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January 26, 2012

Inside The Park

Why We Want Players to Remember the Past

by Bradford Doolittle

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In sports, familiarity is more of the heart than the mind. As player valuation becomes uniformly sophisticated across baseball, familiarity has become a non-factor. The new wave of decision makers are as versed in Wall Street jargon as they are in scout speak and aren't too prone to sentiment. (Nor should they be.) The Theo Epsteins and Andrew Friedmans of the world are savvy enough to avoid communicating to fans in those terms, but the mindset is still there. Players are assets, and transactions are opportunities to add value to the franchise. The bond between a player and the team's fan base may be given lip service in the media, but in reality, it matters not at all, or very little. As for the players, the bottom line is almost always the ultimate deciding factor—he's going to go where the dollars flow.

Sometimes, the sentimental and the pragmatic line up nicely. That's what I was thinking when the first messages popped up in my Twitter stream this week bearing the news of Prince Fielder's new contract in Detroit. The kneejerk reaction of many was that the deal was absurdly bloated. (It was.) Others thought Detroit moved well ahead of the competition in the AL Central. (As a Royals fan, that was my second thought.) If you're a Tigers fan, you might have jumped up on your desk and started doing the Dougie. (Can't blame you.) Me, I just thought it was cool that Prince was going to play for the same team on which his father made a name for himself. It's not clear why I should care.

It's funny how sentiment works. Prince Fielder spent time in the Tigers' clubhouse as a kid, during the brief period when his father was one of the premier sluggers in the game. Cecil Fielder was a phenomenon back in 1990 when, after a year in Japan, he became the first American Leaguer since Roger Maris in 1961 to reach 50 home runs. In the subsequent two decades, the 50-homer mark would be trounced upon 24 times, with the likes of Brady Anderson, Greg Vaughn, and Luis Gonzalez getting there. The magic was gone. But before that, Fielder's run was special. He reached 49 homers on Sept. 27, 1990, then didn't hit one over the next five games. On the final day of the regular season, he hit two bombs at Yankee Stadium—No. 50 off Steve Adkins, making Fielder the first since George Foster in 1977 to reach half a hundred. No. 51 was off Alan Mills, a shot to left that I can still picture in my mind from the highlights on SportsCenter, Fielder's last at-bat of the season.

It's not like I sit around dwelling on old baseball memories, but when news like Prince's deal hits the wires, it's hard not to lapse into nostalgia. Baseball's rich and complicated history is what brought me to the game in the first place. The first non-children's book I ever read was a collection of short biographies of the best players in Cardinals history, through the mid-60s or so. Everything is about historical context. When the playoff matchups are set, I make a list of every possible World Series rematch and note which years the originals occurred. Since the Royals are never involved in this process, I invariably root for a matchup between classic franchises that may allow me, in a sense, to witness a series played long before I was born. I experience the game through its history.

That's just not the case with the players. Almost all of them come to the game in a very different manner from their fans, to an almost startling degree. When Prince Fielder is introduced in Detroit, there will be happy phrases thrown about, such as he's "going home." Like the son of his new teammate, injured DH Victor Martinez, Fielder tagged along with his father to the ballpark and often took batting practice, even hitting one over the fence when he was 12 years old. But that was at Tiger Stadium, not Comerica Park, and Fielder played his high school ball in Florida before being drafted by Milwaukee. It's great that his father also played for Detroit, but he's mostly estranged from Cecil these days. Having dealt with Prince a few times at Wrigley Field, he doesn't exactly strike me as the sentimental type. No, sentiment had nothing to do with Fielder signing with the Tigers, not in the way it did when Ken Griffey Jr. signed in Cincinnati. Detroit needed to replace Martinez, plus owner Mike Illitch turns 83 this July and is desperate to win a championship. Fielder got nine years and $214 million, and if he's happy to be back in Detroit, that's why. That's really all there is to it.

When we're kids, the tendency is to think that the players we root for love the game as much as we do. And not just playing it—the whole package. We like to think that because we were drawn to baseball and its history, the players are as well. We like to think that our baseball heroes had baseball heroes of their own growing up, and that they can tell us all about them. Often, that's just not the case.

