Yesterday, John Perricone at Only Baseball Matters conveyed his dismay concerning the treatment Barry Bonds has recieved from both the media and the public over the years. While I think Bonds has not helped himself as far as his image is concerned, a lot of the criticism he has drawn suggests racism’s pervasivness is alive and well. What particularly caught my attention was his analogy to Don Mattingly, a local favorite (who many argue is overrated); one the great players of the Larry Bird 80′s. It struck me as poignant because Mattingly enjoyed his greatest years with a player who is more than a little bit like Bonds in Rickey Henderson.
Henderson didn’t last much longer in New York than Reggie Jackson did; he didn’t make the same kind of impact, though he was a better all-around player. Mattingly, of course was the most popular Yankee since Mickey Mantle. I can only imagine the bemusement a young baseball fan will be greeted with 30 years down the road when he looks at the books to compare Mattingly with Henderson. “How is Mattingly even in the discussion?” he might say. But those of us (mostly white) old-timers who grew up in New York during the 80′s will most likely stick to our guns, arguing that Donnie Baseball had more “heart” and “grit” and all those other wonderful intagibles, than Rickey Henderson ever dreamed of possessing. Numbers are overrated we may say. But the real issue is how deep our perceptions run.
The issue of perception and racial stereotypes is thorny and complicated, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. But it’s clear to me that a black player like Henderson didn’t recieve the kind of praise or adulation that seemingly fell into Mattingly’s lap. I don’t mean to suggest that Mattingly was a phony, or that he didn’t deserve the attention. But how many Yankee fans or members of the press for that matter, pulled for the young Mattingly over Dave Winfield in 1984 when they battled it out for the batting title simply because he was white?
It should come as no suprise then that Henderson also runs a close second to Bonds as the most under-appreciated great player of his time.
Last night I did some rummaging around in my baseball library and pulled out “Wait Till Next Year”, a book about the 1987 sporting scene in New York written by columnist Mike Lupica and screenwriter William Goldman. (Bantam Books, 1988.) This portion, written by Lupica, may be of interest, John:
‘In New York, it has been historically more useful to be a white star than a black star; the opportunities for endorsements and commercials and billboards and all the rest that comes with being a celeb are more readily available to you. With the Mets, Gary Carter and Ron Darling were infinitely more appealing to Madison Avenue than Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, even before Gooden’s difficulty getting the passing grade on the urine test.
This sort of racism is not specific to New York, or baseball; it is part of professional sports now. [Wasn't it always?] There was just more conversation about it around the Yankees in early 1987 because [Rickey] Henderson was having such an electrifying start, the Yankees were in first place, the Mets were in trouble, and Henderson still wasn’t the toast of the town. A lot of people thought it was a combination of the normal racism of sports, and perception—the way players were presented to the world in the newspapers. Henderson had the image of being cocky. Lenny Dykstra, the white center fielder for the Mets, strutted and swaggered just as much at Shea Stadium as Henderson did at Yankee Stadium. But Dykstra, who had traded mightily on the Mets’ World Series championship during the off-season, had a reputation as being tough.
Henderson was a hot dog.
Dykstra was his nickname: “Nails.”
It was a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.
Henderson, the black man, was cocky.
Dykstra, the white man, was tough.
Henderson had an image problem. Dykstra didn’t. That day at Yankee Stadium, the crowd at kept cheering after Mattingly’s grand slam, wanting Mattingly to come out and take a curtain call. Mattingly, a shy man who thinks curtain calls are silly displays, didn’t want to go. Henderson, laughing, ran up the dugout steps, waved, got Mattingly’s cheer.
In the clubhouse, Willie Randolph said, “It’s the only way Rickey can get one.”
And there was more than racism going on.’
Here is where Henderson bears an even stronger resemblance to Bonds:
‘Henderson simply refused to sell himself to the writers; he simply was not one of the kings of clubhouse schmooze. He would not, or could not, make himself available to writers before games. Rickey had his own way of doing things, and his reluctance to promote himself in any way just seemed to fit into the tapestry of being Rickey. He was a game player. He did not enjoy the running and drills of spring training; did not like rules of any kind; he would hide in a corner of the dugout in Fort Lauderdale when the Yankees ran laps early in spring training, then jump out when [then manager, Lou] Pinella and the coaches weren’t looking, join his mates for the final lap. He did not like getting to the ball park any earlier than he had to; it was obvious to teammates and writers covering the team that he had terrible work habits. The slightest injury sent him to the bench; it was a problem that would become more and more acute for Henderson, and his team, and his image, and Yankee fans. [The irony for Henderson, is that he ended up with the career record for stolen bases and runs scored, but never shed the image as a player who loafed it.]
And there was “Don’t need no press now, man.”
The writers had never forgotten those first words Henderson spoke in the Yankee clubhouse, in April of 1985. Henderson had injured an ankle in Florida, had needed extra time to recuperate, and the regular season had started without him. When he did show up, the writers were waiting for him.
Henderson shooed them away from his locker, saying, “Don’t need no press now, man.”
He hadn’t gotten a lot of press since…
One day a writer said to Dave Winfield, “Why isn’t Rickey bigger around here than he is?”
And Winfield, voice dripping with sarcasm, said, “You mean like I am?”
