You’ve got The Hustle. You’ve got American Hustle, smart hustle, false hustle and Charlie Hustle.
And then you’ve got the kind of dopey, bird-brained hustle that destroys seasons and can wreck a career.
There is a very fine line between aggressiveness and foolishness when Bryce Harper crashes into an outfield wall or a thin speedster like Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton goes merrily diving into first base.
But there is no fine line when fullback-sized lugs like Josh Hamilton and Yasiel Puig dive into first base as if they’re Michael Phelps in the Olympics.
Puig appears to have gotten off easy. Though he has not started since Saturday after suffering a strained ligament in his left thumb diving into first base, he is day-to-day, and it appears as if he will avoid the disabled list.
But a Los Angeles Angels of We Stink in April team that cannot afford another slow start following two monumental years of underachieving just lost Hamilton for probably at least two months when he dove into first Tuesday night attempting to leg out an infield grounder.
Hamilton, after the lost year of 2013, was hitting .444 (12-for-27) with two homers and six RBI through his first eight games. He and Albert Pujols each were looking like their old wrecking-ball selves. Together with Mike Trout, things were going to be…
Hamilton is 6'4", 240 pounds. Puig is 6'3", 235.
That’s a lot of meat to be laying out when joints and ligaments and cartilages are just asking to be butchered.
These dives into first are risky, ill-advised, just plain nuts and, depressingly…apparently unpreventable.
Managers from Mike Scioscia to Sparky Anderson to, guaranteed, Connie Mack have begged, pleaded, cajoled and nagged their guys not to do it. Clearly a skipper can bloviate, but he simply cannot legislate, dictate, mandate or intimidate.
When Hamilton went down, the first thing I thought of was a random game in May two summers ago during what would be his last season with the Rangers. Hamilton dove into first base attempting to beat out a ground ball in the eighth inning of a game…the Rangers were leading 10-3.
It was utter insanity.
Next afternoon, I asked Rangers manager Ron Washington about it. Washington shook his head. Yes, he said, he had asked Hamilton not to dive into first—in any situation—any number of times over the years.
He smiled, shook his head and shrugged.
“When a guy smells a hit,” Washington said, “he reacts.”
Sliding into first base, which has been proven to not expedite arrival time any more than simply running through the bag, does not pass the smell test. Scioscia told reporters in Seattle after Hamilton’s injury that he attempts to “persuade” players to run through the bag rather than do at first what should only be done with a Speedo and a swimming pool.
But in the moment, simple reaction takes over.
That was Harper versus the Dodger Stadium wall last May. Not only did he take 11 stitches in his chin, but he sustained a knee injury that cut short his season after 118 games and led to surgery.
Harper vowed a couple of days after smashing into that wall that it would not cause him to change the way he plays. “I’m gonna play this way forever,” he told me then. “I respect this game.” While I applauded him for it, in retrospect, maybe the best thing for both him and the Nationals—short and long term—would have been if he would have adjusted just a wee bit and saved his knee.
Problem is, this razor-sharp competitiveness is why some of these guys are where they are to begin with. Dial it down?
“You don’t have a dimmer,” Nationals reliever Drew Storen told me while Harper, like some Saturday morning cartoon character, was still seeing stars.
It is one thing to leave it all out on the field.
But when guys can’t stay on that field, they’re helping neither themselves nor their teams.
Last season, the Angels were already eight games out of first place on the final day of April, and they were nine out on the last day of April in 2012.
They readjusted much of their spring strategy this year to avoid the horrible start. Pitchers pitched deeper into games. Hitters were given a bigger workload.
Now, they must play without their cleanup hitter into June.
Robinson Cano gets zinged sometimes for playing on cruise control. But the flip side of that is he’s played in either 159, 160 or 161 games now for seven consecutive seasons.
Ol’ Charlie Hustle himself, Pete Rose, once said he would walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.
Watching them play with such joy and flair, it’s clear that Hamilton and Puig would, too.
But with all of today's modern fabrics, wouldn’t you at least try on a flame-retardant suit first?
Even if you smell a hit.
Making things even more head-shakingly crazy in the case of the reckless Hamilton, this is a guy who missed 36 games early in the 2011 season when he suffered a broken right arm while sliding headfirst into home plate. Yes, that’s not quite as daft as going headfirst into first base—hey, a run is a run—but wouldn’t you learn something there?
“We do tell him to stop doing it,” Washington told me during that conversation two Mays ago. “We don’t need him to lose a finger.
“But when you’re competing and smelling things, you do what you’ve got to do.”
Until you no longer can.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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