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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: To Hell With Professionalism…

To hell with “professionalism”…at least, professionalism in the Ozzie-Guillen-gets-to-pop-off-about-anything-and-to-anyone-he-wants-without-expectation-of-retaliation sense of the word. Ozzie complains about the amount of pine tar on Bryce Harper’s bat, Harper mocks Ozzie a bit – as all who know the name Ozzie Guillen often do – and suddenly Ozzie’s panties are in a wad because someone dared to show him up.

Get over it, Oz. You ain’t no Tony La Russa.

And what the hell is Davey Johnson even thinking by acting irritated or incredulous at all in response to Guillen’s behavior?  The very same Davey Johnson who played a bit of gamesmanship roulette himself by outing a relief pitcher in an MLB game a while back. Now he’s upset about a manager turning the tables on him?

Pot? Kettle. Ya’ll are black.

But let me tell you something – this is good stuff. Ever since Tony La Russa retired, the baseball landscape has seemed a bit…bland. No colorful tirades spewed from opposing dugouts across diamonds of dirt and grass. No cleverly crafted concoctions of gamesmanship sure to irritate the bejeezus out of the opposing manager.

Nothing. Just…baseball. Beautiful, glorious baseball…but baseball played in black-and-white, like those shaky newsreels of Babe Ruth or Joe Dimaggio or Lou Gehrig. Great…but distant and less personal somehow.

Chris Carpenter fans know what I’m talking about. Ever since The Ace exited the Cards’ roster with that pesky nerve issue, a certain fire and flame left with him. Loving or hating Chris Carpenter and his uber-competitive nature on the mound had become a national pastime in cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. He was, in short, a polarizing figure in a game that thrives on rabidly polarized fans.

That’s why I love watching players like Bryce Harper or Jered Weaver or Cole Hamels…old school holdovers with young hearts and strong bodies. These guys don’t just show up to play the game – they don’t just dress out and collect a pay check. No, these ballers live to play and play to win. It’s not a job…it’s a lifestyle.

What’s that? You don’t get it? That’s okay…I can help. How about a few historical examples to put these players and managers in context?

Hmmmm…how about…George Brett? Yes, I was in Kansas City this past week to attend the 2012 All Star Game. And yes, the “pine tar incident” was played over and over and over again (much like the ’85 World Series clips). And yes, everyone loved it.

Royals fans loved it. Cardinals fans loved it. Yankees fans loved it. Baseball writers loved it. Broadcasters loved it. And so on and so on and so on…

Brett was a fierce competitor, a man who, even now, issued a statement of warning to his Future’s Game players. He flat-out demanded every player on his team run hard to first base on every ball hit – easy ground out or not.

Injury risk? Bah! You’re here to play baseball, aren’t you? Then play it, damn it! (okay…that part was from me, but you get the gist of it).

What about Pete Rose? Yeah, yeah…Rose’s reputation is all but worthless at this point, but who here hasn’t seen a clip of him taking out a catcher like a strong safety breaking up a pass over the middle? And who here didn’t absolutely love it? Yeah…I thought so.

Or Earl Weaver, the fiery manager affectionately known as “the volcano” because you never knew when he was going to erupt and lose his ever lovin’ mind on the field.

Look…the bottom line is, we all want this sort of behavior and pure emotion displayed on the field for all of us to see. Then why are we so intent on eradicating it whenever we find it? Just because Ozzie spouts off in a Marlins/Nationals game and makes a fool of himself – again – doesn’t mean we didn’t love watching it happen.

Guys like Eric Karabell – too young and disconnected from such a visceral game to truly understand what it means to “leave it all on the field” in a fierce competition of men and dirt – would call the hitting of Harper by Hamels “Ridiculous!” His partner, the arrogant and bland Keith Law, is too hell bent on reducing baseball to some sort of carefully calculated exercise to truly appreciate the deeply emotional experience it really is for most players and fans.

Both would have you believe the best way to enjoy a game in Wrigley Field or Fenway Park or Busch Stadium is by eliminating the human element. The truth is, the human element is what makes baseball so…human.

I love the crack of the bat, and the smell of glove leather while the sun beats down on the back of my neck, and the taste of a hot dog cooked on an open grill. All those things and more add to the experience of a baseball game. But it’s the human element – the tempers and the retaliation, the personalities and the gamesmanship, the arguments and the tirades – it’s all of that and more that makes baseball personal.

Is it possible to eliminate most of it and improve certain parts of the game in some way? Sure. But are we really sure we want to?

Are we really sure we want to eliminate manager and umpire arguments on the field? Are we really sure we want to see our last collision at home plate in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game? What about personality? Do you really want to prevent players like Bryce Harper from mocking a manager who just tried to get in his head at the plate? If pitchers like Chris Carpenter and Jered Weaver stop acting like battles between the forces of good and evil are decided from the rubber of a pitching mound…does that actually improve our baseball experience?

If I said you’ve seen your last in-game shouting match between Dusty Baker and any random manager – with words even the least experienced lip reader can understand – would you really smile and think to yourself, “Finally! Now I can really enjoy the game”?

Of course not…because all those things make baseball personal rather than “professional.”

