Baseball isn't much organized around the principle of sacrifice.
It's got the bunt, and that's about it. The hit-and-run, maybe.
Everything else is kind of every man for himself, victory being
an accidental consequence of nine guys trying to make their
incentive clauses. Really, when you think about it, no team
sport rewards selfish behavior as magnificently as baseball
does. That's just the way the game is.
So it's not necessarily wicked on our part to single out selfish
players, who are almost always sought on the open market in
inverse proportion to their instinct for charity. (We don't
intend to name them; why demean someone else just to make our
story a little more attention-getting?) Nor is it especially
hypocritical (a little, maybe) for us to take a past SI
Sportsman of the Year (let's say a certain Baltimore Oriole) and
make him the poster boy for self-involvement. Baseball is very
tolerant of the miserly personality. Encouraging, actually. More
than that, dependent. Maybe even insistent.
True story, more or less: A famous outfielder was on deck,
bottom of the ninth, the score 0-0 in a game a few years ago.
His teammate swung successfully, driving in the winning run. The
outfielder, deprived of a very useful stat, was overheard in the
shower: "Why does this always happen to me?"
Selfish? You bet. But Bobby Bonilla's (Oops! We let that name
out, didn't we? We'll be more careful from here on)
self-absorption is the very thing that produces good things on
the field. If baseball (or its fans) really valued the generous
spirits of the game, some kamikaze bunter would be making the
$5.9 million that Bonilla, now a third baseman for the Marlins,
now earns. It would be a game of ground balls, guys taking
2-and-0 pitches, players gracefully leaving the game for pinch
runners. It would be pretty boring, which isn't something
baseball can afford to be.
Let's face it, teamwork is the conceit of sports columnists
whose A story has just fallen through. Mike Piazza (he has been
named in other sources; this one isn't on us) is no less a team
player--whatever that means in baseball--for crabbing to the
press that the Los Angeles Dodgers have failed to renegotiate,
with any sincerity, his already huge contract. Admittedly, the
fact that he piped up on Opening Day, after L.A. had lost,
didn't strike the right collegial note. But do you think new
owner Rupert Murdoch, who had to ask somebody what a double play
was at the Dodgers' home opener, cares that Piazza might be
self-obsessed? Murdoch? Unless Murdoch also has to ask what the
Hall of Fame is, which is where Piazza is headed, he will surely
give Piazza the $100 million he wants and thus secure his own
On the subject of Piazza, who got slammed by former teammate
Brett Butler for being selfish even before the season began, we
have further observations. Yes, Piazza probably is selfish. Los
Angeles pitchers pray he gets his hits early in the game so
he'll remain focused behind the plate. But isn't it also
somewhat in their interest that he get his hits (201 last
season, 40 of them home runs)? Do you think his two grand slams
in two days earlier this month might have helped Dodgers
pitchers stay focused? Now, as far as his contract demands, this
isn't considered selfish behavior anymore but merely acceptable
posturing among 1990s athletes. Who doesn't want a piece of the
pie that Murdoch has suddenly revalued at $311 million?
Final thought: What in the world was Butler doing blasting
Piazza? Butler was a guy, cancer comeback and all, who was
considered one of the most selfish players of recent years. It
might be horrible to say it (we're the guys to do it, though),
but didn't he insist on playing out his little storybook season
in 1997 even when it was obvious he could no longer help L.A.?
That leads us to another angle: There's good selfish and there's
bad selfish, and it's not always easy to tell them apart. We can
slip in that observation about Butler hurting the Dodgers, but
wasn't he, on the other hand, performing the game's most
selfless act--playing hurt? We complain about the guys who don't
always want to do battle (more on those later) and then train
our guns on the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. (you would have guessed
him anyway) for pursuing his consecutive-game streak when
Baltimore's goals might have been--probably were--compromised by
Can we really have it both ways? We can--we're sportswriters.
