From the moment the strike ended last March, baseball, like a
bewildered third base coach, began giving mixed signals. As one
headline declared that the game was determined to renew the
fans' affections, another trumpeted the latest episode of a
player acting like a jerk: "The Yankee Flipper," Jack McDowell,
gives the bird to Bronx-cheering fans in New York; Chuck
Knoblauch of the Twins manhandles a smart-aleck teen in a
Seattle hotel lobby; and Chili con carnage is narrowly averted
in Milwaukee, where California's Chili Davis goes after a
Brewers fan in the stands. And to further confuse the issue,
each of these players is among baseball's best (if not
brightest), every one of them an All-Star.
This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue
Indeed, Barry Bonds of the Giants and Albert Belle of the
Indians may be the biggest talents in their respective leagues.
The former famously petitioned to halve his child-support
payments during the baseball strike, and the latter was paid a
handsome sum to endorse an eponymous chocolate bar, then refused
to hand out candy on Halloween. When his house received a
retaliatory egging that night, Belle chased down the
trick-or-treaters in his Ford Explorer.
Belle's general boorishness almost certainly cost him the
American League's Most Valuable Player award, which was given
instead to Boston's Mo Vaughn, a nicer guy with lesser numbers.
And voting for that award was completed before the World Series,
in which Belle, unprovoked, verbally assaulted a female reporter
whom he did not know, mistaking her for another female reporter
whom he did not know. In the other dugout, Atlanta rightfielder
David Justice used his Fall Classic forum to rip Braves fans for
not being supportive enough--this, of course, coming after the
baseball strike, which was itself Jerkapalooza, the single
biggest upwelling of unbecoming behavior in baseball history.
Mercifully, the '95 season ended the very day that Justice's
rebuke was reported in Atlanta's newspapers, when the Braves
polished off Cleveland fair and square in the World Series. Or
did they? Why had Cleveland fared so poorly in the Series? "It,
apparently, was too much media," the Associated Press explained
in a January dispatch. "At a meeting two weeks ago with major
league baseball officials, the Indians contended that the crush
of reporters disrupted their pregame workouts...."
Even ignoring the rich ironies in that report--that for four
decades the Tribe could not draw flies to its games or that the
very idea of Cleveland's being in the playoffs spawned not one
but two slapstick motion pictures--the Indians' grievance
smacked of superhuman sore-losership. After all, hadn't Atlanta
endured the same media crush? Perhaps recognizing this,
Cleveland assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd was later quoted
as saying, "We don't want this in any way perceived as an alibi
or an excuse." Though that is precisely what it sounded like.
So why did the Tribe bring it up in the first place? The answer
starts with j and ends with k and makes an er sound in the
middle. Does baseball have more jerks than the other major
sports, or does it only seem that way? And isn't this a case in
which perception is at least as damaging as reality?
It depends on whom you ask. Indians fans love their truculent
Tribe, which has already sold out every home game this season.
And the rest of baseball? "We are clearly in the midst of a
solid recovery," acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig claims,
and he can cite a new five-year, $1.7 billion television
contract; an exciting postseason; and the cult of Cal Ripken Jr.
as signs that baseball has been given a green light again by its
But a more fundamental problem remains. "Baseball has done a
poor job, as have the clubs, of reminding players of their
responsibility to the fans," says Baltimore general manager Pat
"When you sign the contract, there's a lot more to it than
playing baseball," says Tony Gwynn, outfielder with the Padres.
"There's a lot more responsibility when you make the money that
we make. That's not written anywhere; it's a given."
But too many of Gwynn's peers don't recognize that. "Let's face
it, fans can't stand baseball people anymore," said Sparky
Anderson just after retiring as Detroit Tigers manager at the
end of last season. "It's not like it used to be when the
ballplayers were considered heroes. Now ballplayers are looked
at as bad guys."
