Baseball lost a true legend in Mark "The Bird" Fidrych this week.
What struck me as hypocritical was just how many of the articles written struck the battle cry suggesting that "they don't make 'em like The Bird anymore." These writers pointed out all the usual cliches, including "Manny being Manny Ramirez" and "A-Rod is all about A-Rod" to underscore how "today's players" are all selfish or incorporated. Many even run the old gem up the flagpole about, "disrespecting the game."
Really? Is this what we're to believe?
We're suggesting that if a player came along in 2009 and started grooming the mound and talking to the baseball that it would be welcomed with open arms by the players and the media? Let's examine some recent cases of individuality or "characters" of the game.
When Ken Griffey Jr. began wearing his cap backwards—or shall we say "askew"—he was criticized by both the media and by veteran players. Some might have interpreted this as Junior's innocence of being a kid playing a game for a living. Did anyone rush to his defense?
Perhaps Rickey Henderson's antics would be met with more of an open-minded outlook? Rickey used to spend more time in the on-deck circle chatting and waving at people in the stands than he did observing the motion of the pitcher or timing his release.
Was Rickey celebrated as an ambassador of the game? Did veterans liken his camaraderie with opposing players as "refreshing?" Not exactly. In fact, Rickey is still referred to as a "selfish" player.
While it is true that Mark Fidrych didn't play the game in the era of SportsCenter or the 24-hour news and sports coverage. There were no YouTubes or viral videos back then. Even news broadcasts rarely featured video footage of games aside from the local teams.
There was no Tivo, DVR, or pausing live television. You lived and died by the newspaper coverage and whether or not the sportswriters covering the story liked "characters" in the game.
Did anyone champion Mark Gastineau's "sack dance?" The NFL has a penalty now for taunting or end zone dances.
When David Wells tried to wear Babe Ruth's Yankees cap during a game, he was told to remove it. Ironically, he was wearing it in the "House That Ruth Built" at the time.
Last season Joba Chamberlain was criticized by Yankees veterans for his fist pumping and on-field enthusiasm. It was conduct unbecoming a Yankee of course. Really? If I was pitching for the Yankees and doing as well as Joba was at the time, I'd have been pretty excited about it too.
For every player who hangs from a basketball hoop or chest bumps after a touchdown, we hear about the "me generation" and how today's players don't care about history or team or the fans. We hear how ESPN and Fox have inspired a testosterone-laden angry mob and locker room mentality of self congratulating and flippant ego maniacs.
We don't hear about characters. We don't hear about innocence. We don't even hear about fun.
The media even reminisces for the days when players spent their entire career with one team. Mark Fidrych played only in the majors for the Tigers. His manager (Ralph Houk) overused Fidrych even by the standards of the era when he had his rookie phenom pitch 11 innings twice in a single season.
Fidrych had his career cut short by shoulder troubles and his taste of "The Show" was over as abruptly as it started. Perhaps the Tigers showered Fidrych with personal appearance money in later years. But he seemed to make more of his living from his life as a farmer and trucker so it is little wonder why players cash in when they have the chance to make a quick buck from the highest bidder.
I want to believe that the crazies like Tug McGraw would be "believed" in 2009 but my optimism is not high. Since the era of the millionaire ballplayer came about, so too has the era of cynicism.
Dave Winfield was not lauded for his Yankee career for his charitable endeavors or his hustle in the local team coverage. Winfield was chided with the "Mister May" tag bestowed by George Steinbrenner.
While Winfield didn't rise to the occasion in postseason like Reggie "Mr. October" Jackson did, he deserved better treatment from the New York media. Winfield had to leave town to get it.
Yet when Reggie swaggered or stared after a home run he wasn't called "old school" or "a character." He was called selfish and arrogant.
Fans enjoy watching Manny high five someone in the stands, Don Mattingly eat a kid's popcorn, or Sparky Lyle hand a fan his uniform pants after removing them on the field.
In a game where the Rays blew out the Yankees, the Yanks brought in OF/1B Nick Swisher to pitch rather than kill their bullpen for two nights. When Swisher had the audacity to react enthusiastically after striking out Gabe Kapler, ESPN's Peter Gammons ripped into Swish for having the nerve to show emotion after getting an out in a big league game. Swisher's "surfer dude" attitude didn't go over too well with Ozzie Guillen in the White Sox clubhouse last season, either.
I'm not suggesting that pro athletes get free reign, but the selective memory these articles about Fidrych appear to ignore is unfortunate. If The Bird were to appear today and act as he did in 1976 he'd likely have won over the fans. His veteran teammates and media enthusiasts might speak differently.
When he groomed the mound, he might get criticized or referred to as "The Human Rain Delay" like Mike Hargrove once was for his tendency to step out of the batter's box and adjust his gloves between each pitch.
One article on ESPN.com even playfully referenced the legend that Fidrych once snuck a girl into the ballpark and had sex on the pitcher's mound. If Alex Rodriguez did that with Madonna at the new Yankee Stadium, would he have been applauded by ESPN?
How about if he did it while wearing The Babe's cap?
David Wells' cap?
Perhaps if he wore Junior's cap sideways...