Shooting or brushing back the messenger is two things. One is bad form. The second is that, until or unless the message is demonstrably libelous or slanderous, it rarely works to the shooter’s advantage. It doesn’t keep people from trying. And it doesn’t keep those folks from looking foolish. (Donaldus Minimus, call your office. You too, Hilarious Rodent Clinton.)
Just ask some Minnesota Twins players. Or, their fans. (Yes, the Twins still have fans.) Earlier this week, Dick Bremer, who teams with Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven on Twins broadcasts, spoke of a Twin whom he chose not to identify publicly confronting him about some of his on-air comments this season. Bremer told a Fargo, North Dakota radio personality, Mike McFeely, about the confrontation:
I make it a practice to go in the clubhouse every day and go down on the field, so if a player has a complaint about something I’ve said on television they have that opportunity. I was confronted in the clubhouse in the last homestand. I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was, ‘Well, play better and the commentary will be more positive.’ You can’t mask the fact this team is a quarter of the way through the season with 10 wins.
That from a man who has a reputation among some Twins observers as being the ultimate homer. Incidentally, at this writing the Twins—who actually appeared in postseason contention for a spell last year—are 12-34. They’re almost a third of the way through a season in which they have an excellent chance of obliterating the 40-120 mark of the 1962 New York Mets, but without being half as funny. Those Original Mets sucked . . . with style. These Twins merely suck.
And it’s even gotten to Blyleven, who rarely allows any negative thought to come forth on the air. Once a pitcher who waxed Jack Morris’s tail in an American League Championship Series while wearing a Twins uniform, Blyleven was very vocal about such recent mishaps as Brian Dozier failing to move a runner to third with nobody out, or with manager Paul Molitor lifting starting pitcher Phil Hughes at a point where Hughes had thrown a mere 75 pitches. Blyleven, Bremer told McFeely,
. . . was as curious as anybody as to why there was even a trip to the mound. The man had 75 pitches and was sailing along. He’d retired something like 13 in a row through the middle innings and hadn’t thrown that many pitches. (Blyleven) wasn’t looking at the bullpen, either. He didn’t think there was a remote chance there’d be a pitching change unless everything blew apart in the seventh inning. And as it turned out it did, after they made the pitching change.
The Twins led 2-1 at the time Hughes was lifted. Molitor hooked him for Michael (Gulf of) Tonkin . . . and the Twins imploded, losing 7-2. Dozier has since been sent to ride the pine for a spell to help him shake off his woes.
“You know you have to draw the line between placating your audience who wants to see the Twins win,” Bremer added, “but still when somebody makes a bad play … when (Eddie) Rosario overshoots the cutoff man and airmails the ball to home plate, everybody knows that’s unacceptable and shouldn’t be seen in a Major League ballgame. So you have to point that out.”
Some Twins fans aren’t buying it, according to the comments on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune‘s site. Some don’t even buy Bremer being even slightly critical of the team one correspondent describes as Bremer’s perennial All-Stars. Bremer is such a homer,” wrote “danbann5,” “it is hard to think about any player taking offense about any of his comments. I’ve not heard anything but positive talk from him about the players in spite of the team’s on field failures. Maybe this just shows how bad things have gotten.”
It isn’t unheard of for players to confront their critics directly. In ancient Brooklyn, a Dodgers outfielder named Gene Hermanski bounced New York Daily News writer Dick Young off several clubhouse lockers. Young’s crime? Describing Hermanski as “a stumbling clown in the outfield” who “hit one 400 feet—200 feet up and 200 feet down,” at a time Hermanski was not quite playing well enough. In not-so-ancient New York, Bobby Bonilla once demanded an official scorer change an error to a hit. And in even less-ancient Texas, Milton Bradley shot into the broadcast booth for a few words with a critical broadcaster.
It’s even less unheard-of for broadcasters who don’t wear the homer label to find their jobs in jeopardy or vapourised. Maybe the single most respected baseball broadcaster of all time who isn’t named Vin Scully, Red Barber, was executed at the end of the 1966 season for the crime of describing a near-empty Yankee Stadium—with 413 paid attendance (cameramen refused to pan the empty park despite Barber’s request), the year the Yankees reached last place—and telling his viewers, “this crowd is the story, not the game.” One of the 413 was Mike Burke, a CBS executive installed as Yankee president after the network bought the club in 1964.