A jerk may be judged by the pettiness of his complaints. Tony
Fernandez threatened to quit the Cincinnati Reds two years ago
because he was playing third base instead of shortstop. "If I
gave him a $10 bill," then-Reds manager Davey Johnson said of
squeaky-wheel Fernandez, "he'd come into my office a few minutes
later saying he wants a five and five ones instead." If author
Robert Hughes is right and America is indeed a "culture of
complaint," then baseball is its logical national pastime.
The Yankees' McDowell registered his complaint with a single
digit, then--holding a finger aloft to test the free-agent
winds--Black Jack signed, inevitably, with Cleveland over the
winter. Likewise, pitcher Kevin Brown left the Orioles for the
Marlins about a year after giving a figurative finger to his
colleagues at a players' meeting during the strike. According to
someone who was there, Brown punctuated one of his points during
a heated argument by saying, "Look, I have the highest IQ in
baseball." To which a player in the back of the room replied,
"You also have the highest ERA."
In other words, jerks enjoy a frictional relationship not merely
with fans and the press but with teammates and opponents as well.
The union meeting has proved to be a wonderful arena for
jerkiness, as when Detroit's Lou Whitaker arrived for one such
gathering in his modest white stretch limousine. Once, while his
Rangers teammates held a union meeting in the clubhouse, Juan
Gonzalez remained at his locker, chatting with buddies on his
cellular phone. Yet during the strike nearly every player
portrayed himself as Lech Walesa leading Solidarnosc.
Which brings us to another hallmark of the breed: posturing.
So-called team player Brett Butler last season refused to
acknowledge a replacement player called up to the Dodgers. Or
consider the reverse: Cleveland's Eddie Murray, invariably sour
in public, apparently becomes personal-growth guru Dr. Leo
Buscaglia when he's counseling his teammates in the privacy of
the clubhouse. Indeed, Murray was singled out for praise in Cal
Ripken Jr.'s state-of-the-streak address, after which Ripken was
honored by an emissary from the opposing team: Chili Davis.
Everyone said that Ripken had single-handedly saved baseball.
But saved it from what? The implication is that he saved
baseball from itself.
If baseball players appear to be more difficult than their
brethren in other sports, the reasons are manifold--many having
to do with the game's singular schedule. No other season is as
long or as dense as baseball's. Players experience the raw
emotions of winning and losing almost every day for six months.
Their performances are evaluated every single day. And perhaps
worst of all, journalists have access to baseball players for
three hours before every game--and the press is not there (as it
once was) to spit shine the players' images. How would you like
a pen-wielding cynic awaiting your arrival at work each day to
ask tough questions about your job performance? It is why Belle
sees a crowd of reporters clustered at his locker and shouts,
"What is this, a f------ barbecue?" scattering scribes like so
But never mind us media swine, who get what is coming to us. The
endless baseball summer also thrusts players before the
nonmedia, upright-walking public month after month. This
increases the opportunities for, say, Vince Coleman to heave an
explosive into a crowd of autograph seekers. In this way,
baseball is a macrocosm of that Detroit hotel lobby in which a
man approached Belle and said, "I'm your biggest fan." To which
Belle replied, "I don't give a crap."
"Fans just want the opportunity to talk to you, to get close, to
feel involved," says Gwynn. "You have to prepare yourself for
that. But we all have bad days, and no matter what you do,
someone is going to think you're a jerk."
Anderson, who adamantly defends Belle--"He's a good friend of
mine, from a good family"--nevertheless cannot fathom where
things went so wrong with baseball's behavior. "How did it
happen?" he asks. "It just did. It's like a lot of things in
your life, where you look back after a number of years and say,
'How the hell did this happen?'"
"Unfortunately, when players get to a certain level they lose
sight of where they came from," says Gillick. "They have short
memories. When they make such huge sums of money they become
unaware of their responsibilities." Says Anderson, "The game
became so clouded with money that the little hello, the little
smile, the thank-you to someone who asks for your autograph, it
all got lost."
And though baseball had jerks long before it had money (Ty Cobb
springs immediately to mind), the astrodollars do reinforce some
players' notions that they are special citizens of this planet.
