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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

Double-A affiliate.

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

fathered

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

dizzying

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

players

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

professional

contract, then you are so close to the precipice of irreversible

overindulgence

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

Trenton

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.

You’re

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

lifestyle

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

impossible,

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,

"I’ve

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

politely

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,

Massachusetts,

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

Merloni,

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

Framingham

who wasn’t supposed to make it.

— David McDonough

Boston Red Sox Exhibition Game, Trenton Thunder,

Mercer Waterfront Park, 609-394-8326. The Major League visits its

farm team. $15 & $24; standing room $10. Wednesday, May 27, 6:05

p.m.


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