Zack Greinke: Tabula Rasa

My NBC colleague Mike Celizic on Zack Greinke, in a column entitled “Finally, baseball gives us as hero to admire“:

Finally, baseball has a fresh young superstar nobody can throw so much as a pebble at, a kid who is the perfect antidote for Manny B. Manny and A-Fraud and everything else that drives you nuts about sports . . .

. . . A lot of fans wish they had A-Rod’s life. Not many would want Greinke’s. They would want his talent, to be sure, but not his demons. That’s why we’ll probably never find ourselves ripping Greinke. Once we appreciate what he had to go through to get where he is now, we can wish him nothing but the best. Even if he were pitching against our team for the last spot in the playoffs, it would be impossible to wish him ill.

I don’t begrudge Celizic’s enthusiasm for Greinke for a moment (or Posnanski’s or the many others who have weighed in in recent days). The challenges he has overcome were formidable and the talents he has displayed are supreme. If Greinke quit playing baseball today he’d be someone we’d talk about for years, and as we sit here today we wouldn’t have a bad thing to say about the guy.

But if we’ve learned anything over the past decade — and should have learned over the past century — it’s that ballplayers are mere men. Some drink too much. Some are racists. Some do drugs. Some don’t treat women very well. Some battle all manner of personal demons, the likes of which, if we knew them, would make us think of them as anything but the fine young men the sporting press would have us believe. They do one or two extraordinarily difficult things outrageously well, and they provide us with tons of entertainment, but they are just men, for all of the good and bad that entails.

The thing about it, though, is we rarely know this stuff when players are breaking out like Greinke is now. It almost always comes later. As Bill James said in his comments about Doc Gooden in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:

When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent. Never pay any attention to those articles or those descriptions. Albert Pujols is going through this now . . . people who didn’t know Albert Pujols from Jack the Ripper six months ago and have never talked to him more than six feet from his locker are writing very sincerely about what an exceptional young man he is . . . Sportswriters, despite their cynicism or because of it, desperately want to believe in athletes as heroes, and will project their hopes onto anyone who offers a blank slate. The problem with this is that, when the player turns out to be human and fallible, people feel betrayed. It is a disservice to athletes to try to make them more than they really are.

We may have to wait forever for Albert Pujols to exhibit some fallibility, but I have this feeling that he’s merely the exception that proves the rule.

Before Greinke’s canonization, Alex Rodriguez was pegged to be the man to restore honor to the game by sanitizing the home run crown. Before A-Rod, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the game’s heroic saviors. I recall an article from the late 80s talking about how Barry Bonds was the perfect antidote to the nastiness that the Strawberry-Gooden Mets unleashed into the public consciousness, and as James noted, Gooden was once thought of a fine young man poised to breathe fresh air into the game himself. I’m sure we could trace that trail back to the deadball era if we wanted to.

But let’s not blaze a trail into the future with this, OK? Let’s let amazing ballplayers be just that: amazing ballplayers. Let us take note of the hurdles that guys like Zack Greinke has overcome, but let us not ascribe larger heroic qualities to such men simply because they play ball. “Hero” is too strong and baggage-laden a word anyway. As James notes, it places a heavy burden on young men, and these guys are under such scrutiny day-in and day-out that they really don’t need it. What’s more, the term hero it necessarily assumes its opposite — villain — and demands that we search them out too. You know, to restore balance to the universe and everything. Often — as in the case of A-Rod and Gooden and Bonds and all of the others — they’re the same people, just older. I have no reason to think that will be Zack Greinke’s fate one day, but I have no reason not to think it either, so why do we even want to tempt it? Lord knows that if Zack Greinke does fall one day it will be bad enough without having all of us hero worshipers around to comment on it.

Hero creation, worship, and subsequently, destruction has long been a part of baseball. But it’s not an essential part, and in my mind not a desirable part. Why don’t we try to dispense with that whole game and see what happens? I have this feeling we may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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  1. Ron said...

    I’ll go ahead and open it up and take the first shotgun blast. Because I’m glad someone from the big time brought this up.

    I’m not making fun of what happened to Greinke, but so what? He had an anxiety disorder. Try living my life and see what kind of anxiety there is.

    Bottom line is, he was a grown man playing a game for a lot of money, and couldn’t handle failure. Happens all the time. So he walked away from his team and his teammates. How come that never gets brought up? Guys get slammed all the time for nursing injuries. This wasn’t any difference.

    When he wasn’t successful, he couldn’t handle the pressure.

    Now he’s successful and he can handle the pressure.

    I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m still at a loss as to what his debilitating mental disorder is/was that caused this?

    Sounds like a guy who couldn’t handle pressure, then got his act together and is getting the job done.

    What is most telling is that a lot of people who want to make out that Greinke is some kind of hero are the same ones who think cops, fireman, soldiers, paramedic, etc, should be perfect and never make any mistakes in thier career field.

