Beckett—Ill Seen, Ill Said

Afforded the chance to do so by WEEI’s Rob Bradford, who seems one of the less cannibalistic among sports radio heads, Josh Beckett had a few more things to say about the end of his Boston tour. A few perhaps inadvertent misstatements to the contrary, since Beckett wasn’t always forthcoming with reporters after his losses this season, the righthander didn’t exactly come across as a mere fuming brat.’s Ben Shapiro caught the point almost at once:

Roar of the conqueror, in the 2007 World Series . . .

Beckett’s interview was not a hate-filled rant as some tweets have suggested, but he did come off just as most Red Sox fans would expect him to, poorly. He’s never been known as a skilled self-promoter and he’s not the most gifted public speaker, either.

Beckett seems to know it, too. So far, the Los Angeles press seems to get the idea as well. The linked-to Los Angeles Times columnist, T.J. Simers, self-professed provocateur, has told WEEI Beckett “acted like Mr. Congeniality and was on his best behaviour.” But the portion of Bradford’s interview that seems to carry the most firepower, one or another way, is where Beckett suggests the Boston sports press almost inevitably “gets” you, that it’s only a matter of time before they do so.  Shapiro:

[R]ather than make fans thankful for all the World Series titles, Super Bowl rings, NBA championships and Stanley Cup trophies, the success has only shortened the proverbial fuse and made Boston fans quicker to anger. Fans are no longer willing to accept the hard truth, which is that the successful run the Red Sox put together in the mid-2000s wasn’t normal–to believe the Red Sox would, or should, sustain that success forever is naive.

Along the same lines, very few athletes have escaped the vitriol of the Boston sports culture since the turn of the century.

Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of athletes, Beckett being one of them, have to an extent dug their own holes. At times, though, the hatred reaches levels that are unreasonable.

That’s a polite way to put it. Boston isn’t exactly the only sports culture whose press ramps or abets unreasonable hate levels. It’s merely one of the more historically notorious. Beckett isn’t even close to the first Red Sox player who ever went from high to hated, some of which may have been his own doing. But even players who bring some opprobrium upon themselves are shocked to discover it swells to nuclear levels.

For historic examples, you don’t have to go much farther back than Ted Williams. Haunted, prickly, perfectionist, and temperamental. Too easy and too large a target to resist. He had such a bristling relationship with the Boston sports press that he couldn’t even resist taking a potshot at them (the Knights of the Keyboard, he called them) during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Yet when the Splinter was torn apart in the press over being fishing in Florida when his first child was born, a happenstance of circumstance alone (he couldn’t know his wife was to give birth precisely during that juncture), his most vitriolic critic otherwise, the Boston Record‘s Dave Egan, wrote a blistering column attacking . . . Williams’s attackers.

Foulke—From hero to heel in the ears of too many  . . .

That was the same Dave Egan who seemed to be making a career out of driving Casey Stengel into oblivion, when Stengel managed a hapless, badly-built collection of Boston Braves. When Stengel had to miss much of one season after a taxicab struck him on a street corner, fracturing his leg, Egan declared the cabbie should have received a commendation for doing Boston baseball its biggest favour of the year.

For recent examples, you can point to the next-to-last man standing, literally, when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Beckett has. Keith Foulke stood tall after fielding Edgar Renteria’s two-out comebacker and throwing on to Doug Mientkiewicz at first base for the Series-winning out. (Red Sox fans have longed to hear it, the Boston Red Sox—are world champions!—Joe Buck.) Just a few months later, however, in the middle of a battle with knee injuries, Foulke let ferocious booing get to him as he lost his closing job to Mike Timlin. Purely out of frustration, he let loose a schpritz that haunted him almost to the day he retired two years later:

They’re not going to make it any harder than it is for me to go home and look in the mirror. Like I’ve told you guys plenty of times, I’m more embarrassed to walk into this locker room and look at the faces of my teammates than I am to walk out and see Johnny from Burger King booing me. I’m worried about these guys, not everybody else.

