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June 15, 2004

Breaking Balls

A New Low

by Derek Zumsteg

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I don't get along with my team. We've disagreed over how the team's been run, from who's been put in the lineup to who's being drafting. Since the ownership group bought the team to save it from possibly moving, they've seemed eager to support Bud Selig and MLB in whatever crazy scheme they come up with. I would bet there are many baseball fans with similarly strained relationships with the teams they support.

The Mariners have made it clear in the past that they're interested in acquiring only character guys who are good in the clubhouse, even at the expense of the on-field product. Someone ran some numbers and said "Lovable sells." So the clubhouse troublemakers, the lawyers and the quiet smart guys are all purged once the team takes a dislike to them.

The problem is that the M's are willing to do almost anything to get rid of players that fans perceive as having negative qualities or being a problem, while at the same time they're willing to pick up good clubhouse guys with baggage if they think they can get away with it. The Mariners will pick up a guy like Al Martin, who got into a nasty tussle with his backup wife in Arizona, resulting in a lot of counseling and a pinch of jail time. Martin, for his potential legal and character issues, was and remains known for having a great work ethic, an easy guy to get along with on a team, and a good clubhouse presence. The Mariners brought in a bigamist who'd bust up a much smaller secondary wife while running their "Refuse to Abuse" campaign against domestic violence...because they wanted a left-handed bat.

They won't, however, so much as ask about an angry guy like Milton Bradley, gifted with 20 times the talent of Martin but a handful to manage, his burning competitive drive paired with an equally volatile temper. Not a good clubhouse guy, you see. His anger's directed outside the home and sometimes demonstrated on the field for everyone to see.

It's easy for me to write all that, though, to criticize the Mariners for lying about why beer prices are so high or pretending they have an organist, or passing employees off as fans on those between-inning "Ask the Mariners" segments. I don't have to run their business after all, and maybe if I was in charge I might see that the line item "Honesty" has a cost of $30 million and decide to cut it.

I think that I might do the same thing, because as fans we make the same kind of moral distinction when watching games about what we view as fair play and what we don't. I cheered Mike Cameron in Seattle for years when he'd break up double plays by taking out whoever was unlucky enough to get the transfer at second. But like much of what we accept as the grittier side of the game--blocking the plate to prevent a run, targeting batters instead of the strike zone--these are plays where people get hurt. We applaud actions that have a good chance of injuring players on the receiving end.

In 1999 I saw then-Athletic Tony Phillips get into a rundown and then seemingly intentionally scissor Carlos Guillen's knees as Phillips fell to the ground. It shredded Guillen's ACL and took him out for the season. I thought Phillips meant it, and I was appalled, but I think many people who saw the play didn't see it that way. My point, though, is if that happened intentionally, where we could be sure, there's not a fan who wouldn't condemn Phillips for doing it.

We're drawing an arbitrary moral line at "deliberate crippling," but crippling as part of trying to prevent an out is OK. We accept that through hard slides into second someone's knee may get torn up, and we applaud the act. Eventually we'll applaud, only to later learn that a player's career was ended as a result.

Which brings me to this Mariners transaction, which has stuck in my head for two weeks now:

05/26/04
Signed RHP Ben Christensen to a minor league contract and assigned him to Double-A San Antonio.

Yes, that Ben Christensen.

Who, as you probably know already, felt that an opposing batter in the on-deck circle, Anthony Molina, was timing his pitches. Christensen then beaned Molina with a pitch. Molina, who wasn't looking (which is odd, if he was timing pitches and all). Molina never fully recovered--the last time anyone bothered to talk to him (when Christensen settled Molina's lawsuit) Molina was still suffering vision problems. The odds were long that Molina would make the majors, as they are for any college player, but we'll never know, because Christensen ended that speculation. Molina, when he could play, was never the same player he was in college.

After years in the Cubs system being injured and ineffective between injuries, the Cubs released him and the Mariners jumped on the chance to sign one of the most notorious bums in all of baseball if it might help the organization out.