Baseball is nominally the national pastime, deemed essential
during World War II, and is still played before tens of
thousands of people every day for half the year. As a result,
"many players, I think, feel that they are simply essential to
the success of society," says one National League writer. "Hence
That attitude breeds out-of-touch behavior by some ballplayers
who are buoyed by their sceptered stature. And so Dave Winfield,
at a time when he was making millions from the Yankees, could,
while seated in a hotel restaurant, ask a passing writer if he
wouldn't mind picking up Winnie's breakfast check. For $4.63.
It is almost understandable: A man spends 20 years at a job in
which attendants are employed to pick up his underwear wherever
he chooses to shed it, and, yes, chances are he begins to feel
Winfield should have been better adjusted than most big
leaguers, not only because he went to college (Minnesota) but
also because he played Big Ten basketball while there. Most
major leaguers come to their fame instantly from the obscurity
of the minors or--in increasing numbers--from the equal
obscurity of college baseball. By contrast, the bulk of athletes
in the NBA and the NFL are exposed to the spotlight of press and
public long before they sign their first contract.
On top of that, the NBA has a program to indoctrinate rookies in
how to behave before the unwashed masses, to ease their
transition into the league. Compare this with a baseball rookie,
who, in a prank perpetrated by his teammates, has the street
clothes in his locker replaced by a clown costume or a dress on
getaway day, ensuring him public ridicule in two major airports.
All of which helps explain why basketball has Michael Jordan,
who weeps openly after winning the NBA Finals, and baseball has
Eddie Murray, who issues a written statement via team publicists
after getting a game-winning hit in the World Series. NBA
commissioner David Stern would not tolerate such behavior,
whereas baseball's commissioner is a team owner who has other
"Owners have been afraid to build up their players as stars and
good guys because they're afraid it's going to cost them in
arbitration," says Yankees pitcher David Cone.
"We've lost the family feeling that baseball used to have,"
notes Anderson. "I spent nine years in Cincinnati, and [G.M.]
Bob Howsam made that organization a family. You were treated
like family and were expected to treat others as well. Anything
less was just not tolerated." Owners know that the bottom line
in sports is the bottom line. As they become more cynical, the
game itself becomes more irrelevant. And when the game is
irrelevant, so are those qualities once associated with sports,
such as sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior.
"Today it's all about how much money you can put through the
cash register," says Anderson, offering a valedictory from his
Thousand Oaks, Calif., home. "If I hear one more time about how
many caps and jackets are being sold, I'm going to go crazy. Do
we sell caps or play baseball? We've become franchises that
exist to sell merchandise. Until both the owners and the players
give the game back to the fans--until the owners and the players
realize that they're just renting baseball from the fans--the
fans are going to stay cold.
"It'll still make money," says Sparky. "With the TV contracts
and the caps and the jackets, baseball will always make money.
But it will still be in trouble, too. Because it's no longer
about the game."
BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Who are baseball's worst offenders? We set out to rank the most
rank, to identify those major leaguers whose conduct has been
most counterproductive to the game's attempts to upgrade its
image. So we polled baseball writers from both leagues--
reporters who see the players day in and day out, on the field
and off. We asked that their selections be based more on a
player's relationship with fans and teammates than with the
media, though that too was considered. Here's the final tally: a
bottom 10 in which first is worst.
1 ALBERT BELLE, Indians An ornery cuss who cusses fans and
media alike, Belle was an overwhelming choice as No. 1. In 1991
he drilled a spectator in the chest with a baseball, and last
year was the first season in the last five that he was not
suspended by the league for some transgression.
2 BARRY BONDS, Giants Bonds was called self-centered and rude
by the majority of those polled. When one of his teammates was
asked, "What's the most amazing thing you've seen him do?" he
answered, "Well, once I saw him be halfway cordial to an
3 STEVE HOWE, Yankees Howe's humility-free treatment of both
fans and teammates hasn't exactly endeared him to anyone.
Baseball allowed his return from seven drug suspensions for this?
4 CHUCK CARR, Brewers His reputation as a disagreeable fellow
was best summed up by one writer this way: "The cockiest
mediocre player in the game."
