A Question of Loyalty

added 2/4/2006 by Scott Barzilla

I normally don’t make it a habit to comment on the work of others. Sure, I’ve dogged Richard Justice a few times in this space, but that seems to be a Houston pastime these days. If you judge his worth by the bulletin boards and internet chat rooms you would guess he was a cross between Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies and Cletus the Slack jawed yokel from the Simpsons.

However, my ire on this day is aimed at Brian McTaggart. His op-ed piece in the Chronicle where he linked Bagwell’s situation to the situations of Hakeem Olajuwon, Warren Moon, Nolan Ryan, and Earl Campbell was a very reasoned and thought out opinion. His opinion wasn’t over the top and it was mostly fair despite the fact that he sandbagged management’s point of view. If all this is true then why am I protesting so much? Simply put, McTaggart’s “opinion” was billed as a news story.

One of the problems I have is that I am very sympathetic to that point of view, but when I see it put forth in an irresponsible way it detracts from the point and misses the point entirely. You cannot equate all of those situations and put them into one basket. Each one has to be taken on its own merits and there is way too much going on in Bagwell’s case to even bring those cases up. Doing so is tantamount to emotional subterfuge in the guise of, “you see, Houston is a town where its professional teams don’t show loyalty to their star players.” I hope everyone can see the folly in that line of thinking.

Ignoring the Lessons

Taking this tack ignores the issues of the Bagwell case. One cannot reasonably argue for Bagwell without acknowledging the issues the Astros must deal with. First, he missed most of last season with the injury and according to doctors, the injury is either no better or potentially worse than when he went on the disabled list in the first place. When you add in the fact that Bagwell makes nearly 20 percent of the team’s overall payroll you see very clearly why the Astros are doing what they are doing.

A reasonable person would fire back and say, “aren’t the Astros the team that gave him that contract? No one held a gun to their head, right?” Indeed, this is where the reasonable argument should begin. The fruits of this argument will not only come closer to bringing us a solution in this current case, but it shows the Astros the folly of putting themselves in that situation in the first place.

Yet, it would be too simple to stop there. The Astros have a lot to learn in this scenario, but so do we. We make the mistake of attaching the same emotional baggage of losing a hero in his prime to shoddy management to losing a player in the sunset of his career. If we wanted to compare Bagwell to some of those other cases we could ask a very simple question: how eager are you to see Bagwell struggle? You see, it’s one thing to be indignant about losing a Nolan Ryan to free agency or a Joe Morgan to a ill-advised trade. It’s another to paint a rosy picture of a player as he ambles down the road to retirement.

The last time I talked on this issue I talked about how most of the stars didn’t finish with their initial teams. The thing is, that gate swings both ways. Not only did most of those stars not finish with their original teams, but they also didn’t finish as gracefully as they played the majority of their careers. For every Ted Williams and Stan Musial that finishes hitting .300 you have a Willie Mays that falls in the outfield. Babe Ruth was atrocious in his last season in Boston (except for one game where he hit three home runs). It’s interesting that as much fuss as we put up, you hardly ever hear fans discuss Olajuwon or Campbell’s demise in another town. You certainly don’t hear it as often as Nolan Ryan.

A Forgotten Man

John McMullen will forever be known as the man that let Nolan Ryan go. However, it might have been two other moves that really signified a lack of loyalty. In 1981, Tal Smith was fired after building the first playoff team in Astros history. Apparently, McMullen wasn’t happy with the Ryan contract and regretted giving Smith too much power in the proceedings. The fact that the club made it to the playoffs two years in a row was immaterial.

Yet, it is the dismissal of Gene Elston in 1986 that has many Houston fans seething. Unfortunately, an entire generation of Astros fans never heard Elston call games on the radio. Personally, I began listening and watching Astros games in the early 1980s, so my memories of Elston have largely faded. It wasn’t until much later when I began to appreciate his smooth and professional style. Like Ryan and Smith, he was on top of his game when he was dismissed.

It’s hard to say times are good for Elston because he should have been winding down a brilliant career right now, but to his credit he has bounced back. He has written books on the game and still makes appearances on occasion. Unlike Bagwell, he did not go to a columnist like Richard Justice to state his piece. There is a group of people that are leading the fight for him, but their voices are going unheard at the moment. However, their efforts haven’t been fruitless.

For the second year in a row, Elston got enough fan votes to be a part of the final group of the Ford Frick Award voting. Somehow, it seems brutally ironic to some Astros fans that he’s still on the outside looking in while Milo Hamilton is in. Of course, I don’t mean to demean Milo Hamilton because he has many fans and has been in the booth for more than 50 years. Yet, it’s interesting to see him be a part of the mess that ushered Elston out while Milo gets to finish as he sees fit.

Tying it all together

Loyalty is a complex thing. For some, the club is loyal to the fans when they put the best possible players on the field. For others, the club is loyal when they allow the heroes of our youth to play or broadcast as long as they want. In many ways, it’s unfair to ask the club to do anything but what they think is best. It’s also unfair to expect all of us to be happy with their decisions all of the time.

In the end, loyalty might lie with us. Even for Nolan Ryan, the bad feelings subsided with time and it was the loyalty of the Houston fans that probably helped along the way. Jeff Bagwell may be shown the door, but we can always remember him the way we want. The ultimate justice for Gene Elston will be a place in Cooperstown along with Milo Hamilton and the other great announcers in history. We have a partial say in that too. The Astros may have turned their backs on these men, but there are a lot of sneaky details that went into all of those situations and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. We also must not be too quick to forget.