Tim McCarver lost his long-term and well-respected gig in the Mets’ booth over his on-air criticisms of much of their early-to-mid 1990s play. He shrugged it off, kept his concurrent gig with Fox’s national broadcasts and found a new home with the Yankees, and ended up a Ford C. Frick Award-winning Hall of Fame broadcaster. Tommy Hutton sounded like too much homer to non-Miami Marlins fans but not homer enough for the Marlins’ notoriously thin-skinned administration. He got pinked after last season and nineteen years’ service.
Trying to shoot the messenger doesn’t limit itself to battles between players and broadcasters or fans and broadcasters. Neither does a close relative known as whistleblowing. In the early 1950s, Joey Jay—a bonus baby pitcher with the Milwaukee Braves—wrote a magazine article urging parents to think twice before letting their kids play Little League baseball. (Jay was the first Little League alumnus to play major league baseball.) Jay had faced attempts to block him in Little League play because he was tall and beefy for his age.
No one could say for certain whether the article contributed to Jay’s inability to crack the Braves’ rotation, after he spent a spell in the minors following his bonus rule-enforced major league apprenticeship. Jay didn’t come into his own until he was traded to Cincinnati for 1961, reeled off two straight 20+ win seasons (and was maybe the final puzzle piece for the Reds’ 1961 pennant winner), almost a decade after the Braves signed him, but then hit his decline phase. You wondered, then, whether the Little League article didn’t hurt Jay in the long run.
When the Chicago White Sox dealt for relief pitcher/author Jim Brosnan (The Long Season, Pennant Race) in 1963, they tried to force him into accepting a 1964 contract clause barring him from publishing articles (for which there was quite a demand) without prior club review and approval. Brosnan retired rather than submit to such censorship.
Two years after, Earl Wilson—then a Boston Red Sox pitcher—complained in the press during spring training, after a south Florida restaurant refused to serve Wilson (who was black) and two teammates, with a server crowing, “We don’t serve niggers in here.” Wilson defied team management to take his argument to the press. Wilson was traded to the Detroit Tigers during the 1967 season for a pair of spare parts. Wilson ended up leading the American League in wins in 1967 and becoming a significant part of the Tigers’ 1968 pennant winner.
Four years ago, early in the Red Sox’s Bobby Valentine shipwreck, respected veteran Kevin Youkilis was shipped out of town in the wake of Valentine’s questioning his heart in addition to his physical health. But there may have been another motive: The Boston Globe never named him, but Youkilis may have been their prime source for their offseason exposure of the clubhouse and dugout shenanigans thought to have contributed to the Red Sox’s unconscionable 2011 stretch drive collapse.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried actively to suppress Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—after having read only excerpts from the book published in Look—and someone on the San Diego Padres left a burned copy of the book on the dugout steps of Bouton’s then club, the Houston Astros. All those things accomplished was to make Ball Four even more in demand. (Bouton didn’t just tell wink-wink stories from the inside; he’d also disclosed a few juicy details about lopsided contract negotiations during the reserve clause era.)
This week, too, Tony La Russa—Hall of Fame manager turned Arizona Diamondbacks chief baseball officer—took offense to Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown’s observation of La Russa’s practises regarding retaliatory pitches as a manager, after two Diamondbacks got hit by Pirate pitches during a game Tuesday. Said Big League Stew‘s Kyle Ringo:
It seems extremely thin-skinned and amateurish of La Russa to invade the broadcast booth of an opposing team on the road to refute comments being made about his record as a manager and how that approach might be currently affecting the thinking of the Arizona organization. First and foremost, the broadcasters work for the Pirates and are free to share their opinions on all things related to the game and the people and personalities on both sides.
Brown could have been much harsher in his assessment of La Russa and his history and how he was perceived in baseball. Brown’s comments weren’t intended insults or shots at La Russa.
La Russa may not agree with what he heard, but there is a time and place to address that with the broadcaster or journalist involved and disrupting the broadcast is not the time for it. It’s simply unprofessional. If Brown had a bone to pick with La Russa, do you think La Russa would be OK with him choosing to walk into, say, a scouting meeting and make his points? Of course not.
So far, nobody on any side of the foregoing disputes has threatened to bring in the law to suppress the other guys’ arguments. So far.
Dick Young wasn’t always the most fair or objective observer—just ask anyone who remembers the battles that finally provoked Tom Seaver to demand the trade that started the infamous Mets Midnight Massacre deals—but one of his maxims still resonates. “I wrote what I wrote because I believe it,” he once told a player outraged by something he’d written. “If you got complaints, let me hear ‘em. If you want better stories, play better baseball.”
Better to complain than to threaten (directly or indirectly), quash, or be hypocritical.