Existential Baseball

Doug Glanville is one of those real-life “triple threats” that you occasionally hear about.  A gifted athlete (nine seasons of major league baseball), an intellectual (Ivy League graduate and author), and—in this age of in-your-face self-aggrandizement—a genuinely thoughtful and modest man.

I caught up with Doug after the World Series, and posed some questions that baseball fans don’t typically see asked or answered.  By the way, you can read more from Doug in his best-selling book, The Game From Where I Stand, or check him out at his website, www.dougglanville.com   Now on to the Q&A.

Let’s be honest.  How important is the manager?  Teams have pitching coaches,  hitting coaches, bench coaches, base-running coaches, bullpen coaches, infield and outfield coaches.  Besides filling out the lineup card, what do managers do to get paid millions of dollars?

Well, someone has to make all those people work together for a common goal.  That’s probably the hardest task they have.  They are more about managing people than about the tactical side, although they also have a lot more non-game stuff to take care of these days—the advanced metrics, the personnel moves, the timing, the off-season transactions.  And as the stakes escalate, so do the egos.  Managers need to know how to keep everyone on the same page….the page of winning baseball.  Not easy at all.

What do they mean when they say a player is a “good influence in the locker room”?  These are grown men, most of whom have been playing baseball since they were boys.  What difference can one guy—with no managerial authority—possibly make?

Plenty.  Even with the peer factor, there is a pecking order that can assert itself in leadership roles.  Certainly, that must stem from the underlying respect a player commands, be it from his performance, his seniority, or his personality.  We saw it in this last post-season with [Red Sox player] David Ortiz.  When he spoke, players listened.  And players who have impeccable leadership timing are capable of pushing a team just a hair further, and a hair further at the highest level can be the difference between winning Game 4 and losing it.

Does arguing with the umpire actually help?  Do they remember these arguments?  Will an ump subconsciously try to make up for an earlier mistake?  Do they hold grudges?

Not that it is always tactical, in terms of getting an edge on the next call, but it can make a player feel better [laughter].  Rarely will it be the kind of call that is reviewable or reversible, but that may change with the glanvilleexpansion of instant replay.  Depending on the level of vitriol in an argument, the “grudge factor” will be adjusted accordingly.  But most high-passion moments are chalked up to that moment only.

Do pitchers hang out mainly with other pitchers, or do they socialize with position players?

There is an invisible wall between position players and pitchers, and I think that hurts your ability to complete your baseball aptitude test.  I have learned so much by working with pitchers at ESPN.  That’s because we’re in an environment where our guard is down and we can share secrets.  When we’re playing, although we consider our teammates to be family, we’re also aware that, overnight, they could become our mortal enemies.

That’s because players can be traded suddenly?

I was traded twice, once during mid-season, so I know how quickly you’re called upon to find an edge against a former teammate.  The transient nature of the game makes you cautious about revealing too much to someone you may have to beat in the future.  No doubt, pitchers can be friends with position players, but I always think back to Steve Carlton, one of my favorite players.  Like the great Bob Gibson, Carlton decided he could not fraternize with opposing position players or even, to some degree, with position players on his own team.

While I can sort of see the logic in that, it does seem a bit extreme.

I once played with All-Star pitcher Randy Johnson during spring training.  My favorite band is Hall and Oates, and they had given me some of their CDs to hand out to the players.  I gave one to Randy Johnson.  He gave it back.  Not interested. [Laughter]

What’s a day on the road like?  What do players do to kill time before a night game?  Do they hang out in groups?  Pairs?

Most players don’t get up until nearly lunch time.  When you are working nights, it is tough to do much of anything before you have to head over to the stadium at 3:00 or 4:00 PM.  Guys usually get stuck on a favorite go-to lunch spot in each city; or maybe they meet someone after years of going to the same cities, and hang out with them; or their family comes to visit them.  Players do develop their own circles when it comes to pre-game or post-game hanging out, but there’s also a lot flying solo.

This might be a naive question, but to save costs, do teams assign roommates, or are players guaranteed their own hotel room?

Single rooms became part of the collective bargaining agreement back in 1990, but you could split the room cost for a single as far back as 1976.  An in 2011 they added spring training to the language.

How does a player find his first agent?  Do they seek you out or do you seek them out?

In college, I did a lot of leg-work.  I got advice from a former University of Pennsylvania alum who made it to the big leagues, and I soon came up with a standard interview process for prospective agents, which involved lots of phone calls and some lunches.  Many agents approached me, even cold-called my dorm room, so it was a stressful draft year in college.  Scott Boras flew across the country and gave me a very extensive and fascinating presentation.  I finally settled on Arn Tellem, and was very happy with his work and friendship.

Because we hear how hard it is for aspiring writers and actors to find agents willing to represent them, it’s weird imagining agents aggressively pursuing rookie athletes. 

Cal Ripken’s agent courted me.  He urged me to call Cal and ask about him.  He gave me Cal’s hotel room number, and I called.  Because I caught him off-guard, he wasn’t prepared for my call, even though his agent had given him a heads-up.  It was an awkward moment.  Cal grilled me like I was calling the White House. [laughter]  But once he let his guard down, he was very helpful.  His agent remained on my short list until the end, and years afterward, when I played against the Orioles at Camden Yards, he was very gracious.  Cal later signed spikes for me, plus, gave me a blurb for my book!