Foulke’s image took a beating from which it would never really seem to recover. He was to blame for what he said, but you’d be hard pressed to find many Boston writers who saw the remark for what it really was, a human enough expression of frustration after a bad, injury-underwritten spell of work on an extremely public stage. Saying it privately might have gotten him little more than a gentle rebuke; say, from a teammate, or his wife.

“The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work Ball’,” said Pops . . . who knew in his heart baseball was work in order to play . . .

Thick skins are prerequisites for performing in professional sports. Even without a press covering you, there’s that little matter of about 55,000 people in the seats and a few million in front of their television sets or radios. But you wonder if a little more perspective in the press box or the stands shouldn’t be a prerequisite for watching professional sports as well.

It’s too easy to look at men earning in a day what you may not earn in a year and think they’ve got it too easy. It’s too easy to think you, the average schlub, can just suit up and hit the field and do what they do just as well as they’re not doing it, when they hit a slump or age and injuries begin to take their toll—as they may be doing upon Beckett. Willie Stargell may have said, once famously, “The umpire doesn’t say ‘Work ball.’ I asked to be a ballplayer.” But professional sports is arduous work. And baseball especially comes with a built-in failure rate that not even a Babe Ruth, a Ted Williams, a Willie Mays, a Mickey Mantle, a Sandy Koufax, a Juan Marichal, a Tom Seaver, a Mike Schmidt, a George Brett, a Chipper Jones could overturn.

It can be a very jarring revelation to discover that what you did with joy as a boy growing up became a job that could drive you to drink as a man. Sure, you watched your heroes grind it out all those years at the ballpark or on the tube. Thought they had it made, being ballplayers. Now, you’re in the clubhouse, on the field, in the arena. You probably think it’s this side of ridiculous to point out that the schlubs in the stands—letting you have it during a slump, ripping you a new one on sports talk radio blabfests, and fuming that by cracky they could do your job any old time they choose and be grateful for making a third of what you make, just the way you did it when you were watching them—don’t have to perform their “real” jobs in front of crowds reaching 55,000 people or better and television audiences in the millions.

Say so, and you’d be right. Say it on the record, and you’d be crucified.

The most perceptive sportswriters, commentators, and fans understand. They also stand for a lot. There are those athletes who do live as though they’re entitled to every last consideration and creature comfort. There are those who defend their self-centricity as no less than their talent’s due, and they treat like dirt the writers who asked little more than their perspective on the game just played. There are those athletes who have anything but the personality or disposition to succeed and sustain their success, or at least their survival, in professional sports.

Haunted, temperamental, perfectionist, individualist—Teddy Ballgame may have invited press sniping but how often did the press go far too far?

But there are those sportswriters, too, who live and work as though they’re entitled to know every last doing or undoing inside the mind or life of a player. Or, to run with every last innuendo and scream blue murder if the player cries foul, or has a bad day and would rather bury himself in a shower, cool off, and maybe talk about the game when his brains have unscrambled. There are those sportswriters who have anything but the personality or disposition to succeed and sustain their success or survival on a professional sports beat.

Conversely, there have been those sportswriters who lived and worked as though genuinely serious things weren’t as worthy of their microscope as the fawna and the flora. Much was written about the baseball press’s averted gaze when the plague of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances clogged baseball’s arteries. In fairness, part of it may have been fear in hand with abject disbelief. A very early would-be expositor of the plague, when it was in its infancy, was Thomas Boswell—until he was threatened with litigation for his trouble.

Sportswriters who ask necessary if uncomfortable questions often bear the brunt of outrage by people who don’t stop to ask whether there’s even a kernel of reality in those questions. Jim Gray, then with NBC Sports, was broiled for daring to ask Pete Rose—after the All-Century Team presentation—about whether he was prepared to admit to gambling on baseball. But there were those who also said Gray was perfectly within his rights to ask questions even Rose’s staunchest defenders had to know were legitimate, considering Rose’s lifetime banishment against the exception he was granted for one night because he’d been voted All-Century.

