“He doesn’t try hard enough. He’s not putting in enough effort. That guy’s just lazy, and we see it all the time.” These are common refrains from fans when good players and teams perform poorly. From high up in our ivory towers, we levy judgment on these players, deeming their efforts unworthy. It is apparently our divine right as fans, to decide whether a ballplayer is giving his all or is dogging it.
The reason we do this is simple: humans love narrative and hate the unexplainable. Oftentimes, a slump is unexplainable. Coaches might point to a mechanical flaw, but even then it’s usually not at the heart of the issue. Over the course of a 162-game season, players will streak and slump. It’s the nature of the game, and it’s been going on since its inception.
Rather than accepting that slumps happen, writers, reporters, and fans tend to concoct an acceptable narrative. Depending on the player, it might be that the player isn’t trying. This seems to be the case with Joba Chamberlain, as my man Moshe Mandel of The Yankee Universe notes. Media like blogs and Twitter have given fans a stronger voice, and too frequently they’re using it to express feelings of disgust towards players. Unfortunately, these narratives usually don’t line up with reality. I’ll let Moshe explain.
Unless a player is obviously dogging it, it is impossible to discern whether a player is giving his all by watching on television. We can try and interpret the events on the field, but ultimately, we just do not have enough information about the player’s level of preparation, will to improve, or willingness to try new things. Usually, a player who is not performing or is making the same errors repeatedly is trying to change, but cannot execute. Does anyone truly believe that these players are satisfied with failure on the largest stage for baseball in the world? The assumption should be that the players are attempting to avoid failure unless they clearly show otherwise.
Emphasis mine. Yes, there are players who dog it. Undoubtedly. I would think that most of them would get weeded out before they make the majors, though. There are only 750 major league roster spots. Eventually, if a player isn’t giving a solid effort, his performance relative to those 750 players is going to drop off. Sure, the player might have a ton of promise, and might be on a team that is more concerned about the future than about the present. But eventually either the team is going to have to care about the present, or else the player will grow older, thus removing the “young” part of young and promising. Removing the “promising” tag doesn’t come long after.
R.J. Anderson of DRays Bay covered this topic in depth last week. He took a bit different angle, trying to divide ballplayers into castes. Some, like our own Derek Jeter, are unassailable. Yet there are others, like Joba and B.J. Upton, with whom we grow frustrated. They don’t say the right thing — whatever that may be — at the right time. Even more so, they’re usually a talented lot who make hard things look easy at times. So when things aren’t going right, it’s easy to criticize them for dogging it, because their effortless demeanor isn’t translating into results.
These two paragraphs from Anderson really hit home for me:
Imagine practicing an instrument nearly every single day since you were 12-years-old. For more than half your life, all you know is playing that instrument. You play some concerts, some shows at a club, and as it turns out, people like you. The club starts paying you upfront and things look great, but you’ve been doing this for 12+ years. What drives you to continue? It wasn’t the money until recently; it isn’t the fame because you have little. Is it the desire to master the craft?
Upton has put in more hours at a baseball field than most of us will our entire lives. By suggesting that he doesn’t care about the game you’re suggesting that most of his life is irrelevant to him. I suppose it could be true, but why the hell would he continue to play if he hated and was disinterested by it?
Upton is an apt example here because of last night’s game. He caught a lot of crap for apparently dogging it on a few fly balls. Because he didn’t appear to be busting it on these plays, many fans thought he was just dogging it. The problem with this narrative is that there is a well-known physical issue behind Upton’s play. He recently sprained his ankle, and was removed from the game because he re-aggravated it. Yet even with this information in hand, many will still chalk it up to a lack of effort and write off the injury as some sort of excuse.
I understand why people love narrative — who doesn’t love a good story? — but I still can’t understand why people use them to demonize ballplayers. Is it jealousy? Anderson used a great real life example there, but that’s not the case for most of us. We labor away at jobs we dislike, and yes, sometimes we dog it. But, as with the musician, it’s different for the ballplayer. In most cases, it’s all they know how to do. If Joba Chamberlain didn’t play baseball, what would he do? Does he know how to do anything else?
This isn’t a knock on Joba. In fact, it’s a high compliment. I’m not sure about everyone, but I’d love to have one thing I was really good at, better than most of my peers. Because once you can identify that in yourself, you can work at that harder than anything else. Then maybe you can break the monotonous 9-to-5 cycle and do something you love. Yet most of us don’t get a chance to do something we love. And maybe that’s where envy sets in, because these ballplayers do what they love every day, and they are paid handsomely for it.
None of this will stop anyone from criticizing ballplayers for dogging it. I just think that overusing this line of criticism takes away from situations where a player actually is dogging it. Don’t get me wrong, they do exist. But the natural market forces at work in baseball will weed them out eventually, whether in the minors, for the less talented portion, or in the majors, for those so exquisitely talented that they can play among the 750 best players in the country without giving their all.
Ballplayers slump, and ballplayers struggle. Always have, always will. It happens to the best, and it happens to the mediocre. Our natural inclination is to set a narrative to the players’ failures, and all too often that narrative accuses the player of not putting enough effort into a game they’ve played at a high level since they were teenagers (at least). Most times there is no concrete explanation to these slumps and struggles. They’re the natural ebbs and flows of the game. It’s tough to accept, but it’s the truth.
I realize there are a few instances of “we” in here, and I just want to be clear that I use it in the most general sense. Just so there’s no confusion, and no specific finger pointing. That’s not the point of this post.