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.