In the wake of last year’s claim by Out magazine editor Brendan Lemon that he was having an affair with a player on an East Coast club, and this week’s tabloid speculation about the possibility that a prominent New York Met might be gay, columnists have tripped all over themselves trying to figure out What Such a Thing Might Mean for the player and the game. Some have speculated about the hardships the first active, openly gay player might face. Others have talked about the potential for such a player to become an endorsement-rich cultural hero. Still others have made a huge deal over how little a deal this whole affair should be. I’m with the last group. Rarely (in baseball anyway) has so much been written by so many about so little.
The issue of homosexuality in team sports isn't worth all the hand-wringing. Yes, when a ballplayer finally gets outed the occasional Neanderthal will say that he’s afraid to shower with a swishy shortstop; but most players are pretty bright. At the very least, none of them want to end up the bad guy in the inevitable made-for-TV movie (if for no other reason than that they want to avoid being portrayed by a B-lister like Eric Roberts). Like L'Affaire O'Donnell, it will be a big deal for a week, and then it will go away, and we’ll all be left wondering why we wasted our time worrying about it.
It would be nice if the punditry showed some perspective. The impact of a gay player on a pro clubhouse is an interesting topic, but not nearly as interesting as some of the real-life-intersects-baseball stories the columnists ignore. At least one player has been revealed as a bigamist. Another tried to run down kids with his SUV. Teammates have taken swings at each other around the batting cage. Several players have beaten their wives. And, if recent reports are to be believed, a future Hall of Famer turned teenage batboys into drug mules. Am I alone in thinking that it would be tougher to work with sociopaths like that than to deal with a gay locker-mate? If not, why don't people write half as much about those guys as they do about hypothetical gay baseball players? Heck, I had to link the Village freakin’ Voice to find something other than a simple police blotter story about players’ domestic violence. Where the hell were all of ESPN's sociologists after Bobby Chouinard held a gun to his wife’s head? Oh yeah, fretting about what other ballplayers might think about a full-grown adult whose sexual orientation hasn’t been a scandal since Three’s Company was on prime time.
The Fall of Beane
Earlier this year I wrote about that group of baseball junkies who have (with good reason, really) lionized Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane for turning a low-revenue club into a consistent winner by stressing plate discipline and the promotion of cheap young talent, while simultaneously ripping off his fellow GMs in one-sided trade after one-sided trade.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In a move that sent the Cult of Beane reeling, the A’s traded leftfielder Jeremy Giambi to Philadelphia for the offal that is John Mabry. Casual fans may not know much about either of these players, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that this was not just a bad trade; it was bungling of the highest order. Giambi is young and cheap, gets on base more often than most, and hits for power. Mabry is, um, from Delaware. It’s so unbalanced a trade, coming from so unlikely a general manager that some are suggesting that Beane did it either under duress or as a way to intentionally sabotage his team.
I doubt Beane is consciously throwing a monkey wrench into the A’s works, but he does have some ‘splainin to do. At the press conference on Wednesday, Beane claimed that Giambi was eighty-sixed because he is "a one-dimensional player." That's an unusually boilerplate explanation coming from a general manager known for his candor. Besides, even if Giambi is a one-dimensional player, that dimension -- hitting the cover off the ball -- is supposedly what the A’s are built around.
Apart from simply getting snookered, there are two reasons a team accepts less than equal value in a trade. The first is that they’re dumping salary. That explanation, however, doesn’t really hold water here. Giambi makes a skosh over a million this year, bargain-basement for a player at his level. Even though Mabry only makes a half-million, the A’s could have gone cheaper than that simply by asking for a minor leaguer instead of Mabry (or nobody – ever heard of the "player to be named later"?). Indeed, getting a minor-leaguer with some upside is standard salary dump procedure -- a procedure that Beane himself has perfected over the years. Mabry’s a known quantity, and that quantity is zero. If it was a salary dump, it was a poor one.
The other time a team lets itself be gypped in a trade is when the departing player is carrying baggage the team wants to get rid of. A great example was when the St. Louis Cardinals sent recent MVP and perennial all-star Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets for nobody Neil Allen in 1983. Less than two years later -- when he was granted immunity to testify in the prosecution of Philadelphia caterer/cocaine dealer Curtis Strong -- it was revealed that Hernandez was deep into blow going back to the disco era. That might have been ok in New York City, but it was never going to fly on Whitey Herzog’s St. Louis Cardinals.
I’ve only got a search engine at my disposal, not a network of spies, so I can’t say whether Giambi was such a clubhouse cancer that Beane felt he needed to get rid him regardless of value received in return. Sure, Little G. was cited for marijuana possession in Las Vegas back in December, but that was misdemeanorville (my grandmother carries a half-ounce to Vegas), and it doesn’t explain why Giambi wasn’t traded back then. Others have reported that Giambi was involved in a "drunken, obnoxious performance" on the team flight back from Toronto last Sunday. Interesting, but it still doesn’t explain why Beane didn’t get more for him in return. Heck, even if Giambi was running guns to al-Qaida he should have brought more in return than John Mabry.
Well, that got us nowhere. For now, Billy Beane’s fan club remains in a tizzy. I have no idea what to make of this trade, though I do know that famous Beane-backer Rob Neyer’s defense -- "it's safe to assume that [Beane] knows what he's doing" -- is not an acceptable answer. (Rob, you’ve made your bones being critical! Don’t back down now!) I don’t know when the whole story will come out, but I’m guessing it will be a good one when it finally does.
As I predicted in an earlier piece, columnists who owe their salaries to the public’s interest in professional sports have began dressing up as populists and telling us to boycott baseball as a means of showing our dissatisfaction with the status of labor negotiations. (For a variation on the boycott theme, check out this hackwork.)
I have no problem with anyone who wants to ignore baseball because they find the labor wars distasteful, but the idea that these columnists are peddling -- that we have a civic duty to boycott baseball because players and owners have somehow failed in a duty allegedly owed fans -- is nonsense. Major League Baseball is a business that provides a product. If you think the product is worth the price, you should pay for it. If not, you shouldn’t. The owners and players don't "owe" you anything more than Georgia Pacific "owes" buyers of Angel Soft toilet tissue.