the South, he found himself playing for an overwhelmingly white baseball team, the last to integrate in the years subsequent to Jackie Robinson’s arrival 200 miles south in Brooklyn.

But, although by now the Red Sox were integrated, they were far from harmonious.  According to an article published in Sports Illustrated on October 2, 1978 (about the Red Sox clubhouse in the late 1960’s-mid ’70’s), the Red Sox were divided up into at least four different cliques.

There was a Carl Yastrzemski group, a Jim Lonborg group, a Ken Harrelson group, and a Tony Conigliaro group.  Apparently, each group would throw parties primarily to exclude teammates they didn’t like.

Entering this fray, a black man on a team that had never had a black hero, was problematic enough.  But this particular black man, young and brash, was unafraid to speak his mind.

This did not turn out to be a good career move.

Labeled for years afterward as a negative clubhouse presence, his reputation overshadowed his physical skills as an athlete, particularly his powerful bat in the middle of the Red Sox lineup.

Reggie Smith, therefore, did not become Boston’s first great baseball superstar, although, by all rights, he should have.

Drafted by the Red Sox in December, 1963, Reggie Smith made his Major League debut in 1966 at the age of 21.  A switch-hitter with speed, power and a strong arm, Reggie Smith patrolled center field in Fenway for seven years.  During that time, he threw out base-runners, tracked down fly balls, slammed line drives, alienated fans, and pissed off the Boston media.

In that same S.I. article, Smith said he first realized that Boston was a racist city to play ball in when one of the Red Sox executives told him, early in his career,  that Smith had the kind of body that would last a long time in the Major Leagues.  At first believing he had been complemented, the executive then added, “Blacks have that kind of body.”

In another instance, Smith, running late for the team bus one day in his rookie season, complained that the team bus always waited for the sports writers and journalists, no matter how late they were, but sometimes threatened to leave players behind for being late.  Smith thought this was unfair, and said so.  In retaliation, a Boston sportswriter told Smith, “Son, I made you, now I’ll break you.”

Meanwhile, during his tenure with the Sox, Smith made two All-Star teams, led his league in doubles twice, in Total Bases once, batted over .300 three times, finished in the top ten in Slugging Percentage five times, led the A.L. in put-outs once, and in outfield assists once, and hit at least twenty home runs in five consecutive seasons.

Reggie Smith’s Best Forgotten Season with the Boston Red Sox was in 1971.

In 1971, at the age of 26, Smith led the A.L. in Total Bases with 302, in Extra Base Hits with 65, in doubles with 33, and in center field Range Factor at 2.94 chances per game.

Smith also finished second in Runs Created – 106, Assists – 15, third in RBI’s – 96, and forth in hits – 175.

Mysteriously, Smith finished only 17th in the voting for league M.V.P. in 1971.  Freddie Patek of the K.C. Royals, who amassed an embarrassingly flaccid .697 OPS  (143 points behind Smith), placed sixth in the voting.

During his tenure in Boston (excluding his rookie year), Smith’s OPS+ range was between 126-150, meaning he was always significantly better than a typical, league-average outfielder.

But by the end of 1973, Smith’s final year in Boston, the Fenway faithful were singing out to him, “Goodbye, Reggie, we’re glad to see you go.”

In 1974, still very much in his prime at the age of 29, Reggie Smith was traded to the Cardinals.  He enjoyed two productive seasons in St. Louis, including his first 100 RBI campaign in ’74, before finally settling in with the Dodgers in 1976.  Smith finished 4th in N.L. MVP voting twice in L.A., in both ’77 and ’78.

In Los Angeles, Smith came to be looked upon as a respected clubhouse veteran, a leader on and off the field.  In his thirties, Smith had found a place that recognized his talents, and that allowed him to shed his prior reputation, deserved or not, as a malcontent.

Switch-hitting Reggie Smith retired after playing one season with the Giants in 1982 at the age of 37.  He played on seven All-Star teams throughout his career, and was one of the best overall players in the decade of the ’70’s.

Ironically, in 1975, a couple of years after Smith’s turbulent exit from Boston, another young, black slugger (also born in the South), moved into the Red Sox outfield.  He, too, would experience his fair share of run-ins with the Boston sports media.

Jim Rice, however, gradually learned to keep his opinions to himself.  As a result, he spent his entire career with the Red Sox.  Rice, unlike Smith, finally made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit after a 15-year wait.

Interestingly, although Rice generally posted better counting stats than Smith in his career, they aren’t that far apart in certain key statistics. For example, Rice’s career OPS is .854;  Smith’s is .855.  Rice’s career OPS+ is 128; Smith’s career OPS+ is 137.

It is, of course, impossible to say in retrospect how Smith’s career would have turned out if he had played for 15 years in the bandbox that is Fenway Park.  What we can say for sure is that, in 1971, Reggie Smith enjoyed one of the Best Forgotten Seasons in Red Sox history.

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