As much as we here in Boston have a reputation for being a tough crowd to play for, I honestly think that if an athlete comes here, plays hard and delivers a championship, we’re pretty much never going to stop appreciating what he’s done. Provided you don’t shoot your way out of town by beating up traveling secretaries and quitting in the middle of a pennant race, win here and we’re buds for life.
That said, I have a question to ask: How much do we owe these guys? Not to go all “Jerry Maguire Mission Statementy,” but is there a point where we’re supposed to be more worried about their feelings than we are with winning? At the risk of sounding harsh, are we supposed to care if a ballplayer, once he starts to outlive his usefulness, gets his pride hurt?
It’s starting to seem that way. At least if you listen to the Boston sports media — specifically, the beat writers and the insiders who are in the locker rooms. The ones who know these guys personally and who see them face-to-face every day.
To varying degrees, every team in Boston is going through what Jules in “Pulp Fiction” called “kind of a transitional period.” Some guys who were instrumental in winning titles, guys who made more duck boats roll than Douglas MacArthur, either are gone or on their way out, having outlived their usefulness.
And it seems as though in some cases, our loyalty towards these guys gets in the way of doing what’s right. That sometimes we treat the simple act of benching or cutting a guy in favor of a younger, more productive player like we’re loading up the buckshot and taking Old Yeller back behind the barn.
The most glaring recent examples come from the Red Sox, with Tim Wakefield being Exhibit A. Sunday afternoon marked his final turn in the rotation for the foreseeable future. The Sox didn’t cut him. They didn’t trade him, put him on waivers, place him in an old folks home, or put him on an ice floe and push him out to sea. They simply moved him to the bullpen to make way for top-of-the-rotation hopeful Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was 18-3 the last time he didn’t blow out his arm helping Bud Selig grow baseball in Chinese Taipei.
It was a simple move, and as a baseball decision no one could argue with it. Wakefield, with all due respect, is 43 and simply can’t stay healthy anymore. He’s at the point where I schedule yardwork chores around Wake’s chronic health problems. His first back spasms mean it’s time to spread crabgrass killer. His first bout of stiffness is when I fire up the Mosquito Magnet. His first trip to the DL means I uncover the pool … and so on. The point is, years ago it stopped being a question of if he’d get hurt, but when. So, all reasonable people would agree putting him in the bullpen where he can be used sparingly is the prudent thing to do.
But the way the story was talked about, you’d think Terry Francona Kevorkianed him. Wake, as he’s usually done, took the move with class and didn’t say anything negative. But the press reports were full of speculation about how much this had to hurt him. How disappointed he has to be about being so close to the Sox' all-time win record. There was some reading of body language and some suggestion of tears being choked back and all sorts of credit given to him for his steely eyed stoicism in the face of this earth-shattering news. And of course there was that word again: pride.
Peter Gammons said it. The Providence Journal wrote it. Every baseball pundit on WEEI from Sean McAdam to Steve Buckley to Lou Merloni used the word. They all reminded us how hard a move this was for the club. Not because it doesn’t make baseball sense, but because “Tim Wakefield is a guy who has a lot of pride.”
But since when should that be a factor? Again, meaning no disrespect to Wakefield, who hasn’t said boo about all this and has been showing up here and doing his job every day since the Bronze Age. But is the team really to be expected to take his pride into account? I mean, would pitching changes put less stress on the organization if the guy being replaced wasn’t … proud? Would McAdam go on The Big Show and say “Well, moving Buchholz to long relief is the obvious move, Glen, because he’s got almost no self-esteem to speak of …”?
I called Wakefield Exhibit A. For Exhibit B, I offer Jason Varitek. Again, this was a guy without whom the Sox are on 92 years without a championship and counting. But as his game deteriorated and it became apparent he could no longer be the everyday catcher unless MLB let him play in a Hoveround, there was the same kind of hand-wringing and worrywartism and concern over how Tek would handle being the backup because … say it with me now … Jason Varitek has a lot of pride. But here we are, well into Varitek’s second season as the only captain in all of pro sports who plays in 20 percent of his team’s games, and so far he seems to be making it through just fine without needing massive doses of Paxil.
But Exhibit C is the obvious elephant in the room, one that can’t be avoided much longer: David Ortiz. Any list of the Most Beloved Athletes in Boston Sports History that doesn’t have his name near the top isn’t worth the kilobytes you use to write it. And while I’m not willing to sign the death certificate on his career just yet, I wouldn’t loan it money or buy it green bananas either. I support Francona’s efforts to be patient with Papi and give him every chance to get his groove back as it did last year. But again, when the idea of benching him most of the time or against lefties or even altogether is floated out there, it always comes back to the question of how Papi will handle it because … wait for it … "David Ortiz has a lot of pride."
And it’s not like any of this is new to us. Pedro Martinez was one of the five best, most exciting and electrifying athletes any of us has ever seen. And I loved every minute of his Sox career. But he also was a gigantic diva, and every other day there was some slight, some affront, some threat to his legendary pride. From contract talks to Curt Schilling’s status as a co-ace, everything Petey encountered was another chance to remind us how proud a man he is.
One championship and a couple of years of Ubuntu later, it’s hard to remember now. But when Danny Ainge brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, there was a concern about how sharing the ball with those two would play with Paul Pierce, who was the Celtics' captain and leader, and might therefore might have his … everyone … pride damaged. Of course he welcomed the changes and won a championship and proved once again that when it comes to the Celtics, there’s pride and then there’s Pride.
And more changes are in store around here and they’re going to come soon. The Celtics are aging fast. The Patriots clearly have to turn over their roster with the draft picks they just made and the ones they’ve stockpiled for next year. Ditto for the Bruins. The Sox obviously are planning to build their lineup through the farm system in the next two years or so. And with wholesale changes, God forbid, proud men are going to have their prides proudly hurt.
Not to whine about my own troubles, but I once got laid off from a job with a pregnant wife two months into our first mortgage, and I don’t remember anyone worrying about what it was going to do to my well-established pride.
So again, I’m asking, how bad do we need to feel about it? I’m thinking not at all. These guys are champions and icons and if you want to go there, “heroes” to some extent. But ultimately, they’re employees. And in a roundabout way, we pay their salaries, which means they work for us. And if they can’t do the job anymore, we owe it to ourselves to clear them out of the way and bring someone in who can. We can be nice about it, give them a nice sendoff or have them throw out the first pitch on Opening Day, but keeping non-productive, aging guys with diminishing skills around just because they’re “proud” is ridiculous. As is feeling bad for them.
Bear Bryant said, “Have pride and display character, and winning will take care of itself.” This might be true, but I’ll take my chances with a 25-year-old who can throw 96 mph instead.