Old School

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An interesting tidbit on Mike and Mike this morning, guest-hosted today by Ryan Ruocco, Herm Edwards and Mark “Stink” Schlereth. The trio was discussing the minor spat this week between RGIII, the superstar young quarterback for Washington’s football team and its head coach, Mike Shanahan. Shanahan came in for lots of (warranted) criticism in January, when he kept sending his star young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, back into a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks despite the fact that RGIII was already injured, noticeably limping and in obvious pain. RGIII suffered a major knee injury in that game and Shanahan spent the post game blaming the player, doctors and anyone else he could think of for his obviously foolhardy and reckless decision. This week, RGIII seemed to be criticizing his coach for not allowing him to play in preseason games as he rehabs from the injury. Like most young, all-world athletes, Griffin just wants to play. Shanahan, for his part, appears to be acting with a bit more prudence now than he was in January. As Dan LeBatard said yesterday, this being the preseason, and not a playoff game, it’s an easy call for Shanahan to make.

In any event, Schlereth once played for Shanahan, as an offensive lineman on Denver’s two super bowl winning teams in the late 90s. And today he defended his former coach. Schlereth recounted that when he arrived in Denver, after six seasons with Washington (as it happens), he’d already had multiple surgeries. He thought he only had a season or two left. Shanahan, according to Schlereth, prolonged his career, allowing him to play an additional six productive seasons. How? By seriously limiting his practice time. Schlereth said that when the regulars would run 30-40 full contact plays in practice, Schlereth would only run about six of those. This decision helped ensure that Schlereth could get on the field on Sundays, when it counts.

Nowadays, there is endless commentary about the dramatic change in the way that the NFL conducts its training camps and preseason. Gone are the two-a-day practices. Gone are the vast majority of the full-contact scrimmages. The new collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2011, specifically limited how many practices could take place during the season. This is all in the context of growing evidence about the severe long-term consequences of repeated head trauma that result from playing football and a related multi-billion lawsuit hanging over the league’s head, filed on behalf of retired NFL players.

I mention this because Schlereth is a noted “tough” guy, having famously endured 29 surgeries. And, in fairness to him, he’s far from the worst offender in terms of the ongoing lament in sports discourse that players today are coddled and pampered and not as tough as athletes used to be. But here was Schlereth getting a very serious break from practice – and appropriately so it appears – in ways that, when applied to today’s players, are generally treated as more evidence that the NFL is becoming too “soft.”

In every generation, folks in sports media – athletes and otherwise  (like grownups more generally) – like to complain about “kids today.”  Perhaps my all-time favorite example was Pete Rose’s autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, written in 2004. I wrote about the book a few years ago and still regard it as the classic statement of what remains a consensus ideology in sports media – that the “old school” athletes were tougher, grittier, more selfless and more committed to their craft than are contemporary ones.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s that account:

Among the ceaseless laments about sports in general and baseball in particular is that the old time ballplayers simply cared more about the game than the modern ballplayer.  This lament is part of the perpetuation of sportsdom’s favorite myth, the myth of the “old school.”  In that spirit, I thought I’d share some thoughts on Pete Rose’s book, My Prison Without Bars.  Rose’s name now represents excess, bad judgment and self-promotion, the result of the gambling and related legal problems that ended his relationship with baseball in 1989 and resulted in jail time.  But, in his 24 seasons as a big league ballplayer, Charlie Hustle was the epitome of the old school – a hard-nosed, hard-driving competitor who would do anything to help his team win, a human morality tale of how to play the game “the right way.”

Rose’s book grabbed headlines because, in it, he admitted that he had bet on baseball and, by most accounts, undermined his chances for reinstatement by baseball’s commissioner.  Aside from that controversial and news making nugget, the book is really bad. It’s riddled with bad writing and well, the insufferably self-pitying voice of Pete Rose. But, for all the flaws in the book, there is something unintentionally revealing and fascinating about it.  Throughout the book, Rose promotes the virtues of the old school, where guys gave their all on the field, sacrificing their bodies, playing for the greater glory of the game.  Compared to the whining, sniveling pampered ballplayer of today, Rose himself embodied everything that was heroic about the ballplayers of yore. This view of the old-time ballplayer amounts to a consensus ideology among sports media and even players today.  Summing up this worldview well, Tim Wakefield recently said about Don Zimmer, “I don’t really know Zim other than seeing him since I joined the Red Sox in 1995, but I just like him,” Wakefield said. “He’s an old-school guy, a class act. I would have liked to have played when he played. Not that guys don’t play hard now, but it seems they played harder then.”