    And I’m willing to bet that those jobs are a lot more more stresful than facing David Ortiz.

  2. Really Ron? said...

    It wasn’t his inability to handle failure, it was a chemical imbalance in his head that needed medical attention to correct.  If you followed him you would notice a stark difference in his personality since he sought medical help. 

    I guess there will always be those like you who are ignorant and believe they know all..

  3. J.W. said...

    I agree with the premise of your article, Craig, but I do take issue with one phrase you used: “ballplayers are mere men.”  To me that phrase seems to be saying that it is the natural condition of human beings to be flawed in some pretty nasty ways.  Selfishness, greed, racism, anger, lack of compassion, sexism, chauvinism, unnecessary agression, these are (some of the many) flaws that are common in human beings.  But they are flaws nonetheless, they are things we should do our very best to eradicate, and when a public figure acts in a selfish, pathetic, cruel, etc. way, he or she should be criticized for it.  A-Rod is not a monster, Albet Pujols is not a hero, but Alex Rodriguez has done some fairly reprehensible things (I’m referring to putting his wife through a very public and divorce, and possibly cheating on her) and these things should be pointed out and criticized. Albert Pujols has done some nice things while maintaining a polite, respectable manner of conducting himself.  No, we should not expect heroes, but we should demand respectable human beings.  If we excuse or explain away the shortcomings (again I speak of the major ones, the ones like domestic violence, racism and so on, not Barry Bonds being somewhat full of himself, or a player maybe tipping off pitches) of baseball players as an effect of their being “mere men,” we miss an opportunity to shed light and and criticize some of the things that humanity would be better off without.  “Mere men” should still be held to high standards.

  4. J.W. said...

    P.S. I realize that was a bit off the topic of what your post was actually about and I’m not trying to say that what you wrote advocates giving players a free ride when they do reprehensible things.

  5. Ben said...

    I’m one of those egghead saps who loves baseball just as much for the stories as for the actual playing of the game, so I’m gonna just keep on with my hero worship. The best baseball writing recognizes that heroes are complicated things, and part of what makes the history of baseball so rich is all the tragic heroes – Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, the Mick, and dozens more. Would Joe DiMaggio still hold the same fascination if his life weren’t such a mess? People always assume that the public loves dirt just because of schadenfreude, but sometimes its reassuring to know that highly successful and talented people are just as messed up as the rest of us.

  6. Craig Calcaterra said...

    J.W.:  I don’t think we truly disagree here. I may just not have been 100% clear about where I’m coming from:

    ““ballplayers are mere men.”  To me that phrase seems to be saying that it is the natural condition of human beings to be flawed in some pretty nasty ways.”

    That is what I believe.

    “But they are flaws nonetheless, they are things we should do our very best to eradicate, and when a public figure acts in a selfish, pathetic, cruel, etc. way, he or she should be criticized for it.”

    I agree with that too. And I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog and elsewhere criticizing bad behavior.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t do that. What I’m suggesting is that we don’t start from an assumption that ballplayers are heroes or are subject to a higher-than-merely-human standard such that, when they do screw up, we can add personal betrayal or societal disillusionment to the list of their transgressions.

    When ballplayer X is a jerk, he should be called a jerk like any other person.  When ballplayer X is a jerk, she should not be said to have dashed the hopes and dreams of a nation or to have fallen from a heavenly height.  Especially if we were the ones who put him up there to begin with.

  7. kendynamo said...

    thats true, craig, baseball players are mere men.  and its a good thing too, because if they were mermen we’d get all wet trying to watch them play.

    thank you.

  8. J.W. said...

    Craig—Thanks for taking the time to respond. As I said in my P.S. I wasn’t trying to say you condone or excuse bad behavior. As a long time reader I know full well how frequently and effectively you call out players and managers and owners and agents for bad behavior. I guess I was really just trying to say wouldn’t it be great if we were all nicer to each other.

    Kendynamo—But if baseball players were mermen, umpires would be dolphins, and that would be pretty grand.

  9. Brandon Isleib said...

    One of my wife’s ex-bosses used to be close with the Greinke family and involved with them baseball-wise when she lived in the Orlando area (she was involved with Tim Raines’s baseball camp as an instructor).  She knew Greinke had been drafted but hadn’t heard anything else (this was back in ‘07).  When I laid out the story of initial success/breakdown/comeback, she wasn’t surprised in the slightest, based on her perception of the near-martial discipline the Greinke parents put on their kids to stick to their throwing program above pretty much everything.  I had just assumed based on the oddities the baseball world was hearing about Greinke’s problems that it would be surprising, odd, or at least eyebrow-raising, but she pretty much absorbed it like his upbringing made the breakdown something just short of inevitable.

