Monday, September 25, 2006

"Making Adjustments"

We often hear about the importance of making adjustments to become a successful major league player. Opponents and high tech scouting will find and exploit weaknesses mercilessly. Are you tipping a pitch? Are you unable to hit the inside fastball? Are you a sucker for gas upstairs or the breaking stuff away? Players who want to have an extended career have to analyze and adapt to minimize their weaknesses while emphasizing their strengths.

Fans need to make adjustments, too. We don't have to carry water for players who can't produce, or blindly worship 'laundry'. On the other hand, if the Sox put the Vienna Boys' Choir on the field, they might be great guys, but they won't win anything. As a fan, I can live with Manny Ramirez, who may not be a 24/7 effort guy, but whose results far exceed the marginal player, high effort guys like Steve Lyons. Guys like Lyons might hang around the majors for a lengthy career, through pluck and versatility, but you can't win with too many of them, and not enough Mannys.

Everyone recognized Mickey Mantle was a Hall of Famer. And most everyone knew that he lived hard, which is to say, played hard and loose off the field as well, a celebrated disciple of Bacchus. Should it matter to me what a player does off the field, as long as he produces between the lines? Should I care if he drinks to excess or thinks breakfast is the last meal of the day instead of the first? Where is the line?

Is the measurement of a player VORP (value over replacement player), Win Shares, or the sum total of his contribution to the team's success? Hypothetically, let's presume that Player A, your centerfielder hits .250 with 16 homers and 70 RBI, fields his position at a high level, has flawless ethical standards, community contribution, and is a leader in the clubhouse. Player B, your first baseman, hits .330, with 40 homers and 130 RBI, but is a self-absorbed boorish jerk in the clubhouse, who also constantly flirts with other players' wives and girlfriends. Can your team accept the behavior of Player B because he produces? Can your team live with your outfielder's production even though he's a model citizen?

We've all heard that players use salary as a yardstick or hierarchical scoreboard. As fans, we don't have such a one-dimensional tool to decide our feelings about a player or coach. We want production, but we can't 'love' pariahs or thugs. The greatest community guy in the world can't be our favorite if he can't play. The ultimate media darling, moonlighting as a philandering lush who embodies mediocrity might get a pass, because the media's on his side. I want the team to be successful, and if I hear an incredibly negative, verifiable story about a player, I'm not going to torpedo him.

But are there limits? If a guy portrays himself as a Saint, and prowls the bars each night, who's the hypocrite, the player or the media telling the big lie? If the public image and the private truth conflict, does the writer simply acknowledge that 'you can't handle the truth?' And if the media becomes the problem with biased reporting, who speaks for the player?

We all make adjustments. Sometimes we call them ethics, other times discretion, and rarely indiscretion. We can only hope that players make adjustments off the field, too.

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