Where does character fit in?

added 7/15/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Now that the all-star game has been completed we should focus on the second half of the season, but I want to rewind to the issue that should have never been a part of all-star week in the first place: Kenny Rogers. Rogers issue has been hashed and re-hashed, but there are some aspects to this I find interesting, so I thought I’d weigh in anyway.

Early in June, I went to Ameriquest Field and the LaGrave Field to catch the Rangers and the Fort Worth Cats. While I was driving up to meet a buddy of mine at our favorite watering hole, I heard a deejay on 103.3 FM (ESPNzone) criticize the Rangers for dropping Ryan Drese. It seems the Rangers “drew a line in the sand” when he had a physical confrontation with a teammate and had other “character issues”. She made the point that there was no one good enough to take his spot even though his numbers were less than stellar. The other deejay continued to harp on the point that it was a case of “addition by subtraction.”

She brought up the obvious question: what would happen if someone more important to the team became a chemistry problem? Well, it didn’t take very long for that question to become more than an academic question. Looking at how the Rangers fell over themselves not to deal with Rogers’ outburst shows you where they really stand on the issue of character.

You see, this isn’t the first time Rogers has reacted physically to reporters. Reportedly, he attacked a reporter when he was in New York and also threw debris at them this year in Spring Training. Of course, we didn’t hear much about those cases because Rogers is a good pitcher and the club didn’t want to deal with the situation.

What is so disturbing about this situation is that it isn’t unique to baseball or even professional sports. We make all kinds of allowances for good athletes and otherwise talented people in all walks of life. As a teacher and a former coach, I have seen all kinds of athletes pass through my classroom and on my teams. I have to admit, it isn’t easy dealing with a bad kid that you know you can’t win without. Fortunately, as an assistant (freshman) coach I didn’t have to make the final decision, but I usually fell on the side of harsh discipline.

As a high school teacher, I am often horrified at how often we forget what we are really there to teach: responsibility. These spoiled athletes have never learned responsibility because they are good enough to make a difference they are not made to be responsible. The sad thing is that one day they will not be special. This is why the Kenny Rogers situation is disconcerting on so many levels.

Those of you that have known me a long time know I’ve never been a big fan of Bud Selig. This situation is another example of his ineptitude. In Richard Justice’s July 12th column, he talked about the fact that Selig “hoped” that Rogers would choose to stay home. If Selig had any clue he would have given Rogers a speedy appeal hearing and forced the issue. Leaving it to Rogers predictably led to Rogers ignoring that hope and becoming the distraction he became.

This is the whole point. If Rogers got it he never would have attacked the cameramen in the first place. He certainly would have apologized immediately and accepted whatever punishment came his way. The fact that he went to the game so he could get his $50,000 bonus is proof enough that he still doesn’t really get it.

Early this season, our SABR group was lucky enough to go hear Tim Purpura speak and he talked about how important character is to the Astros. I like Tim Purpura. He is an engaging guy that took the time to talk to several of us individually in addition to making an hour long presentation. However, I still have to wonder how genuine those comments really were.

After all, it is one thing to make someone like Julio Lugo responsible for bad acts and someone like Jeff Bagwell responsible for bad acts. Fortunately for them, Bagwell and Craig Biggio are two stars that seem to get it. With the Rangers, that question is no longer academic. They’ve shown us what they’re really about.

Truth be told, the responsibility really lies with us. Somewhere along the way, we lose sight of the ol’ adage “it’s not whether you win or lose, but it’s how you play the game” and suddenly adopt a “winning is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.” For some of us, this happens in Little League (or other sport equivalent) while others see this happen to them in high school or later.

Professional organizations have a hard enough time making these decisions. They’re in this to make money. That seems like a simple proposition, but it is much more difficult than it seems. They have to strike the balance between having a group of guys that we will like and having a group of guys that will win. In a perfect world, you have both, but this is rarely ever a perfect world. They shouldn’t have to choose between a loveable loser and a winning felon, but teams face that choice more often than we would like.

All of us get cheated in the end. Players like Albert Belle, Dick Allen, and Jose Canseco saw their careers cut short largely because they are jerks. It’s hard to say this has or will happen to Kenny Rogers since he is already 41, but he is a free agent after this season. How many teams will pay big bucks for someone older than forty and who has a horrible reputation?

For some of us, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between a hobby and a livelihood when it comes to sports. Even those that get a pay check from their involvement with professional sports must admit that we’re not talking about attacking poverty or the war against crime. Sports are a diversion where people watch a game and discuss things to keep their mind off of real life. What is so bad about people like Kenny Rogers is they bring real life into something that should be a diversion.

Those of you reading this remember very well what happened when we did something bad growing up. We didn’t get to do the things we enjoyed doing. It’s high time that even great athletes on all levels face the same mode of punishment our parents gave to us. Phrases like, “we can’t without him(her)” should be removed from our vernacular. Accepting defeat is a lot more palatable than accepting bad behavior from someone for a lifetime because they have talent.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”