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A large dose of reality

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff January 15, 2009 05:59 AM

And on the eighth day the sports gods gave us veteran players, who have come to appreciated what they have, who have invaluable perspective, who generally have outgrown the petulance and boorish behavior that so frequently come with athletic youth. So John Smoltz is a member of the Red Sox. Watching and listening to him on Tuesday at Fenway Park, it was impossible to feel anything but delighted. Smoltz may or may not prove to be an asset to the Red Sox on the field this season, largely because that depends on the health of his right arm. But off the field, where baseball players spend an inordinate amount of time together, almost everyone in and around the Boston organization can learn something from a man who has seen and done it all.

Said Smoltz, “I value the chemistry inside a locker room and having the ability to talk to players and have an influence.”

At this stage, so should we.

With all due respect to young players, they just don’t get it. They rarely do. Having had nothing but themselves (and their careers) to focus on during most of their lives, young players end up exhibiting varying degrees of cluelessness, selfishness, and egomania. Through high school and college, the large majority of them have been subjects of nothing but hero worship. They spend more time talking about “me” and less time talking about “us” largely because they see themselves as at least one class above the human race.

After all, it takes some good, old-fashioned humility to humble a person, and most young players are accustomed to wiping the floor with inferior athletes.

But the veteran guys? With the possible exception of Rickey Henderson, they almost always have humility, because the game has caught up to them. So has life. Your average veteran player has been married, divorced, and married again. He is paying alimony or child support or both. He has had good seasons and bad ones, played on winners and losers, celebrated individual achievement, and endured personal tragedy.

He inevitably has come to the conclusion that we all do at some point: In the grand scheme of things, I’m just not that important.

The young guy? Between stints in front of his Wii and Xbox 360, he spends most of his time listening to his iPod. He shows up at the ballpark early and leaves late, working on his body before, during, and after. Along the way, he tells us about such things as his dietary habits, sleep habits, and daily routine, mostly because we stand in front of his locker and ask him.
His mistake comes in believing that somehow those things matter to anyone else. Here’s something the young player never does: He never asks about you, the way any grounded person would. He never asks you for a movie tip or restaurant recommendation, the way someone like Bret Saberhagen might. He never talks about his failures as candidly as David Cone.

He never sits there the way John Smoltz does, speaking openly and honestly, making you feel that he is, above all else, interesting. He never makes you feel as though he is telling the truth.

In Red Sox history, in recent years, veteran players have served an important role. Years ago, when Red Sox youngsters like Mike Greenwell arrived in the Boston clubhouse, they were made to feel uncomfortable, inadequate, as if they didn’t belong. The dynamic is so, so different now. In the last several years, the Red Sox have had veterans like Saberhagen, Cone, John Burkett, and Rod Beck. Tim Wakefield has gone from an insecure 28-year-old whose career was on the scrap heap to a 42-year-old father of two, and he is far more interesting now. (He would admit this.) Ramon Martinez was trying to hold on when he came to Boston. So was Ellis Burks, the second time around. Mike Stanley had the wisdom of a sage when he arrived in Boston — on both occasions.

What all of those men lacked by the time they landed at Fenway was the talent that, at one time or another, allowed them to perform at or near the peak of their industry.

On most successful teams, there is always a balance of youth and experience. It makes perfect sense. Without the urgency the young players produce, the veterans might too easily accept failure. Without the older players’ level-headedness, the younger players might self-destruct. In poor environments, they come to resent one another; in healthy ones, the older players chalk up the behavior of the younger ones to youth and the younger ones feel the older ones have their best interests in mind.

Almost always, with few exceptions, the older guys are always there to talk to us, to talk to you, to explain what has happened, will happen, or might happen. They are there to process information and to learn from it, assuming they have not learned from it already. They are there to relate experiences in a manner most people can comprehend because they have long since learned the lesson young players have yet to learn.

As much as we may all seem different, we really are all the same.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

24 comments so far...
  1. Tony, It is unusual that we, for what it's worth, are in perfect agreement on this. The same culture exists in the world outside baseball, be it business, the arts or academia, with possibly the responsibilities of marriage and family being the shortest road to understanding the world outside the immediate needs of self/ego.