This realization hit me about 20 years ago, when I read an article by Steve Rushin in Sports Illustrated about just how little then-current players knew about baseball history. We're not talking about obscure stuff. We're talking about Don Mattingly not knowing who Lou Gehrig was before he joined the Yankees and thinking that Babe Ruth was just a cartoon character. We're talking about most pitchers not knowing that Cy Young was an actual hurler, not just the name of an award. Darryl Strawberry had never heard of the Polo Grounds. Randy Johnson didn't have a clue about Hank Aaron. Ryne Sandberg didn't know anything about Ernie Banks when he joined the Cubs. There was even general a lapse in the recognition of Jackie Robinson, something baseball has shored up in recent years with its annual efforts to recognize the great pioneer.

I was flabbergasted by the article and to this day am disappointed by the lack of awareness—or concern—the vast majority of players have about their place in the history of the game they play. Admittedly, mine is not a practical attitude. I had an emotional, negative reaction when Albert Pujols signed with the Angels, and I'm not a Cardinals fan. In fact, my two favorite teams—the Royals and Cubs—are rivals of the St. Louis franchise. I called Pujols greedy on Twitter, which of course he is in the strictest definition of the word. Still, he didn't do anything wrong by accepting a $265 million contract which may have exceeded the Cardinals' best offer by $45 million. Indeed, if he had not accepted the offer, many people would have considered him quite insane.

In June, I was at Busch Stadium and marveled at the sight of 88-year-old Red Schoendienst hitting grounders during infield practice. Schoendienst was one of the subjects of what was for me the Original Book and here he was in the flesh, still in uniform, nearly 70 years since he first joined the Cardinals organization. I've also been there for Opening Day, when Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, and the rest are introduced to the adoring fans. Somehow, it just seems that's how things ought to be. Pujols messed with my conception of what St. Louis Cardinals history is supposed to look like, how this epoch in baseball's annals was supposed to be shaped. He was supposed to get his 3,000th hit and 600th homer in that uniform, not for the team in Orange County, California. No matter what my faculties of sense and reason tell me, my heart will never allow me to look at Pujols in the same way, nor appreciate him quite as much. And I know that no matter how I try to explain this, Pujols could not begin to understand. Perhaps no player can.

***

If players aren't particularly attuned to the histories of their franchises, their teams certainly are. They have alumni organizations. Retired players are trotted out for conventions and caravans and shipped down to spring training. The most beloved franchise stalwarts are given jobs by the team, often with ceremonial responsibilities. The continuity is good for the brand, and if you can't afford to think that way about active players, you certainly can see the value in taking care of a popular player after he's hung up his spikes.

Reggie Jackson still shows up in uniform for the Yankees from time to time. Best I can tell, he has no actual responsibilities. He accompanied the team on a trip to Chicago last season. The seminal writer Gay Talese was hanging around as well, which gives you a sense of what it's like to hang around the Yankees even when they're on the road. I was working on a story about Curtis Granderson and his turnabout against lefties. I knew that Reggie had an up-and-down career against southpaws, experiencing the same year-to-year platoon split fluctuations that affect most players. That was kind of the point of my Granderson piece, so who better to ask than Mr. October himself? After all, he was standing right there.

I approached Reggie (whom I refer to by first name because he's Reggie—a big deal to someone of my generation) and asked if he had a second to chat. He rolled his eyes and said, "What the fuck for?" I wasn't offended. In fact, I wanted to give him a big hug. In that instant, he had fulfilled all of my conceptions of Reggieness. As a young Royals fan, I hated that guy. I didn't hug him, of course. I simply explained myself, and he proceeded to give me a very thoughtful interview. I didn't notice a whole lot of interaction between Jackson and the active players in the Yankee clubhouse, but it occurred to me that it certainly couldn't hurt to have No. 44 hanging around, telling it how it was back when Billy Martin was shouting him down in the dugout. The Yankees, more than any other franchise, operate with a collegiate-like sense of tradition, and you often hear the term "Yankee Way" bandied about. Maybe there is tangible benefit in trying to integrate a little history into the clubhouse (not that I'd want to do the objective study to prove it.)

This notion popped up again later in the season, when Jim Thome was traded to Cleveland. Here was a recent piece of baseball history coming back to the forefront: those slugging Indians teams of the late 1990s that in 1995 gave the city its first pennant in 41 years. The Indians were still on the fringe of the AL Central race at the time they acquired Thome, because the Tigers were just starting their late-season sprint. The thought of Thome coming into the young Indians' clubhouse and sharing tales of the glory days with guys like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, while still hitting a few home runs during a late-season charge, well, that sounded pretty good. But do those kinds of conversations even take place?