5 KEVIN BROWN, Marlins Many of his teammates on the Orioles and
the Rangers thought him to be an exceptionally bleak influence
in the clubhouse. How will that play in the sunshine state?
6 LENNY DYKSTRA, Phillies Some teammates swear by him and his
feisty nature, but others find him arrogant, rude and crude. His
intimations that he would cross the picket line during last
year's strike did little to inspire warm feelings from his
7 WILL CLARK, Rangers Far more popular with fans than with
teammates, Clark seems ever willing to run to the manager with
suggestions on how to run the club and the clubhouse. One former
teammate refers to him as the Class Monitor.
8 EDDIE MURRAY, Indians Though he has been dismissive of the
media for years, Murray is often regarded as an inspiration in
the clubhouse. But our survey found that his teammates' feelings
about him are less than unanimous. One ex-player who shared a
locker room with Murray sized him up thusly: "Biggest jerk I
ever met in baseball."
9 DANNY JACKSON, Cardinals Too willing to blame his teammates
for his teams' blunders, Jackson was once asked whether it was
frustrating to go three months without a win--as he did with the
Cubs in 1992. His reply was that nobody would have noticed the
streak if the media hadn't pointed it out.
10 BIP ROBERTS, Royals Despite his considerable ability,
Roberts receives next to no respect from his peers. He was
considered such a negative influence in the Reds clubhouse in
'93 that the team sent him home with two months left in the
season while he was on the disabled list lest his attitude
corrupt the many young players on the roster.
MORE THAN A FEW GOOD MEN
If baseball is to succeed in its campaign to regain popularity
with fans, it will be players like these who lead the way. They
serve not as society's role models, but rather as model citizens
in the baseball community--with teammates, the media, the
public. These selections were based on a poll of baseball
writers from around the country, and the list of nominees, we're
happy to say, was long. Here are the top 10, ranked according to
how often they were cited.
1 TONY GWYNN, Padres A star who respects the game, its fans and
even its players, Gwynn endured with dignity the Padres' fire
sales and accepted less money than he could have made elsewhere
to remain in his beloved San Diego.
2 PAUL MOLITOR, Twins Not only does he say things like "Talking
to fans and answering questions from the media are part of the
job," but he also genuinely believes them. He actually
addresses team owners as "Mr.," as in "Mr. Selig" and "Mr.
3 MO VAUGHN, Red Sox Hyper-active in the community, Vaughn is
adored throughout Boston. When he won the American League MVP,
he held a press conference at a local children's center that he
helped to found.
4 DENNIS ECKERSLEY, Cardinals An example: After giving up
harrowing October homers to Kirk Gibson (in '88) and Roberto
Alomar (in '92), Eckersley abjectly accepted--no,
solicited--blame for the losses, displaying an admirable sense
5 JIM EISENREICH, Phillies A Tourette's syndrome sufferer and
spokesman, Eisenreich won baseball's first Tony Conigliaro
Award, for overcoming adversity through "spirit, determination
6 BARRY LARKIN, Reds Typical of his behavior: Larkin learned to
speak Spanish one winter in the minor leagues so that he might
better communicate with his Latin teammates.
7 LEE SMITH, Angels He shows the same good humor in good times
and bad. He is underappreciated as the alltime saves leader, but
instead of complaining, Smith jokes about it.
8 TOM GLAVINE, Braves "It's nice that you're recognized for
your accomplishments on the field, but the most important thing
is that people respect me and like me as a person," says
Glavine, who acts accordingly.
9 CARLOS BAERGA, Indians His love of the game is evident in the
exuberance with which he plays. More important, he was the
team's emotional epoxy after the deaths of Tim Crews and Steve
10 CAL RIPKEN JR., Orioles The day before breaking Lou Gehrig's
record, Ripken was on an elevator when a stranger gulped and
said, "Aren't you ...?" Before he could finish, Ripken stuck out
his hand and said, "Cal Ripken. Good to meet you. Can I sign an
autograph for you?"