It’s tough enough to look at a 17-to-22-year-old boy and predict with the certainty appropriate for a multimillion-dollar decision what kind of baseball player he’ll be in five years without also having to determine what kind of man he’ll grow up to be.
The second part is a messy bucket of four-day-old fruit cocktail called makeup. Makeup is useful, because limited though a scout’s interaction with a player might be, it’s better than nothing. Makeup comprises things like work ethic, receptiveness to coaching and ability to respond under pressure, which impact on-field performance directly, as well as other qualities that reflect the truth that teams aren’t just trying to hire ballplayers—they’re hiring employees. Good makeup can also mean that a player will fit in with the corporate culture, that he’ll get along with his co-workers and behave in a manner that reflects well on the company.
But because makeup is such an all-encompassing term, saying a player has “makeup issues” without going into greater detail can be a little confusing. “Makeup issues” could mean one of six things:
1) The player is arrogant.
Sports culture thrives on hierarchy and obedience, so a kid coming in thinking he knows best will have to be beaten into compliance, sometimes (though less and less frequently) literally. On the other hand, arrogance might be off-putting, but self-confidence is extremely good, so it’s usually not that troubling.
2) The player is immature.
Of course he is—he’s a kid who’s spent his whole life being pampered and told how great he is. I got not even a fraction of the attention prospects get when I was a kid and by the time I was 18 I was wearing a newsboy cap, dying my hair blue and expounding non-ironically on the political virtues of Starship Troopers. Sometimes they’ll grow out of it.
3) The player is a total prick.
Not all arrogant and immature young men are created equal—sometimes they’re really unpleasant people, and you can tell they’re going to stay that way. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker either—Dave Kingman played almost 2,000 games in the big leagues. The Yankees retired Billy Martin’s number. But given the choice between two equally talented players—one a nice dude, the other a real asshole—you’re probably going to pick the former, just in the interest of a harmonious workplace.
4) The player is a legitimately bad person.
I’m not talking getting busted for weed on the way to Bonnaroo, or getting in a bar fight with a pushy townie at spring training, or even a one-time mistake that a good person might go back and try to rectify later. I’m talking about Elijah Dukes or Milton Bradley or Josh Lueke. Any group of men this large has members who will end up in jail, or ought to at any rate. Ideally teams would at least use extreme caution when hiring these men because it’s the right thing to do, but in the real world, the best we can hope for is that fear of bad PR would give teams pause.
These players get chances for a few reasons: First, sometimes it’s hard to tell an immature kid from a total prick from a legitimately bad person at age 18. Sometimes those behaviors just haven’t manifested themselves yet. Second, as with all makeup issues, there’s a level of talent that some people believe makes it worth taking on someone who might commit truly heinous crimes. The Yankees just traded for Aroldis Chapman, for instance. Bradley got innumerable chances after his behavior would have gotten him kicked out of almost any other workplace.
5) The player is weak.
A kid might have talent, but not the emotional strength to deal with failure. He might not have the discipline or work ethic to make it all the way to the top. Now, it’s really tough to get good enough at baseball to be drafted in the top few rounds unless you worked really hard, so fatally lazy guys usually get weeded out years before the draft. Still, it’s something you want to be sure about, even if work ethic isn’t the single greatest factor in prospect failure.
I want to believe that we’re better at this than we used to be, but I still fear that many times, when a player gets tagged with Makeup Issue No. 5, it’s really code for Makeup Issue No. 6.
6) The player is weird.
Even paying moderate attention to the NFL draft process is enough to make your hair stand on end.
The more time you spend in an extremely insular, strange, extremely performatively masculine environment like sports, the less your values look like the average American’s. You start to think there’s something special about a proto-military culture that values competitiveness, physical strength and obedience.
So it becomes okay to ask potential employees questions like these. Players who deviate from expectations turn into distractions, liabilities. Willie Cauley-Stein’s interest in art made NBA evaluators think he didn’t love basketball enough, as if basketball were something you had to be wholly devoted to and not a job, from which one might come home each night and engage in other hobbies. As if he were joining Opus Dei or the French Foreign Legion and not the Sacramento Kings.
Sometimes your values get so warped that you stop coding your language and come straight out and ask Eli Apple if he’s gay.
I don’t know if MLB scouts are more evolved than this when scouting makeup. If they are, it would probably make them unique in American sports.
But the idea that being weird is a black mark on your makeup betrays a particular truth about the sport, and its culture: It’s inflexible. Players are uncoachable, as if coaching weren’t a two-way relationship. Players are too weird to fit in, as if it were the individual responsibility not just to treat others with respect, but to abnegate one’s own identity, whatever it might be, to fit in to an image created by one’s employer. Sometimes makeup’s a real issue, but often it’s in the eye of the beholder.
And that’s a shame, because an organization that fears weirdness only condemns itself to obsolescence. This is true because uniformity leaves blind spots—this is why it’s important to hear from people other than white men with Ivy League MBAs in the front office, or the newsroom. Diversity brings perspective, and imagination, and new ideas.
But in the short term, if you pass on a player because you don’t think you can coach him, or because you think he’s too weird, you’re going to wind up being worse between the baselines. You have to think not only about how a player will fit in within your organization, but how your organization can adapt to get the most out of its players.
But we should all know this by now—after all, one of the most important parts of player development is learning to make adjustments.
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