But it can be a tough call. Ripken makes it especially
difficult. His chase for Lou Gehrig's record was definitely more
ego-driven than it was performance-related toward the end, in
1995, but wasn't his constancy justly celebrated as the American
work ethic at its finest? Still, wasn't he also kind of selfish?
Then again, just after the columnists called for him to grab
pine in the season after the record was finally his, didn't he
explode in the playoffs?
The wonder of baseball is that it accommodates the me-first
personality while simultaneously glorifying team play. The game
is almost entirely the accretion of selfish acts, one after
another. "This isn't a sport where Magic Johnson lobs the ball
toward the rim so James Worthy can dunk it," says Joe Morgan,
the Hall of Fame second baseman who was a cog in Cincinnati's
Big Red Machine of the 1970s. "This is a sport where it's you
against the pitcher, you against the ground ball. If you go and
get a base hit for yourself, you're helping the team."
That's why Morgan can illustrate the contradictions of the game
using just one player--Pete Rose. Rose seems to stand out in
everyone's mind as a selfish player, mostly because of his
careful maintenance of hitting streaks, his obsessive awareness
of offensive numbers. Rose didn't let many hitting records sneak
up on him; for years he knew to the hit where he stood versus Ty
Cobb. Yet Morgan regards Rose as the ultimate team player. "He
played every game like it was the seventh game of the World
Series," Morgan says of his former teammate. "If I were choosing
a team today, any day, Pete Rose would be on it."
Rose's self-immersion is characteristic of almost anyone who
succeeds on the highest levels of baseball. Stardom isn't
tolerant of self-doubt. In fact, a certain isolation of spirit
is required. How else could a guy knuckle down and retire the
side? True story, more or less: When New York Giants lefthander
Don Liddle, brought in to pitch to the Cleveland Indians' Vic
Wertz in the 1954 World Series, escaped calamity thanks to
Willie Mays's legendary over-the-shoulder catch, he came back to
the dugout thumping his glove smugly and said, "Well, I got my
The other thing about baseball that leads to self-centeredness
is its reliance on numbers for rewarding or even acknowledging
effort. It was always thus--baseball long ago devised "formulas"
for what stats were worth how much--but the effect of big money
(How big? The contract Piazza wants exceeds the Dodgers' payroll
of 10 years ago, when they last won a World Series) has
exaggerated this relationship. "They don't pay you for moving
guys over," says San Francisco Giants outfielder Stan Javier,
who batted .286 with eight home runs last season. "They pay you
on numbers." Javier says he'd rather hit .250 and win than .300
and lose, which is a great attitude. Then again, he made $1.1
million last season, one sixth of the slugging Bonilla's salary.
Wonder what Javier's wife thinks about that great attitude.
Of course, it doesn't take an idiot, or even a general manager,
to figure out that your team is more likely to win if you have
more .300 hitters than .250 batters. And if .300 hitters are
characterized by their alarming self-interest, well, small price
to pay. "I've been on four teams and can think of about a dozen
selfish players," says second baseman Jeff Kent, one of Javier's
teammates. "But maybe their preoccupation with stats isn't all
bad. Maybe that's how they get motivated. Who am I to judge?"
Jack Clark did. When he played for the San Diego Padres near the
end of his career, in 1989 and '90, he got into a war of wills
with Tony Gwynn, one of the best hitters in baseball history,
over Gwynn's selfishness. "You watch him," Clark said at the
time. "He's happy if he gets his three or four hits and we lose,
and he's pissed off if he doesn't get any hits and we win."
Gwynn (we had to name him; Clark put him out there) also had a
habit, according to former teammates, of hitting away when the
steal sign was on, finding the open hole and depriving his
teammate of a stolen base. Also, he might bunt from time to time
to protect his average. But was it fair, or even sane, for Clark
to say, "The Padres will never win as long as Gwynn is on that
team." If you wanted to build a World Series team (something San
Diego wasn't always interested in building, by the way),
wouldn't you start with a career .339 hitter? Bottom line, Clark
was off-loaded, the Padres eventually went to the playoffs, and
Gwynn will be waiting at Cooperstown to show Piazza around.