    I count 21 of 35 (of the probable 25 Man Roster) as younger than 30. The 2009 Red Sox are uniquely a team of a dozen All-Stars and a dozen future stars. The wisdom and balance that Wake, Smoltz, Saito, Lowell, (Tek, Schill, Timlin) bring to Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lowrie, Lester, Masterson, Buchholz, Bowden, Kottaras, Brown, Jones, M.Bard, Carter can't be underestimated.

    In a similar way, the Sox greatest strength may be the number of quality, maturing players who are entering or have already entered their prime in terms of age, maturity and skills: those in their late 20's like Beckett, Matsuzaka, Papelbon, Delcarmen, Youk, Baldelli, RRamirez, Littleton, VanEvery; and those having eased into their 30's like Bay, Penny, J.Bard, Bailey, Lopez, Oki, Kotsay, Papi, Drew. In age and maturity, as in all other areas, this is a deep, well balanced team.

    Posted by Giraud January 15, 09 10:07 AM
  1. Though there is some truth to your observations about the important role of maturity in a ballplayer, you overlook very notable exceptions, and thus your generalizations are too broad. For example, Jon Lester appears to be as humble as they come. And on the other hand, what of the insane arrogance of Clemens, Man-Ram, Barry Bonds, and numerous others who were less public with their immaturity. While I agree that the maturity of Smoltz is commendable and I would hope that the Sox would keep looking for veterans with level heads, I thing generalizing to the degree that you did is incorrect.

    Posted by djcbuffum January 15, 09 10:55 AM
  1. Enjoyed this, nice job Mazz.

    Posted by ChadProvidence January 15, 09 11:25 AM
  1. ...and at the top of the whole thing is this old, bald-headed guy. His skills are often called into question, but he maintains his equanimity throughout. He treats all of his charges like professionals, and he has never been guilty of "throwing any of them under the bus". The clubhouse is a reflection of the manager. Terry Francona is the definition of a manager.

    Posted by pennstatedad January 15, 09 11:33 AM
  1. Interesting perspective Tony. Something you won't read everyday. (Fix: appreciate, not appreciated in the first graph.) Enjoyed it.

    Posted by Scott from San Fran January 15, 09 12:38 PM
  1. "He never makes you feel as though he is telling the truth."
    Are there a few words missing from this line like "working at" or "trying to tell" before "the truth". Or am I just as dense as I feel today?

    Posted by KTDelaney January 15, 09 12:48 PM
  1. //He never sits there the way John Smoltz does, speaking openly and honestly, making you feel that he is, above all else, interesting. He never makes you feel as though he is telling the truth.//

    Yeah, those guys like Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden, Jon Lester... just a buncha spoiled prima donas.

    Posted by duinne January 15, 09 02:16 PM
  1. Wow. Does any of what you said about young players apply to Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Masterson? Look how much Manny DelCarmen gives back to his community. Now try to tell me that Manny Ramirez played for anybody but himself.

    To be sure, what you say is generally true in life - we often gain wisdom and become more compassionate as we get some years under our belt. And I'm as thrilled as you (and Justin Masterson) that John Smoltz will be coming here to impart some of the wisdom to the youngsters. But don't sell the young-uns short.

    Posted by greenmountainsox January 15, 09 03:10 PM
  1. Fantastic article on environment, balance of young and elder, and chemistry involved in creating a winning organization. Talent is wonderful to a team. But if players, all types of players (young, old, superstar, blue collar) are not put together properly, the word team will never come into meaning to any organization. This would be a fantastic article for high schools or colleges. Sport networks ruin sports. All the 'highlights' are shown. Home runs, slam dunks, and the ridiculous adolescent immature celebrating when performing their duties as a professional athlete. Understand scoring the winning goal, hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, or catching the touchdown pass to win the game deserves celebrating.

    Posted by JF KAYAJAN January 15, 09 03:13 PM
  1. KTDelaney,

    'He' is referring to the young guy. Not Smoltz. I had to go back and read it again.