These days, when you watch Thome move around the clubhouse and talk to his teammates, you're put in mind of a father talking to a son. Thome certainly doesn't look old and keeps himself in amazing condition, but you can tell there is a two-decade gap between him and some of the kids. Nevertheless, no one is more animated. Thome is constantly on the move, from the trainer's room to the dugout, onto the field, back to his locker, or just around the clubhouse in circles. He always has a bat in his hands. When he visited Chicago in September, a lot of reporters asked him if he were going to return for the 2012 season, and watching him, you couldn't help but think he would. The guy can't sit still.

"Can't do it," Thome told me later when I asked him if he ever just sat down and relaxed.

Thome is one player with whom you can broach such an ephemeral topic as the role of history in a team's clubhouse. He is without a doubt the most considerate ballplayer I have ever come across. What makes him special is that he treats everybody the same, whether it be a team's grizzled beat writer or the blogger who has nervously crept into the clubhouse on a day pass. Thome treats everybody in the media like they are Bob Costas and everybody on his team as if they were Joe DiMaggio. Sure enough, when I asked him if he could take a few questions, he grabbed a cup of coffee and invited me out to the dugout where we wouldn't be bothered. Can you imagine many players doing that?

"The times that we had were special," Thome said of his old Cleveland teams. "It's hard because when I left Cleveland, you always envision that the team you play on now is going to be like those teams. As you get older, you reflect back and think that you'd like times to be like that, but they just aren't."

I wanted to know if when he joined the Indians, he was aware of the "other" golden era of Cleveland baseball, the days of Boudreau, Doby, Lemon, and Feller.

"Bob (Feller) was around a lot, and I think what Bob did was help you remember the past," Thome said. "You looked at him as kind of the face of the franchise for years. Having conversations with him, it was similar to when I went to Minnesota with (Harmon) Killebrew and Rod Carew and (Paul) Molitor. Organizations like that that bring their ex-players back, I think it's pretty cool to the new era of the kids who get to reflect what it was like."

Thome admitted that when he broke into the majors, he didn't know a whole lot about big-league history, but his appreciation for that aspect of the game has developed over his long career.

"As I've played and met different players, Hall of Famers, your historical knowledge grows, because you want to know about that person," Thome said. "To see Brooks Robinson, or Jim Palmer or Killebrew or Carew, what happens is they come into the clubhouse and guys start asking, 'What kind of a player was he?' and you learn through communication.

"Ultimately, players are competitors, and believe or not, they do appreciate the past. They appreciate what the game has given us today. If it wasn't for those guys, we wouldn't be here. Each generation has passed along the game for the next wave of players. I'm sure that in 20 years, there are going to be players asking, 'What was Derek Jeter like?'"

***

What we're talking about is a kind of oral history. Maybe players don't know much about those who came before them, or even care, but if they hang around long enough, they find out. They do know plenty about the players they compete against and with. If they decide to remain in the game after they retire, they will share the stories of their contemporaries. That process makes the game richer for us all, and the players are an integral part of it, even if they don't know it.

I have no idea if Prince Fielder remembers his father's teammates in Detroit, if he recognizes Alan Trammell when he sees him, or tells people about Lou Whitaker or Jack Morris or what Kenny Williams was like as a player. I like to think it works that way, but ultimately, it probably doesn't. Maybe players are just too busy making history to study it, and it's up to the rest of us to tie it all together. Things will filter down, and if things go well in Detroit, others will associate the Prince Tigers with the Cecil Tigers and perhaps in doing so, lead younger fans to further study the history of their team. Or maybe not. Lack of historical curiosity is an epidemic in today's society, so why should baseball players or fans be any different?

After all, none of this has any tangible effect on what happens on the field. Baseball decisions aren't made based on familiarity, and with a few exceptions, they never have been. There are the rare cases like Jeter or Craig Biggio, but the fact that most careers don't follow those rarified paths is what marks them as special. I'm a sentimental idiot for wanting the best players to forever remain with one franchise when I know this is neither practical nor intelligent. And it's selective—I relish Prince becoming a Tiger but am not particularly concerned about the history of the Johnny-come-lately Milwaukee Brewers. Still, I believe that history is an important part of the game, and I wish more players did as well, even if the history they hold dear is very different from my own.

So forgive me. I still wish Albert Pujols had stayed with the Cardinals. I can't help it, and if his son someday dons the white and red, I'll be thrilled.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

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