New Patriots defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is one of those players you could describe by saying (spins the cliché wheel): “His troubles are well documented.” At least I can say it because I spend a good chunk of time last year documenting them. Well, I hope.
But Haynesworth made it easy. In the normal course of things, I wouldn’t care less about anything a Redskins player did or didn’t do, unless he was playing against the Patriots, playing against one of the Pats’ AFC rivals, or on my fantasy team. And Fat Albert was none of those. Still, he was impossible to ignore. I’m a guy who semi-professionally writes about the most insufferable characters the world of sports can offer up. And Haynesworth came crashing through the wall of my sports awareness like the Kool-Aid Guy. Only his gut was rounder and he ran at about one-quarter the speed.
The kickoff of Haynesworth’s Season of Discontent was when he cashed a $21 million roster bonus check. Then, before the check had even cleared or he’d grabbed a lollipop out of the jar next to the teller’s window, Haynesworth began loudly and publicly bitching about the role he’d be playing in new ’Skins coach Mike Shanahan’s defense. That — by itself — was bad enough to be column fodder. But what put Haynesworth into the Ridicule Hall of Fame was when he compared his situation to “slavery.” Right. You students of history no doubt know how eloquently Frederick Douglass spoke out about the suffering of generations of his people, forced to play head-up on the ball and 2-gap the center-guard bubble. And for a paltry $100 million. It’s America’s great shame.
And it only got worse from there. Haynesworth skipped OTAs. He demanded to be traded. He famously kept flunking Shanahan’s conditioning run, an exercise that wouldn’t make Betty White break a sweat. He was benched. When he wasn’t benched, he moved around the field with all the hustle of a postman walking out back to look for the Christmas package your grandma sent. Off the field, he was picking up more criminal charges than Catherine Grieg and the Cincinnati Bengals combined. In a nutshell, he was a disgrace. A big, fat, lazy, disgruntled, incorrigible disgrace. He was Shanahan’s worst nightmare and the monster in the closet of Roger Goodell’s personal conduct policy.
And now ... he’s all ours. Or as I like to look at it, all mine, since I’m a shameless rumpswabbing Patriots fanboy and because I think the world revolves around me. And as I’ve had to do many times in my Boston sports fan career, I’ve got to decide how much I can be a fan of a guy that up until now I’ve hated with the white hot intensity of a thousand supernovae.
It’s always tough when this happens — when a guy you hated in another city comes here to play for the home team. You try to be consistent. You try to keep your moral compass pointed in the same direction. But you end up deciding these things on a case-by-case basis. Fortunately in Boston we haven’t had to deal with any of the real egregious wrongdoers. We haven’t been faced with the decision of whether to embrace any of “reformed” dog killers or rapists or wife beaters like other cities have. But we’ve had some guys come through here that I’d previously worked up a good, healthy animosity for. And it’s never an easy adjustment to switch your emotional gears like that.
I suppose the pluperfect example is Randy Moss. Prior to coming to New England, Moss was the poster child for “Save the Immature, Self-Absorbed Man-Children.” Granted, his antics were usually more misdemeanors than capital crimes, like admitting he smoked pot or pushing a meter maid with his car (for which I thought he deserved a state dinner at the White House). But still, bad reputation stuck to him like dog hair to a sweater. He sulked. He famously took plays off. He counted his catches and quit when they weren’t coming. He was the guy old-timers talked about when they wanted to make the point that today’s athletes are pampered babies and Bronco Nagurski would’ve had chunks of guys like that in his stool.
And pre-Patriots, I lived to mock Randy Moss. He was the perfect target: A team-destroying head case on the Raiders, a team I’ve hated my whole life. So when the Pats swung that draft day deal, I had no choice but to try to give him a fair shake. I was as leery as anyone at first. But he put together three-plus years of the most productive wideout play in the history of football. And aside from a few hiccups and a wacky press conference or two, Moss couldn’t have been a better citizen if he was George Bailey and Foxboro was Bedford Falls.
It really comes down to production in cases like these. It’s much easier to accept a hard-to-love ballplayer when he’s getting it done on field. Take Manny Ramirez. As controversial as he was here, he was definitely no surprise. The nutjob he was in Boston was the same nutjob he was all those years in Cleveland. He was already infamous for laying down on the job. His late-August fake hammy pull was already more reliable than the Julian calendar. It was common knowledge he was a despicable human being who treated “the little people” (Note to self: find a non-condescending term for that) like garbage. The Manny Circus already existed; Dan Duquette just brought it to Boston for an extended eight-year engagement.
Kids and girls in pink hats may have loved him, but I don’t know too many serious baseball fans or grown-ups who ever truly did. We tolerated him because he raked. Because he was the best right-handed power hitter any of us had ever seen. And he won championships. If he’d pulled the same nonsense but hit like, say, Edgar Renteria, we would’ve demanded the club eat his contract and volunteered to drive him to the airport.
Another great player who brought with him so much baggage Southwest wouldn’t have charged him for it was Corey Dillon. I never got the impression he was cuddly and lovable. But he played hard, set team records and kept himself so trouble-free you wondered what the fuss with him was all about. Then you remembered that the controversy with Dillon was that he wanted out of Cincinnati, and you realized he’s probably the sanest man in the world.
Another easy way to overlook a player you previously hated is if ... well, if you can overlook him. Bit players are a snap to tolerate. None of us were Facebook-friending Rasheed Wallace when he was elbowing his way to the title in Detroit or perfecting his ’Sheed Face for the refs or during his insane tirade after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when he accused the Celtics of flopping in a rant that used more F-bombs than “The Departed.” And if the 2009-10 Celts had counted on him for anything more than a few productive minutes in the playoffs — if, say, we’d actually expected him to do something — we wouldn’t have tolerated his act for a minute. But he came off the bench for some spots and helped win a couple of games, so all was forgiven.
It also helps if said unlikable player is unlikable for being goofy as opposed to regular, straight-up evil. Take for instance the ill-fated Jose Canseco era in Boston. Jose was established as one of the biggest villains in baseball. The Man You Loved to Hate. But with him it was always more about ridiculing his buffoonery than anything else. The guy who had a ball bounce off his squash for a home run. Who claimed he got accosted by fans who rocked his SUV during a rehab stint at Pawtucket. The guy who was as big a waste of pure athletic talent as has ever pulled on stirrups. And he fit right in on those 1996 Red Sox of a fat Kevin Mitchell, pre-steroid Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn and Mike Stanley that looked like a Sunday morning beer league softball team and was maybe the most poorly conceived Sox team of our lifetime. Jose was just sort of more fun to pick on than to hate.
Some would make a case that Chad Ochocinco is a problem guy, too, but I think they’re in the minority. I think the vast majority of the country sees him as a colorful, entertaining guy. A self-promoter for sure, but a harmless one. He may or may not have been in some controversy in Cincy. But the Dillon precedent proves anyone who doesn’t have a problem with that team is the crazy one.
It’ll be easy to like Ocho. That process has already begun. Haynesworth will be the toughie. Not as hard to learn to like as if, say, A-Rod came here or the Sedin twins or anyone on the Canadiens. But he’s definitely the outlier to prove how quickly we can change our minds about a guy. He’s been great so far, talking about resurrecting his career as a Patriot and saying he’ll do whatever is asked of him and pushing blockers all over the field in practice. And as we’ve seen, if anyone can do it, it’s Bill Belichick. His greatest strength is his ability to reach the guys others can’t. To motivate the unmotivatable.
And if Belichick can turn Albert Haynesworth around and make me like him, he’ll be more than just a great coach or a genius. He’ll forever be The Malcontent Whisperer.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryThornton1.