    Great article Maz.....as usual.

    Posted by Anonymous January 15, 09 03:14 PM
  1. Fantastic article on environment, balance of young and elder, and chemistry involved in creating a winning organization. Talent is wonderful to a team. But if players, all types of players (young, old, superstar, blue collar) are not put together properly, the word team will never come into meaning to any organization. This would be a fantastic article for high schools or colleges. Sport networks ruin sports. All the 'highlights' are shown. Home runs, slam dunks, and the ridiculous adolescent immature celebrating when performing their duties as a professional athlete. Understand scoring the winning goal, hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, or catching the touchdown pass to win the game deserves
    celebrating.

    Posted by JF KAYAJAN January 15, 09 03:14 PM
  1. To sum up:

    1. The players who make the mediots' jobs easier are grounded, respectable and terrific.

    2. The players who treat the media as the inconvenience that they are are selfish, egomaniacal and obtuse.

    Posted by fu1eye January 15, 09 03:18 PM
  1. Good article Tony.

    Posted by Greg January 15, 09 03:36 PM
  1. And how different are sports writers? (Young or OLD)

    Posted by Jay Atkerson January 15, 09 04:08 PM
  1. Movie tips and restaurant recommendations, is that what you need to feel validation? That blog was pathetic. These young guys who supposedly "don't get it" are working hard on becoming better athletes and better players and to get better at their job, something you clearly need to work at instead of yearning for the days some player pretended to be your friend and asked if the greasy spoon around the corner was any good. How about asking the young player that doesn't get it what they are working on in order to get better or the approach they are taking? Oh wait, that would actually require effort on your part, you want your job to be easier. Any movie recommendations?

    Posted by Young guy that doesn't get it January 15, 09 04:19 PM
  1. Super job Mazz.....great historical perspective and you did it without many direct quotes from the players! Bravo...terrific writing lives!

    Posted by Brad January 15, 09 05:03 PM
  1. Nice job

    Posted by Dirty Water January 15, 09 05:53 PM
  1. A lot of maybe's on the pitching. Maybe some of them will come through. I'm old enough to remember a lot of maybe's: Jack Kramer coming back to what he was in "48", or Boo Ferris, or Tex Hughson, or Ramon Martinez, or Ray Scarborough, or Sid Hudson, or Harry Taylor

    Posted by dehud January 15, 09 06:30 PM
  1. Hi Tony: This was one of your best articles!

    Posted by Captain Roy January 16, 09 03:21 AM
  1. Hi Tony: This was one of your best articles!

    Posted by Captain Roy January 16, 09 03:22 AM
  1. I think we can add A-Rod to the list with Rickey.

    Posted by You can't buy team chemistry January 16, 09 07:51 AM
  1. I very much enjoyed your praise of wise and generous men. But I agree with many of the bloggers here, in being surprised at the either / or, absolute terms in which you assess young and old players. As several obvious examples illustrate, not all young ballplayers (or all young people in general) are self-absorbed and disrespectful of others, and age (alas) does not always bring wisdom & positive emotional growth. I've been teaching and coaching adolescents for many years, and they never cease to inspire me with hope for the species. Yes, they tend to be self-absorbed; they can't help that--they're too new to this universe to have access to as much perspective as the years will offer--but their gaffes are not necessarily moral failings, and many always, and all sometimes, display tremendous capacities for insight and compassion and generous action. Cut those kids some slack--and honor the Jon Lesters and Justin Mastersons of the sports world, who sure seem to be pretty wise and well-grounded people.

    Posted by Elane Apthorp January 16, 09 09:57 AM
  1. "With the possible exception of Rickey Henderson, they almost always have humility, because the game has caught up to them"

    Leave us face it: No one or nothing can catch up to Rickey Henderson, even now. Death itself will just have to wait till he slows down.

    Posted by Mister Snitch January 16, 09 03:23 PM
  1. Great artical. i cant believe how many pro ball players are in their 40`s.....makes me fell good being 43 .

    Posted by bosoxyaz8 January 18, 09 10:46 AM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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