Corrections or additions?
Wither the Unspoiled Athlete
This article by David McDonough was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on Wednesday, May 20, 1998. All rights reserved.
As a sports reporter at Trenton’s Waterfront Park,
I don’t usually go to work worrying about ducking a bucket of bleach.
But last August, as I stood outside the locker room with a group of
area reporters, I was eying my route of escape.
We were about to interview Bret Saberhagen, the award-winning major
league pitcher. And anytime you are anticipating a chat with a big
leaguer, today’s hot topic of the impetuous, spoiled athlete is bound
to surface. Saberhagen was attempting to come back from potentially
career-ending surgery, and the Boston Red Sox wanted to see what he
could do in a real game, pitching for the Trenton Thunder, the Sox
But what we in the press box were wondering was, who was the Bret
Saberhagen we would meet in the locker room?
Saberhagen, you see, does not enjoy a reputation as the most mature
of men. This is the guy who once, in a playful moment as a New York
Met, threw bleach at a reporter and narrowly missed causing serious
injury. I’m one of the older journalists who haunt Waterfront Park,
and as we trooped into the locker room, I stayed close to the door,
figuring that I needed that edge if I was to beat the young fellows
from the Times of Trenton and the Trentonian out the door when all
hell broke loose and the laundry supplies started flying.
What we encountered was a mild, businesslike man of 33 (young to many
of us, middle-aged by baseball standards), who answered all our
questions politely, and offered a few more insights than the average
22-year-old minor leaguer, and then turned quietly to the business of
showering and dressing. Nowhere in evidence was the fiend who so
cavalierly chucked detergent around. True, the bleach incident was
some years back, when Saberhagen was a star. Maybe it was adversity
(Saberhagen had missed one entire year following his shoulder surgery
— such a stretch is an eternity in baseball), and maybe it was
just the passage of time, but, to our collective relief, the man
seemed to have grown up.
This question of just how spoiled the athlete has become is one of
furious debate. Every time a ballplayer behaves badly (which seems
to be on a daily basis), the issue crops up again. Sports Illustrated
recently ran an article pointing out how many pro athletes have
multiple illegitimate children (it stated Larry Johnson of the Knicks
has five kids by four different women), and how many of them attempt
to avoid financial responsibility for their progeny. To many people,
the question has become not, "Are some athletes spoiled?"
but, "Are there any who are not?"
Well, yes. The unspoiled athlete is not a vanished species, although
it is endangered. In baseball, this species is mainly indigenous to
the minor leagues — fortunate for those of us living in and about
Trenton, which was recently named by Baseball America magazine as
one of the nation’s Top Ten minor league cities. As a part-time sports
reporter, I get to see players here who have not yet succumbed to
whatever it is that drives seemingly ordinary young men to the
heights of boorish behavior.
And they are ordinary young men, for the most part.
Although one of the problems is that we don’t treat them that way.
The majority of professional athletes, even the ones who will get
only to Trenton, and never to the big leagues, were outstanding
in high school or college (one of the things you learn as a reporter
is respect for athletic skills: You have to be a very good player
to get as far as Double-A baseball). High school fame is the beginning
— the very first time you, the star athlete, are excused from
an assignment, or excused from taking a class, or excused from that
troublesome accusation involving an underage girl, the fix is in,
and the word is planted in your brain: I am special. And if you are
one of the top players who is handed millions just to sign a
contract, then you are so close to the precipice of irreversible
that it would take an extraordinary effort to pull back.
Minor league ball can actually provide an antidote. It is a great
leveler. For the first time in your life, you are thrown in with those
whose talent is as good as or better than your own, and success is
neither automatic nor assured. Many great high school athletes never
progress beyond this first level of pro baseball, and those who do
are frequently humbled by the competition. One of the most frequent
comments from the young players I interview is, "I just didn’t
know how tough it was going to be."
Minor league ball involves endless bus rides, and meal allowances
so small that when somebody says McDonald’s you’re the first one out
the door. You stay in the McIntosh instead of the Hyatt, and in the
off-season, if the club doesn’t send you somewhere to play winter
ball, you might actually have to (gasp!) get a job to tide you over.
The whole experience is calculated to keep you modest and unassuming
(that is, of course, unless you are already an arrogant jerk, and
have been from birth, in which case, God help you).
The problem is, if you’re good enough, you hit the big time. Your
salary rises from, let’s say, $9,800 a year (the average at the
Thunder) to $2.4 million (the average on the New York Yankees) by
the time you’re 25. You no longer carry your own bags, make your own
plane or hotel reservations, or pay for most of your meals. You never
pick up so much as a towel, but a lot of women pick you up. You make
a lot of money. Writers gather round you, educated people who have
been on the job for years, and who make one-one-hundredth of what
you make, and treat your every utterance like a pearl of wisdom.
on TV a lot. Celebrities want to meet you. You make a lot of money.
It’s no excuse, of course, but who among us, given that kind of
at that age, wouldn’t act like an asshole? In that respect, athletes
are no worse than young actors or young musicians who hit it big.
Just ask Christian Slater or Tommy Lee.
So are there any major league athletes who are not spoiled brats?
One veteran sportswriter says flatly, "It’s unusual. Not
but unusual. Most rookies are okay, but after that . . ." When
pressed, he cites San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn as one of the few
who has stayed level-headed after years in the league. To which I
would add a few names — Tony Clark, the Detroit Tigers slugger
and Trenton alumnus, who last year graciously traveled to Trenton
on his day off when the team retired his number. Nomar Garciaparra,
star shortstop of the Boston Red Sox, returns to Trenton on Wednesday,
May 27, for an exhibition game between the Red Sox and the Thunder,
and, as a member of the Thunder class of 1995, will receive the same
honor as Clark. He was a great kid when he was here. Let’s see what
success — and money — have done for him.
But mostly, let’s continue to look to the minors for the unspoiled
players. Watch them here, while you can, before they are embroiled
in the evil talons of The Show. Want examples? There’s current Thunder
players like Richie Borrero, of whom one Thunder employee says,
never heard him say an unkind thing about anyone." There’s Brad
Tweedlie, a pitcher who has endured a great deal of difficulty over
the past season, but who faces the music and answers questions
and honestly even when he has pitched poorly. And presiding over it
all is manager DeMarlo Hale, a career minor league player who had
the brains and the talent to become a fine minor league manager, and
treats his players firmly but fairly, and who has the good will and
tact to answer this part-time reporter’s questions with a straight
face, no matter how far off the mark they may be.
There there’s Lou Merloni, the scrappy kid from Framingham,
who played for Trenton in 1995, 1996, and 1997. No bookmaker would
have ever taken odds that he would make the big leagues. He’s a small
man with average talent, and he’s getting old for a minor leaguer.
But Lou Merloni hustled, and he ran, and made all the little plays
and very few mistakes, and he cheered on his teammates and led them
by example, and he joked with reporters, signed autographs for every
kid who asked, and did everything that the organization asked of him.
And just one week ago, on May 11, Lou Merloni was promoted to the
Boston Red Sox. And reporters in Trenton are willing to bet that
kept cooling his heels for so long, will not spoil. Hopefully, we’ll
have our first chance to see on Wednesday, May 27, when the loudest
cheers at Waterfront Park just may be for the modest kid from
who wasn’t supposed to make it.
— David McDonough
Mercer Waterfront Park, 609-394-8326. The Major League visits its
farm team. $15 & $24; standing room $10. Wednesday, May 27, 6:05
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