Evolving veteran-rookie dynamic still a factor
Young players have changed over the years, but experienced players can show the way
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the Yankees' Spring Training clubhouse, the lockers housing the uniforms of the more veteran, more established players line the walls of the large room, with the guys assigned jersey numbers in the 70s, 80s and 90s setting up shop in the center.
It's an arrangement that does well to illustrate the generational divide that exists in every big league clubhouse. And sitting at his locker in one corner of the room, CC Sabathia smiles when he remembers what it was like to be one of the game's freshest faces.
"I didn't say very much," says Sabathia, recalling his early days with the Indians. "I didn't talk a lot. My whole rookie year, I pretty much lived in Ellis Burks' back pocket. Between him and Dave Burba, they taught me everything about being a big leaguer, being a professional."
Sabathia peers over to the center of the room and sees many hungry, unproven players in need of similar guidance. But in an honest moment, Sabathia freely admits he might not have much Burks- or Burba-like wisdom to pass down to today's youngsters.
"I think it's because you've got kids who play year-round baseball from the time they're nine years old," he says. "They have their own routines. It's a lot different than when I was coming up and I played three sports and was just an athlete. These guys are 19 years old, playing even more games than we are. So, what are you going to tell them? They've got more experience than I do!"
Sabathia's words would have made Crash Davis cringe. They wouldn't have had a home in the script for "Bull Durham," a movie that celebrates the veteran-teaches-rookie dynamic that has long been considered a backbone of professional baseball.
But CC's words, even if a bit exaggerated, do seem to mesh with the modern era, in which finely tuned specialization and increased prospect awareness have undoubtedly altered the atmosphere.
Jayson Werth agrees with Sabathia's sentiment, and one look around the Washington Nationals' clubhouse backs up the belief.
The Nats' No. 1 starter, Stephen Strasburg, began his professional career at the Double-A level, and only then because it made financial sense for the Nats to delay the start of his big league service clock. Their left fielder, Bryce Harper, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 and in the bigs by 19.
Granted, even uber-prospects like Strasburg and Harper might require a lesson in how much to tip the visiting clubbies or which road hotels have the best room service. And any player assimilating to the highest level gets the requisite reminders to respect the game and those who play it.
But nobody on the Nats was going to fundamentally tweak the way Strasburg and Harper go about their business on a day-to-day basis. Because to do so would be to mess with what made them such highly touted talents in the first place.
"I remember being in the Minor Leagues," says Werth, "and having to deal with Minor League managers and people that just want to stamp you and change the way you do things, and it can be very tough to get through. But these guys -- not that it's a bad thing -- the red carpet has been laid out for them. 'Here you go, here it is. It's yours for the taking.' They haven't been micromanaged, and they haven't gone through seven seasons in the Minor Leagues and the bus trips and the hard times. They've been given a golden opportunity. What they make of it is up to them."
To their credit, Strasburg and Harper didn't let the acclaim and attention that preceded their big league break-ins affect their willingness to learn and their ability to earn the respect of their teammates.
"I didn't want to come off as the cocky kid who thinks he has it all figured out," Strasburg says. "I wanted to come off as knowing my place, number one, and just being a rookie. I wanted to go through all the little things you have to put up with."
What happens, though, if a prominent young player marches to his own drum and doesn't have the instant success that Strasburg and Harper did?
Well, we saw exactly what happens in the case of Trevor Bauer and the D-backs.
The admittedly shy and cerebral Bauer didn't ingratiate himself with his teammates, and his unorthodox pregame preparation -- the long-tossing from foul pole to foul pole, the strange stretches, the full-throttle final warmup pitch -- only further distanced him.
Now, had Bauer's transition to the Major League stage been a seamless one, the lack of real relationships in the clubhouse would not have been an issue. But because Bauer struggled to the tune of a 6.06 ERA, his unique approach was labeled a distraction. Just 17 months after he was taken with the third overall pick in the Draft and signed to a four-year Major League contract with a $3.4 million bonus, Bauer was unceremoniously dealt to the Indians this winter.
