“People forget we’re human”…an essay about pro athletes
If we don’t know about it, we pretend it doesn’t matter…
As I’ve pointed out on many occasions and no doubt will again, most press conferences with athletes and coaches are pretty much worthless because unless they get really pissed off, nobody in their right mind is going to say anything controversial or overly revealing with a microphone and camera in their face, so we have reporters asking ballplayers what it felt like to hit a home run in the World Series and ballplayers revealing that it felt pretty damn good.
Geez, really glad the network flew some reporter across the country and put him and/or her up in a hotel and got him and/or her a press pass and put him and/or her on the field so they could ask players and coaches to “take me through that” or “what were you thinking” or “what does it say about this team that they (fill-in-the-blank)” which gives the players and coaches yet another chance to spout some clichés we’ve all heard a thousand times before.
I was once asked to interview a player who I talked to all the time, but this time I was doing it for a pregame show and at the last second they handed me a microphone and the player looked down at it like I was holding a pissed-off King Cobra and said:
“This changes everything.”
And he was right.
The fact that it was being recorded meant he had to be careful about what he said and how he said it. That being the case, if a reporter wants to hear anything real and/or revealing you need to get the players or coaches in a one-on-one conversation with no microphones or cameras in the immediate vicinity and even then they won’t say jack shit unless they trust you.
And how does a reporter get players and coaches to trust him and/or her?
(OK, the pronoun situation in our overly-politically-correct society is currently screwed up, so some guy and/or girl needs to come up with some new ones and let me know when he and/or she has all that worked out.)
A reporter gains trust when he and/or she doesn’t reveal absolutely everything they know or have heard and that calls for some judgment in deciding what to use and what to leave out and I’ll tell you a story and you can decide if I screwed up or did the right thing.
The names have been omitted to protect the guilty.
The pissed-off player
A kid gets called up from the minors and things don’t go well and before a game he decides to sit next to me on the bench and goes off on the team, the fans and the city for their lack of support and I’m sitting there thinking he shouldn’t be saying any of this to a reporter.
So now I’ve got this story and I can write it and it will be a big deal for a couple days and will help ruin this kid’s life and after that, every player in the clubhouse will know they can’t trust me because if I hear anything controversial I’m going to run back to the newspaper and spill my guts like the fat kid who wants to be part of the gang and then runs home and tells his mom that Bobby stole one of dad’s cigarettes.
In the interest of my long-term relationship with the players and because I didn’t want to ruin this kid’s life for a story that would be over in two days and ultimately damage both me and him, I let the story go. (Also, a player who was performing poorly being unhappy didn’t strike me as big news.)
The next day I walked into the clubhouse and he saw me and I’m guessing he thought about it overnight and knew he screwed up because he asked:
“Are you going to use any of that?”
“Nah, you were just blowing off steam.”
When I said that he looked like a guy who just got the results a paternity test that revealed he was not the father of that stripper’s child.
After that, the player would tell me pretty much anything I wanted to know because he now trusted me, so in the end I got way more information than I would have if I screwed him over and that kind of thing gets around and pretty soon most of the players started to talk openly with me.
Now here are some of the stories I heard about athletes and their human problems and don’t think they’re all from the Kansas City Royals because they’re not.
The pot smoker
So a team is thinking of signing of starting pitcher, but then find out he’s a pot smoker (a lot of professional athletes use marijuana to come down after games and help them get to sleep) and they already have one starting pitcher who smokes weed and another one on the fence and adding another pot smoker to the staff means Cheech & Chong might tip the fence-sitter over the edge and then 3/5ths of their starting rotation would be smoking pot and the team’s not sure that’s a good idea so they pass on the pot-smoking pitcher.
Another team is considering signing another free agent, but then find out he’s about to get a divorce and odds are he’s going to be distracted during the coming season so they pass on him and sure enough, his numbers take a dip that year.
The recalcitrant wife
One more…a team wants to sign a free agent so they bring him in and do everything they can to impress him like giving him a jersey with his name on it and putting his picture on the stadium scoreboard and maybe a fireworks show (and I only made up one of those examples) and after all that the guy doesn’t sign because his wife doesn’t want to move to that city.
Which brings us to an obvious point.
Players are human and have human problems
When I first started covering baseball and a player said, “People forget we’re human” I thought they meant that players make mistakes – and that’s part of it – but eventually I came to understand they also meant; we have wives and kids and worry about neighborhoods and schools and commutes to work and all that regular stuff everybody else has to deal with.
Which, when you think about it seems pretty obvious, but you don’t hear sports reporters talk about that stuff because then we’d have to admit we don’t know how those things are affecting an athlete.
Think about it; if a player is considering signing with a new team and going to a completely different city, you don’t think he’s going to talk to his wife about that? You don’t think she’s going to have an opinion?
But you never hear some sports-talk radio show host say:
“Bobby Baseball would be a great fit for the team, but his wife doesn’t think much of the school system.”
And since we don’t know about all that private stuff like pot smoking and divorces and wives who don’t want to move to a brand new city and leave all her friends behind and have to find a new house and new school for the kids, we pretend it doesn’t matter and hope nobody brings it up.
One of the complaints players have about analytics is if the number guys don’t know how to measure something, they ignore it and pretend it doesn’t matter and sports reporters often do the same thing.
So when Patrick Mahomes or any other athlete scuffles on the field, remember there’s a lot of off-the-field stuff you don’t know anything about, which may or may not have anything to do with what’s happening during game, but the point is this:
You. Don’t. Know.
And anyone who acts like he and/or she does, is full of it.
Because players are human.