What, then, was Josh Beckett’s crime? In some respects, circumstantial. The cleanest among last year’s Red Sox couldn’t avoid the heat after last September’s too-stupefying collapse. If the Red Sox had held on to win, nobody would have thought anything about the team’s chicken-and-brewski contingency, of whom Beckett is accused often enough of being its leader. The 2004 Idiots’ pre- and in-game bourbon shots were considered the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners of champions. There’s the key. Win, and you’re a character. Lose, and you’re a slob.

There’s supposed to be no cheering in the press box. That’s the Sacred Tradition. But since when did it equal there’s supposed to be a firing squad? If a player, manager, coach, umpire, owner fouls up, saying so isn’t a crime, and hammering the foul-up isn’t a crime. But does the hammer have be turned into a machine gun while it’s being swung? Was it really necessary, back in the year, to turn Bill Buckner into the root of all evil, because a slow-rolling grounder skipped the grass and through the usually surehanded first baseman’s patched-up ankles, in a World Series the Red Sox had just been a strike away from winning?

This year’s Beckett was ground down a little further by physical ailments. He even admitted to days when he simply pitched lousy, with or without physical maladies, and the fans had a right to boo a bad performance. And he got roasted in some places for saying that, too.

Richard—Nobody listened, many accused, all were embarrassed . . .

There’s another point where lack of perspective can, well, hurt. Fans and writers alike can be too ready to cry “no guts” when a player simply can’t play through an injury. Or won’t, usually from fear of longer-term, even career-threatening further damage. But sometimes teammates and managers have the same readiness. Beckett wasn’t unaware of clubhouse sniping two years ago, when Jacoby Ellsbury’s rib troubles got him hung unfairly, and among his own mates, with the no-heart label. Beckett wasn’t exactly absent when Bobby Valentine questioned Kevin Youkilis’s heart while questioning his health. The last thing anyone wants to be known as, by his mates, his boss, or the public (with or without the writers’ help), is a quitter.

This isn’t to say baseball is immune from goldbricking or non-hustling. Just today, Jimmy Rollins was reminded the hard way about not hustling or keeping his head in the game—he was benched after a pair of baserunning blunders while his Phillies were edging the Mets, and it wasn’t even close to the first time Rollins has ridden the proverbial pine for non-hustle.

But if you talk candidly about real ailments obstructing your performance, as happens only often enough? As often as not, it’s hell if you do (crybaby!!!) and hell if you don’t. (What’s he hiding?!?) J.R. Richard learned that the hard way in 1980. Feeling strangely dead in his pitching shoulder, Richard suffered innuendo until just past the All-Star break. Then, he suffered a career-ending stroke. Everyone on, with, or around that year’s Astros needed years to come to terms with that.

A Beckett critic, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, softens somewhat assessing Beckett and Bradford. He thinks Beckett is spinning rather than standing up; he questions take by discussing his ultimately failed bid to get Beckett to cooperate on an in-depth feature. But after criticising Beckett’s protracted refusals, Abraham offers this:

Beckett, a freshly minted Dodger . . .

It would have been a good story to tell, too. Beckett is funny when he wants to be and interested in things beyond baseball. There is something there beyond the Texas Tough Guy image he so carefully cultivates.

Now, after he is traded, Beckett is complaining about nobody doing the very story I wanted to do and still regret not doing. It’s disingenuous.

Beckett is not a bad guy. But nobody seems more determined to have people think that he is.

Is it that impossible to wonder, for all his notable stubbornness, whether Beckett was even close to the only guy around the Red Sox clubhouse to have people merely think he was a bad guy?

Hugh Hefner once said he began writing his ponderous, sometimes maddeningly extensive Playboy Philosophy because he preferred people hate him for what he did believe, as opposed to what they merely thought he believed. Societies have been rent in the past, and will be rent yet again, not over what some did believe but what others merely thought they believed. It’s not impossible to imagine Josh Beckett, in his heart of hearts, sharing Hefner’s preference.

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