    I’ve never met the Greinkes and I don’t mean to berate them here, but there are many parents who teach their kid only to know success and give no coping/overcoming mechanisms for failure, like what seems to happen often with child actors/actresses.  Perhaps that’s what Greinke really stands for more than anything – the willingness to throw off that mantle while “on stage” to live a productive life.

  10. Elliot said...

    Craig, I’m not sure I disagree with your point about players like Gooden and Pujols, but I don’t believe that it applies to Grienke at all.  Re-read Bill James’ paragraph and you’ll see that Grienke does not fill the mold of “a young player [who] comes to the major leagues and has success right away … and [people] have never talked to him more than six feet from his locker”.  On the contrary, Grienke did not have immediate success and – more relevant – has been interviewed, analyzed and dissected ad nauseum. 

    All of this is merely to say that I think that Grienke is a player (and person) to admire. Hero may be a strong word, but he’s possibly as close as a baseball player will become.  Not because of generalities like he is a “fine young man”, but because we know he has an illness/disorder and has worked to overcome it, rather than give up—pretty much the exact opposite of walking away from your teammates.  Ankiel might also fall in that category, where Gooden, ARod, Bonds and others never did.

  11. pass said...

    For Ron, up top:  I’m going to take a shotgun blast at you.  I don’t think that Greinke is a hero either (and I haven’t even read the Celizic article yet), but it’s clear to me that your life has never been touched by anxiety disorder or any other kind of mental illness.  Therefore, you are not qualified to make the comments you did.  Believe me, I’m not sure there is anything worse.  It literally takes years to recover, you’re really never fully stabilized, and the biggest fear now is that it will return at any time.  I speak from experience, and it runs in my family too.

  12. Wade said...

    I thought the NYPD, NYFD, and every single one of the soldiers overseas is a hero.  And that guy who landed that plane in the Hudson.  And every small-town joe-shmoe who overcomes some paltry adversity and accomplishes some otherwise meaningless task is a hero too.  Moms are heros.  Dads are heros.  Is there anyone out there who is NOT a hero? As the word is overused, the line is insanely blurry.

    He overcame an anxiety disorder like millions of others.  Is he a straight-up nice fella?  I wouldn’t have any reason to doubt it.  Is he a hero?  Naaaaaaaah.
    He just throws a baseball really well, and I wish him the best.

    Good Wednesday everybody!

  13. VanderBirch said...

    Michael, Oskar Schindler was also a compulsive adulterer, an incredibly heavy drinker and a highly unsuccessful businessman who relied for most of the latter part of his life on the generosity of the Schindler Jews.

    No doubt he was an incredible man, but I think it reinforces Craig’s point- people are complex individuals, capable of both brilliance and villany. To me, that is what makes people fascinating- those who know only good and live like saints may be better people, but they make for boring copy.

  14. BillyBeaneismyHero said...

    Ron, you clearly don’t have any understanding of what an anxiety disorder is at all.  It’s not just about stress, although that is a big part of it.  It’s a chemical imbalance that causes people to feel varying degrees of fear and or anxiety.  This fear and anxiety frequently turns into major depression. 

    To say something like, “Sounds like a guy who couldn’t handle pressure, then got his act together and is getting the job done,” comes off as ignorant.  Clearly his job isn’t as stressful as a cop or a firefighter.  Any moron can see that.  You’re failing to recognize that in all likelihood, it wasn’t his job that was causing his anxiety.  It was perhaps enhanced by it, but probably not caused by it.  Anxiety is a very real disorder.  Millions of people suffer from it to varying degrees.  He had every right to “walk out on his teammates” because it’s probably what he had to do to get his life back on track.

  15. Ron said...

    “Sounds like a guy who couldn’t handle pressure, then got his act together and is getting the job done,”

    Is that what happened, or did I miss something? Like the interviews where Greinke said the same thing?

    It’s easy to call someone a moron and ignorant. Insulting someone without knowing anything about them or their background is the same thing.

    You guys can make Greinke out to be a hero all you want, but he’s not. He’s just a ballplayer.

    Jim Abbott wasn’t a hero because he played baseball.
    Jim Esienrich wasn’t a hero because he played baseball.
    Bert Sheppard wasn’t a hero because he played baseball.
    Tony Conigliaro wasn’t a hero because he played baseball.
    Sal Maglie wasn’t a hero because he played baseball.

    They were just ball players.

    Too many people are try to make out Greinke is some sort of demi-god who can cure the ills of the world.

    If you think he’s a hero because of what he went through, that’s your right. But he’s not.

    And if you say he’s not a hero, then why is every story written about him lead with what he went through?

    If it doesn’t matter, don’t say it.

  16. Eddo said...

    Nice post, Craig.  Reminds me of my favorite quote, from the esteemed Abraham Lincoln (who had a ton of flaws):

    “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”

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