Still, there's no question that the pursuit of stats, whether
it's consecutive games or home runs, can produce some
monumentally poor behavior. Here's a story from last year's
Dodgers that didn't involve Piazza or Butler (but did involve
Piazza's former housemate): According to a player who observed
the incident, manager Bill Russell told his first baseman that,
L.A. having been eliminated from postseason contention, he was
going to bench him in favor of a rookie during the season-ending
series in Denver. The first baseman, who likes his home runs--he
had 31 last year--exploded. "Like hell you are," he told
Russell. "You've been running my ass into the ground all year,
and now you want to sit me? At Coors Field? I'm not doing it."
And he didn't.
That's selfish, of course, but not particularly destructive,
except to the extent that young Paul Konerko was slowed in his
advancement upon (we're doing it again, aren't we?) Eric
Karros's job. More damning are the extremes to which players
will go to achieve salary incentives that are built into their
contracts. Everyone (but Clark) can forgive an egomaniac, but
it's far tougher to excuse greed when it comes at the expense of
the team. So what about that Milwaukee Brewers righthander who
last year took himself out of a no-hitter with a stiff shoulder,
hustled to the West Coast for a shot from an orthopedic
specialist, made one more start and then shut himself down for
the rest of the year by undergoing arthroscopic surgery? Was he
a tough guy? Or does the fact that his final desperate start
kicked in a $2 million incentive clause argue that he was
selfish? Only Ben McDonald (damn!) knows.
Most selfish behavior is mere run-of-the-mill, garden-variety
stuff, and baseball players know it when they see it. Here's
righthander Orel Hershiser, now with the Giants, on the subject:
"A selfish player is someone who goes for the RBI when he should
be trying to move runners over, or steals in a nonstealing
situation to pad his stats, or gives up a leadoff triple with a
four-run lead and then goes for strikeouts instead of giving up
a run for an out. He's also the guy who lets his offense affect
his defense and vice versa."
In other words, he's probably the highest-paid player on the
team. There's a guy in Chicago who signed a five-year, $45
million contract and then got blasted by his manager for
stealing when the sign was off. But the player (oh, he could be
Sammy Sosa) has to be confused by the criticism. Why did they
agree to pay him $45 million in the first place? Because he'd
piled up the numbers, that's why. There are no numbers for team
players in baseball.
Hershiser thinks there ought to be. "There's a way to bring
value to a team player, but to save money management refuses to
do it," he says. "That's why holds for relievers are rejected.
You could emphasize some stats to make it more of a team game.
But if they brought out those stats, it would change the salary
And don't the players know all about salary structure. Can you
blame them for looking out for themselves, once they realized
nobody else would? You have to understand, management is
complicit in the players' selfishness. "When I played," says
Giants manager Dusty Baker, who was a big leaguer with four
teams from 1968 through '86, "the front office used to tell us,
'If you win, you all will get paid.'" It was true that World
Series money was once a significant proportion of a player's
salary. These days, that check is a per diem. "Now, if you win,"
says Baker, "some get paid, and some get traded to meet a
budget." (But selfish owners are another story.)
So a guy like Rickey Henderson late in the 1995 season raises
his average to .300 and sits out seven of the last eight games.
It wasn't even to protect a batting title, which would have been
a cheesy enough thing to do, but to stay at .300. Or Frank
Thomas, who has been criticized by former teammates for
sacrificing run production in order to keep up his batting
average. Or Danny Tartabull, the anti-Ripken, who wouldn't play
with so much as a hangnail.
By the way, did we just name some selfish players? We didn't
mean to. Swear.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY WARD SUTTON [Drawing of baseball player with cap and jersey reading "me"]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY WARD SUTTON [Drawing of Cal Ripken being tugged away from base by rope]
CAL RIPKEN's constancy was justly celebrated. Still, wasn't he
kind of selfish?