"When you get a guy like that, and he thinks he's got everything figured out," D-backs catcher Miguel Montero told ArizonaSports.com earlier this spring, "it's just tough to commence and try to get on the same page with you."
So what's the best way to deal with a young player like Bauer, who considers his quirks to be such a vital key to his success?
Veteran infielder Mark DeRosa has an idea.
"I think guys got to get to know him," DeRosa says. "Play a round of golf with him, take him to dinner, get to know him on a personal level. And then maybe you're in a position to say some things to him. I don't think you can necessarily remove yourself from the situation and then expect him to conform to everyone else's rules. I think there has to be a give and take, so that if you need to tell him, 'Hey man, that stuff's not flying here,' if he knows it's coming from a good place, it might resonate with him a little more."
DeRosa says this while sitting at his locker in the Blue Jays clubhouse, and it's no accident that his locker is next to that of Brett Lawrie, the high-energy 23-year-old third baseman whom the Jays believe can become a star.
Lawrie famously had a falling out with his previous employer, the Brewers, who dealt him to Toronto in the Shaun Marcum trade in December 2010. At the end of the 2010 season, Lawrie refused an assignment to the Arizona Fall League and made clear his unhappiness over not getting a September callup. And after the trade, he accused the Brewers of trying to change the intense way he approaches the game.
The relationship between Lawrie and the Blue Jays is much, much stronger, but the club still felt he could use a veteran influence to help him learn how to properly apply his obvious enthusiasm.
That's where DeRosa comes in.
"You don't know what goes on in a guy's life," DeRosa says. "You don't know how a kid was raised, you don't know how he thinks when he goes back to his hotel room, you don't know what his family life is like, you don't know what he's dealt with. All those things play a part in shaping who you are as a person and as a player. And until you know those things, you don't know how to interact with somebody. That's what I've always tried to do. Whether it's a guy from Latin America or the U.S., I've always tried to get to know him and see what makes him tick and how he works."
Players like DeRosa sometimes stick around at the Major League level well past their relative expiration dates because of the veteran influences they provide. General managers place a clear value on that element.
"It's essential," D-backs general manager Kevin Towers says, "to have players in there who can control the locker room. The manager and coaches can't be expected to do everything."
But while baseball is a team sport, the successes within the sport are built on individual performances. And so there can be an intellectual tussle between what is conceivably best for the team and what is best for the player.
Brady Anderson, the former Orioles outfielder who is now the club's vice president of baseball operations, remembers the quizzical stares he got as a rookie with the Red Sox in 1988, when he blended protein shakes in the clubhouse lunch room and imported his own Olympic weights to Spring Training camp.
"I was told to stay out of the weight room," Anderson says. "It was frowned upon. I heard it a million times: 'You don't want to be muscle-bound.' We could stand here for hours and talk about how faulty that statement is."
In the years since, the game has obviously evolved on the fitness front. Where once a gym rat like Anderson had to set up his own equipment on uneven cement near the back fields at spring camp, today's players are treated to state-of-the-art equipment at nearly every facility.
And there's an inherent lesson within about the evolution of thought and how the old rules don't always apply. Just because a kid who comes up does things a bit different than the norm doesn't mean he's wrong.
"My belief," says Anderson, "is you want these guys to fit in and produce in the big leagues. So the first thing you want to do is make them feel like one of you and not point out their inexperience or their differences."
The smartest organizations know how to assess not only the talents but also the personalities of their people.
"No matter how you groom a kid," says Twins GM Terry Ryan, "there are certain personalities that you have to let them be their own person. Some you've got to coddle and some you've got to prod and some you have to baby along and some you have to challenge. I think if you know your people, you're probably better off."
The team is best off if the kids coming up have the figurative space to follow their routines but still understand and respect the clubhouse code of conduct.
Because while the specialization and evolution of sport has altered the landscape, some basic tenets still apply.
"Is it how it was in the '60s, '70s and '80s," says Sabathia, "with guys getting hazed and rookies who weren't allowed to talk? No. But there's still a respect to the pecking order."