As I wrote this piece, I kept thinking to myself that I would make a clear distinction between the behavior described above and the ridiculous antics displayed by Prince Fielder and his Brewers cohorts (you know, when they acted like his walk-off homer was an atomic bomb at home plate…), or Aroldis Chapman when he foolishly performed somersaults after a successful save. But now that it’s time to make that distinction, I find that I cannot.

Sure, there’s something to be said for preserving the integrity of the game, and yes, there’s a difference between preserving the personal nature of baseball and showing disrespect to the game and the opposition…but I think I discovered something I didn’t expect to discover when I started writing.

I think I value the argument – the discussion itself – that surrounds such behavior in baseball too much to truly eradicate the behavior itself. Think of it this way…

A couple of years ago I watched an episode of Baseball’s Golden Age that compared the great center fielders of New York – Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider. While the show served as a sort of historical documentary that chronicled the accomplishments of all three, it’s primary focus was more on the discussion and debate surrounding them by fans and writers of the era than anything else. It was, in essence, a show about perhaps the greatest attribute of baseball…it’s personal and subjective nature and the endless discussions that came of it.

As much as so many of us want to believe that what Ben said in the movie Fever Pitch is ultimately true about baseball…

“It’s a little like math. It’s orderly. Win or lose, it’s fair. It all adds up. It’s, like, not as confusing or as ambiguous as, uh…[life]. Yeah. It’s – It’s safe.”

…the truth is, baseball is pretty much just like life. Yes, there is a level of truth and factual nature to it. Somewhere out there, there is a very objective truth that simply “is” when it comes to baseball. But pretty much everything else about baseball – whether a hit is a hit or an error, who was the greatest center fielder of the ‘50s, was Ozzie Guillen correct in questioning Harper’s pine tar or was he just being Ozzie – it’s all ambiguous. Every bit of it.

And as baseball fans who love to debate it, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

You see, despite what all the pundits and talk show hosts – and really all of us too – say about it, “professional” is the last thing most of us want out of our baseball experience. To hell with that. I’ll take personal over professional any day of the week. That’s just baseball.

Now, before I leave you for the day, let’s get into the rest of it…

Enough already with the jacked up approach at the plate with runners in scoring position (RISP). We see hitter after hitter work counts, take smart at-bats, and drive pitchers nuts…except when a runner reaches second or third base. Suddenly, the sight of that little dude standing in scoring position makes the Cardinals hitters all kinds of anxious. They swing at everything, try to plant every pitch in the seats, or just flat out change their approach in general. McGwire has expressed frustration over it, media outlets have certainly covered the heck out of it, and you can clearly see the players irritated with it. So what should be done? Simple. You make the issue so “in your face” that Cardinals hitters can’t help but remember to stay within their approach with RISP. Do something ludicrous! During BP, make one of the players wear a bright orange jersey with the words “RUNNER IN SCORING POSITION” printed on the front, and make him stand on second or third base during an entire BP session. If the problem really is just about players forgetting or refusing to follow a sound approach at the plate, make them participate in such a ridiculous exercise during BP that they can’t help but remember. I’m just sayin’, Matheny has to do something. This is getting ridiculous.

About that sweep in Cincinnati… Remember that 2010 brawl in Cincy? Remember the Cardinals sweeping that series? Remember the Redbirds tanking after that series and allowing the Reds to sail by and claim the NLC title? Yeah…let’s not read too much into 3 games in mid-July. This thing is far from over, and with Joey Votto out almost a month, things just got interesting.

Trevor Rosenthal is an exciting player to watch. He was nothing short of dominant in Springfield AA for the Cardinals, and I see no reason to expect anything different coming out of the pen in St. Louis (unless…you know…he has trouble adjusting to relief work). But you know what is really exciting? Rosenthal is a starter. He’s been conditioned as a starter all season long. He has big league stuff and the ability to spot start if needed. Now, the Cards are going to effectively lighten his mid-season workload by sticking him in the bullpen. Picture this: Lance Lynn finally begins to fade because of that massive innings load. Matheny pulls him from the rotation, gives him a few weeks off to rest his arm, gradually works him back into shape, and re-inserts him at the end of the season for a stretch run. In the meantime, Rosenthal steps up and fills his spot. I’m telling you, I could see it happen. Of course, the best option is to acquire a starter via the trade market and then watch Garcia rejoin the starting five…but the likelihood of both happening this season is not good.

Not so fast… For those of you hoping the loss of Joey Votto would create a passing lane for the Cardinals, you might want to think again. True, the Reds offense isn’t blowing any doors off – even with Votto – but let’s not pretend like the Reds have a tough couple weeks ahead either. After wrapping up a series against the D-Backs, the Redlegs face the struggling Brewers (both series at home) before moving on to face the awful Astros in Houston and rickety Rockies in Colorado. After that? It’s back home for the Padres and Pirates (perhaps their toughest challenge) before once again taking on the Brewers and the hopeless Cubs. In other words, Votto’s knee surgery may have come at the perfect time for a Reds offense that struggles to score runs without him. They aren’t exactly playing contenders during his down time.

Wrap-Up!

That’ll do it for today. It’s good to be back (sorry about the hiatus for those of you who are regular readers of the blog).

GO CARDS!!!

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