Rose’s book unwittingly exposes some of the flaws in the old school account.  For example, early on in the book, Rose recounts an episode from early in his career, when a Reds’ manager named Don Heffner decided in Spring Training, 1966, that Rose should shift to third base from his natural position of second base.  As Rose tells it, “Heffner walked right up to me during spring training and told me that he was switching me to third base.  He didn’t ask – he told me.  He was a rookie manager and I was an All-star player, who had just led the league in putouts.  I had never played the coffin corner in my life and I wasn’t too thrilled about the change. Why should I change positions after I worked so hard to perfect the one I had?  Truth is, I didn’t work very hard at third base throughout that Spring.  The Team got off to a terrible start.  I was making errors left and right…By the end of April, Heffner realized the error of his ways and switched me back to second base.”  Nine years later, when Rose famously shifted from left field to third base to make room for George Foster and launch the Reds to back-to-back world titles, the hit king said the key difference was that skipper Sparky Anderson asked Pete, rather than telling him. After all, in the old school, guys do what they’re told, right?

It’s not necessarily that Heffner was right and Rose was wrong in their 1966 dispute.  But, it’s hard to imagine the reaction that such an admission would draw today – of a prima donna ballplayer almost intentionally screwing up because he didn’t like being told what to do by his manager.  Such an act of insubordination would be considered tantamount to treason and considered a classic example of everything that’s wrong with today’s ballplayer.  No wait, did I say it would be hard to imagine?  In fact, it’s pretty easy to imagine, because Gary Sheffield supposedly acknowledged something to this effect as a 21 year old playing for the Brewers.  Sheffield has now spent fifteen years shaking off a reputation as a malcontent and crybaby, despite the testimonials of the likes of Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre that Sheffield is an ideal guy to have in a clubhouse and as tough and willing to play in pain as any player in the game. To this day, though, sports media types mention Sheff’s deliberately dogging it when he first came into the league, symbolic of an attitude that is presumed never to have existed previously.

Later in Rose’s book (after endless accounts of contract disputes with management), in an incredible (as in inexplicable) passage, the voice of Mike Schmidt appears to describe why his buddy Pete ran into trouble:  “Pete is simply a product of the generation in which he played.  He saw himself as a larger than life hero and he believed in that image.  His ego and his impression of himself were very strong….Part of that behavior is not completely his fault.  From high school on, athletes are coddled, pampered and given special treatment.  We get privilege and access to things and places that most folks can only dream of. Politicians and celebrities want to be our friends and nobody ever says no to us.  We are led to believe that we can do no wrong. Then, the public wants to know why we make errors in judgment when our entire life has been shielded from the outside world, where the basis of good judgment is formed.”  It’s worth noting here that Schmidt is describing his and Rose’s generation – the player of the 1960s, 70s and 80s – in the precise terms that those who cover sports reserve for today’s “spoiled” athlete.

After Schmidt finishes his explanation of Rose’s evident selfishness and immaturity, Rose’s voice reappears.  Rose says, in a baffling non-sequitur, “Mike Schmidt was right.  I am a product of my generation, where men took stock in discipline and hard work – not wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”  It’s as if Schmidt were talking to the reader in a separate room, out of Rose and his co-author’s earshot, so that when Rose resumes speaking he has no idea what Schmidt has just said, and completely contradicts the premise of Schmidt’s assessment.  Discipline and hard work were not, according to Schmidt, the defining features of Rose’s character, or of his time.  The defining features were self-indulgence and indifference to the rules by which everyone else played.

My point here is not to attack Rose personally.  Instead, it is to highlight the ongoing absurdity of insisting that the old-time ballplayer (and this does not just apply to baseball) was somehow a uniformly better species of human being than the contemporary athlete.  Sure, the guys make a lot more money now and, yes, that can have a distorting and corrupting influence on their priorities (and how different is that from the fortunes earned by CEOs and movie stars?).  But, from Billy Martin, to Paul Hornung, to Mickey Mantle, to Alex Karras back to Hal Chase and Ty Cobb, questionable characters have been a part of the sports landscape.

Bill James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract has a handful of entries under the heading “Old Ballplayers Never Die…” in which he shows that the old school lament about “today’s player,” less hardworking, less schooled in the fundamentals, overpaid and not man enough, goes back a hundred years or more.  For example, a former manager and third baseman, Bill Joyce is quoted as having said, “Base ball today is not what it should be.  The players do no try to learn the fine points of the game as in the days of old, but simply try to get by…I feel sure that the same conditions do not prevail today.  The boys go out to the plate, take a slam at the ball, pray that they’ll get a hit, and let it go at that…It makes me weep to think of the men of the old days who played the game and the boys of today.  It’s positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it, too.”  OK, so the language makes it obvious that this wasn’t someone speaking in 2004.  But, it might interest you to know, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Bill Joyce, that he made these comments in 1916.

Players today do play in different circumstances, making unimaginable sums of money in a media culture as obsessed with celebrity and conspicuous consumption as any we’ve ever seen.  But, as Rose’s own story shows us, the foibles that supposedly uniquely afflict today’s athletes are as old as old school itself.

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