Beyond having the final say, do players have a direct role in negotiations?  Do you sit in on discussions with team officials?  What percentage do agents generally get?  Are there any players who don’t use agents, who prefer to do their own negotiating?

Rarely, if ever, does a player physically or otherwise sit in on the back-and-forth negotiating.  Mostly, the agent reports to you, and then you help him formulate some counter, but the agent is sailing that ship for the most part.  Their fee runs the gamut, maybe 3-5 percent, something like that.


Do players ever use regular lawyers instead of sports agents?

To save money and avoid a long-term commitment, I’ve heard of players hiring an attorney just to do the legal work and make counter offers.  But I think agents have an advantage in knowing the scale of salaries and how to figure out what is best from a large database.  I was happy with my agent’s work and value.  And even though they don’t charge you in the minor leagues….Bam! they start getting those big checks right after you arrive in the Majors.

Did the players know about (or strongly suspect) steroid use way before management or the media did? 

Most likely.  It seemed to be this dirty little secret.  No one could gauge the scope, but there was a lot of whispering.  In my personal experience, I never saw anyone inject themselves or be open about it, but there was a drug culture, and it seemed to marry well with this hyper-competitive environment.

There must be an enormous temptation for a player to improve his performance and extend his career via a “super vitamin.”

Everyone was worried about the next guy, or about losing his edge, so it was all about how to stay on top.  That was motivated by fear and insecurity as much as greed.  Drug use had been reported for a long time, but it wasn’t until “sacred” baseball records were smashed, and the drug epidemic in high schools was brought to light, that action reached the next level.  The problem was also hard to pin down because there was so much confusion about what was or was not “enhancement,” and what was or was not “legal,” be it from league policy or a law enforcement angle.

What’s the one thing players dislike in their teammates?  Kissing up to management?  Selfishness?  Faking injuries?  Temper tantrums?

All of the above.  Kissing up implies a spy in your midst.  Selfishness is part of the gig, but too much of it makes everyone question the player’s commitment to winning.  Fakers get whispered about quite a bit, usually resulting in secret nicknames being assigned.  As for tantrum or helmet-throwers, players just roll their eyes….as long as that helmet doesn’t hit someone.  I would say that overt selfishness is particularly bothersome, but again, it is in the eye of the beholder.

What is the most important thing that fans—even the serious, dedicated ones—don’t know or appreciate about major league baseball?

There is so much.  The nuances are gold.  The first thing that comes to mind is the raw challenge of performing every single day. It is relentless.  And even when you love something, it will bring you to your knees.  It will.  It’s not a maybe; it’s a definite.

Most fans focus only on the glamour and drama of the game.  We view players as guys with God-given skills who just go out there and play.  We don’t really take into account the “angst,” if that’s the proper word for it.

I think every player seeks a “recovery” of sorts, a way to purge this feeling, the need to get away from something you love, in order to “reset” yourself.  So it’s this weird circle of love and resentment.  During the season, the rhythm of the game doesn’t allow you to take a break, even for one day.

Despite how much you appreciate playing baseball for a living, you have moments where you have big questions.  You try and play through it.  It could be because your hamstring is falling off, or your wife is sick, or your swing is totally broken, or your confidence is shot. Or it could be because you are playing so well, it becomes expected, and you’re underappreciated.

And it could be because you realize a “family game” like baseball doesn’t really leave a lot of room for a player intent on having his own family.

I realize it must vary from player to player, but what’s the first sign that a player’s skills are in decline?

I think much of the decline is felt in the toll of having to play or be ready to play every single day.  Anyone can have a moment, but to be consistently on top of your opponent becomes exponentially more difficult with age.  So the quantifiable declines are more evident when you are not dealing in snapshots.

Can you give some examples?

All of a sudden a pitcher finds he can’t go deep into a game.  Or all of a sudden when a position player plays several games in a row, he finds his knee is barking.  Even in a player’s youth, he has days when his bat is slow, but as time goes on, this happens more often.  But to list the most obvious signs, I’d say they are:  bat speed, first-step quickness, velocity, and endurance.

What’s the one thing, more than anything else, that surprised you about becoming a professional baseball player?

I was surprised by the dichotomy.  On the one hand, players are happy and generally excited by being there.  I felt that most players really loved the game and loved playing it.  But on the other hand, I saw a lot of personal grief.  Personal problems, marriages on the rocks, struggles reconciling the selfish way you must be in order to work within a relentlessly unforgiving system.

Was this something you saw immediately or something you gradually became aware of during your nine seasons?

I recall standing in left-field with the Cubs (we were playing the Phillies), and looking around at my teammates.  For a split-second I considered their personal lives.  I thought, Wow, there are a lot of problems here, even with everyone making a million dollars or more.  Sandberg, Sosa, Grace….no one was exempt.  So many players, even the elite ones, faced so many challenges trying to balance their personal relationships with the game.  I didn’t expect that to show up in such indelible colors, or to become aware of it so quickly.

I’m sure you recall your first major league hit.  Who was the pitcher, what was the pitch, and how did it feel?

Terry Mulholland, in my second game against my childhood favorite team, the Phillies, at Veterans Stadium, no less.  It was euphoric.  Fastball up and in, trying to tie me up inside.  I got my first RBI on that hit, too.  It was a feeling of relief mixed with awe, mixed with a certain confidence that comes with being allowed into an elite club.

David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”).  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com