Claudell Washington was more vocal and belligerent about the issue, especially at the end of May , when Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons would create a national sensation with some remarks about Larry Bird, and the fact that he might not be as big a star as he was if he wasn’t white. Thomas, when given the chance to explain himself by columnist Ira Berkow in the Times, said, “Magic (Johnson) and Michael Jordan and me, we’re playing on God-given talent, like we’re animals, lions and tigers who run wild in the jungle, while Larry’s success is due to intelligence and hard work.”…
Washington: “You think Rickey Henderson doesn’t understand what we’re talking about with this whole black-white deal? You think he doesn’t know? That man Rickey is a legend. He should be on every billboard in town, on every commercial. Rickey Henderson is the best.’ (pp.181-83)
I don’t think Don Mattingly was any less sincere in his approach to the game and his talents than Henderson was to his, it’s just that Mattingly was the personification of what Curt Flood once labled as “that paragon of nineteenth-century Integrity—the Hungry Ball Player.” To be a bit more disparaging, I should say, “The Hungry White Ball Player”. The humble, over-achiever. Flood added, “To acquire a public reputation as a ‘hustler’—a good competitor—is usually a matter of posture or personality…Slowness of foot also helps, requiring the player to fling himself to the turf in vain efforts to catch balls that more gifted athletes might have handled while remaining unruffled and erect.” (From “The Way It Is” by Flood with Richard Carter. Trident Press, 1971. pp.51 + 59.) Reading Flood’s observation I couldn’t help but think how nicely it applied to David Eckstein and Garret Anderson this post season. Which player recieved more press, what kind of press what it, and who is truly the better player?
Cynicism aside, Mattingly was a grinder of the highest order, one who led by example. One of the reasons for his popularity was certainly his race; it is why Mattingly was lauded for his dedication, and perspiration, while Winfield was derided as a disapointment at best, and at worst, a choke artist.
The truth is Mattingly was praised for developing skills which overcame his lesser natural talent, while Bonds and Henderson were scorned for neglecting their superior skills and natural gifts. Or at least taking them for granted. Mattingly was the thinking man’s player; Rickey and Bonds are showboats. I think the fact that Bonds was a rich kid, not to mention a black one, didn’t help endear any of the great white public to him either. And John is correct, Bonds has never played the “Golly gee” card, or even the “Baseball been berry, berry good to me” one that Sammy Sosa has shrewdly employed so succesfully.
Where Bonds loses me is when he complains about not being liked as much as Jordan, Russell, Jabbar and Gretsky. Or respected. The two words are very different to me. If you want to be liked, you have to be a likable guy, or go out of your way to create a likable persona. Barry has always had a say in this, no matter what scars he accrued watching the media’s treatment of his father as a kid. Bonds has made a choice, and he’s had to live with the consequences. He’s chosen to be true to himself, and that has apparently precluded him from using the media to his advantage. His grudges, real or imagined are too great to overcome.
But I don’t think Bonds really cares about being liked. I sure don’t know how well liked Kareem was during his heyday. Respect, that’s another story. It’s seems to me that
Bonds is as respected as a player can be, between the lines. If not by the media and the public than at least by his peers. Feared is another word that comes to mind. But it is true that he isn’t admired, or revered in a way that say, Cal Ripken is. Race certainly has something to do with this. I don’t want to take Bonds off the hook totally, because he’s accountable as well, but Bonds was never interested in selling himself to White America like Michael Jordan has.
I never thought of comparing Bonds and Mattingly, but it’s interesting to think about, simply from a practical approach. They had such different styles. They were such different hitters. I found a good bit from Tom Boswell in his book “Heart of the Order” (Penguin, 1989) that pertains to this difference:
‘For historical reference, the Musial analogy works [with Mattingly]. Left-handed hitter. Eccentric closed and coiled stance. Sprays the ball. Tons of doubles. Not too many walks. Hard to strike out.
“He doesn’t look like Musial, but he hits like him,” says Orioles manager Earl Weaver. “Musial was the best at adjusting once the ball left the pitcher’s hand. He’d hit the pitcher’s pitch. Williams was the best at making them throw his pitch. He didn’t believe in adjusting. If it wasn’t what he wanted, he knew enough to walk to first base. That’s why he hit .406.
Once every coupla games, a Musial or Mattingly is going to adjust and put that tough pitch in play instead of walking and you’re going to get some extra outs. But he’s also going to drive you crazy by popping a perfect fastball on the fists down the left-field line for a double.” (p.68)
You could say the same thing about our Vlad Guerrero today.
Here is one last bit, again from Curt Flood, who once approached Mr. Wunnerful for some hitting advice.
‘Stan Musial also helped—mainly by working as hard as he did on his own perfect swing. If this immortal felt the need for frequent extra practice, how could I hope to prosper on less effort? He was an awesome sight in the batting cage, sweat pouring, brows knit in concentration, telling the pitcher what to throw next, hammering twenty or thirty balls to the fences and beyond—polishing, polishing, polishing.
I once plucked at his sleeve for advice. I had become overanxious about the curve ball and was swinging at it too soon. When balls are being fired toward your head at ninety or a hundred miles an house, there is no time for deliberation. I mean, you do not just decide to delay your bat in case the pitch turns out to be a curve. Proper timing is an end product of a properly balanced stance, a properly hinged swing and, of course, athletic reflexes. I asked Musial if he could tell me how to adjust my swing. He thought about it for a while and then confided with total sincerity, “Well, you wait for a strike. Then you knock the shit out of it.” I might as well have asked a nightingale how to trill.” (pp.63-4)
Vlad G of course takes it to another level. He doesn’t concern himself with balls and strikes. I’m not sure what game he’s playing inside his own head, but he sure does know how to knock the shit of the ball.