One of my readers, knowing I'd get worked up about this, showed me the angry e-mail he sent to the Mariners when they signed Christensen, expressing his disappointment and threatening to drop his season tickets, and their reply was:

Thanks for your e-mail. We appreciate you being a ticket holder for so long. I'm sorry about your feelings toward Ben Christensen. He did make a mistake several years ago at Wichita State University. People do make mistakes. It's been very hard for him because of all the negative press. Ben is a good person and is a good person in the clubhouse. Again, thanks for your e-mail.

Now, you're probably going to have the same reactions I did:

  • A mistake is sure an understated way to put it

  • "People" don't make mistakes that involve deliberately putting a fastball in the face of a guy in the on-deck circle. They make mistakes like forgetting where they parked at the supermarket.

  • Yeah, damn those media guys, covering a story where a college pitcher nearly killed a poor guy for no good reason and then the team said it taught its pitchers to do it, and only later started to offer even insincere apologies. If only the media had ignored this despicable crime and let Christensen get on with his life.

  • Do good people attempt to do what Christensen did?

I don't think the Mariners thought anyone would notice. It was years ago, after all, and the guy was brought in on a minor league deal. Who pays attention to these things? I couldn't find anything in either of the Seattle dailies about it, either, perhaps by intentional omission at the team's request or, more likely, because they shared the team's opinion of the public's interest. The only substantial article was from a Tacoma paper, which blasted the team.

I want to talk for a second about the good person part. Christensen's life is made of uncountable interactions with people and the world. All most of us really know is that he did something we can't understand. Maybe pumped up on his coaches' take-no-prisoners bean-them-all-let-God-sort-them-out training for years, he felt that in that moment his duty to his team was to carry out what it wanted him to do, and in that decision he erred in obedience over compassion, and hurt someone.

Christensen may still live with guilt. His peace must be made with Molina through an apology and just compensation, and who knows what that would look like. I doubt the lawsuit they settled provided it. Christensen's curse--and this may be what whichever Mariners functionary answered my reader's e-mail meant--is that his act was public and grave. That this has all been so public may have meant that his apologies to Molina by press proxy came off as more hollow and not as substantial as anyone would like to have heard, because that's a hard way to have to apologize to someone. And who am I to judge the sincerity of an apology, anyway?

I don't think that the Mariners should have brought Christensen on and trotted him out for the cameras to go through the questioning again, but...well, maybe I do. Isn't it reasonable to expect the team, when it makes such a strange move, to provide some kind of explanation as to why it did it? When the M's picked up Al Martin, they told us about a call Pat Gillick had with Martin and Martin's primary wife that convinced them he was a good guy. Would it have been so hard to say "Here's Ben, Ben's going to talk a little about why you know him, and what else you should know about him to make a complete judgement." Or even to have Christensen answer the same questions to see if time and reflection have given him perspective on what happened?

Of course not. But the Mariners figured that no one would notice, and if they did, they wouldn't care. They figured that doing anything, even an open and honest press conference that, if Christensen was a good guy and had worked past his mistakes, would have helped clear his reputation, would only draw attention to the "M's pick up killer pitcher" story they didn't want written.

Think about that for a second: It's a pretty awful decision to come to, and speaks perhaps even more about the state of the organization than its decision to welcome Christensen in. It may say a lot about Christensen himself that the Mariners don't want to revisit the story, that the team knows it wouldn't go well.

The reader, on receiving the response from the Mariners, asked: "What do I do now? I don't want to have to follow through on my threat."

I think they're counting on him not following through. The Mariners, like every team, know me and everyone like me, through the wonder of modern demographics. They could probably make a frighteningly-accurate guess as to which potato chips I've been snacking on while writing this column for the last couple hours, what kind of beer I had at the game on Sunday. They know at the end of the year, we'll look at their horrible record, their inept management, their lies and spinning moral compass, and we'll sigh and send in our deposit checks for next season's tickets.

I feel sick that the Mariners signed Ben Christensen. But more than that, I feel guilty. I am complicit in their signing of Christensen, in their constant low-level dishonesty and chicanery. I applaud the hard slide at second, and it's the same hard-nosed, win-at-all-costs baseball that cost Anthony Molina a chance at a career. I fume when the Mariners lie to play down the insane amount of money they make, but I open my wallet and hand them more.

By failing to act individually to support what is right, I have acted with everyone else to support what is wrong. I'm sorry.

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