Why Major League Baseball Needs a Villain
A lot of words describe how I felt during the five-day stretch in which the Boston Red Sox acquired slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and dynamic outfielder Carl Crawford:
Angry—What hypocrites the Red Sox are, reeling in two of the biggest names on the free-agent/trade market after years of denying their similarities to their big-spending rivals in the Bronx!
Discouraged—How are the Yankees going to deal with that powerful lineup, especially if the Red Sox experience better luck with injuries next season (which is almost a certainty)? As it is, there is only one guaranteed southpaw in the rotation (CC Sabathia), and three, possibly four potent lefty sluggers in the Red Sox lineup (David Ortiz, J.D. Drew—I don't believe either one is done yet, especially not Big Papi).
Disappointed—Fine, I actually didn't want the Yankees to get either one of these players. Gonzo was never in the cards with Teixeira firmly in place at first base, and I really like Brett Gardner manning left field. Crawford, though as fast as anyone in baseball, is probably more of a run-producer with his increase in power while, in my mind, Gardner makes for a better leadoff hitter, which the Yankees need.
Pissed—A natural reaction any time your team's biggest rival makes incredible improvements to an already solid ballclub—again, in a five-day period. And why couldn't any other team at least get ONE of those two?
Jealous—Despite how I feel about Gardner, Crawford is clearly the superior player. Gonzalez versus Teixeira is more of a toss-up, but given Tex's glacially slow start last season, it's hard not to pine for the consistency in Gonzo (a minimum .275 average, 30 home runs and 99 RBI in each of the past four seasons while playing in the very spacious PetCo Park with practically no protection in the Padres lineup).
One word I can't use, though? Hateful.
Any fan of a team with a rival is, by nature, supposed to root against that other team. And I'll always root against the Red Sox. But while some rivalries reach the extent of downright hatred, utter repugnance for the very players themselves, I can't do that with Boston.
The last 10 or 12 years? Sure, it's been easy. Nomar Garciaparra was annoying, Pedro Martinez was scary and Manny-being-Manny became a tired act.
(Back to Pedro for a second. Honestly, who throws down a 73-year-old man? If you did that on the street and then told the cop, "Oh, well he was coming after me," do you really think that would fly? I never understood why more wasn't made of that. Roberto Alomar possibly gets snubbed by the Hall of Fame his first year on the ballot because he spit on an umpire, but Pedro Martinez assaulting a man 40 years his senior is just glossed over?)
More recently, the hate levels on David Ortiz (because it seemed his purpose in life was solely to destroy the Yankees during the biggest of moments) and Jonathan Papelbon (for reasons like this and this and this) reached significantly high points as well, but tampered off due to factors like Ortiz's quiet demeanor (in contrast with Manny) and Papelbon's perennial meltdowns against the Yankees.
Not to mention, the relatively recent arrivals of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis (scrappy, hard-working players who approach the game the right way), Drew (too dull to hate) and Jon Lester (you can never, ever, say something derogatory about a cancer survivor without him absolutely deserving it) have made the Red Sox exponentially more difficult to hate.
Does baseball need a villain?
Now, Gonzalez and Crawford add to this admirable mix. If either one has ever had a bad word said about him, I'd be shocked to learn about it. Crawford even earned some sympathy votes from every man in America after he suffered this unfortunate incident against the Orioles (did Brett Favre earn sympathy? Ask the people who rated the most liked YouTube comment or his teammates in the video who do nothing but walk by and grin).
Do I want them to win? Of course not. But do I want to see them obliterated, kicked in the gut and left to cry for their mommies? No.
And how much fun is a rivalry like that?
But maybe this speaks more to the nature of baseball in this day and age. Look around the league, and there aren't too many players stirring up controversy or making enemies.
There is no Antonio Cromartie of Major League Baseball, who takes it upon himself to call Tom Brady an "ass----." There is no LeBron James who can turn an entire legion of fans against him in a one-hour television special. The most controversial figure in baseball right now just might be Ozzie Guillen, and he doesn't even take the field (he's also no Rex Ryan).
The best player in baseball (Albert Pujols) is a hero in both St. Louis and maybe in the sport as a whole (especially if he cleanly eclipses Barry Bonds' home run record). The best young pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Lester, Clay Buchholz, etc.) are, for the most part, outwardly clean-cut, respectful and, particularly in the cases of Greinke and Lester, resilient.
That, by the way, is a good thing. It's nice to have players in the sport, especially young players, who can serve as role models and/or as inspirations. But it leaves out an element of sports that's apparent in football, basketball and even hockey (with Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby). There are no polarizing figures, no one that can both unite one group of fans and repel another.
Sure, there are teams that do that (like the Yankees and Red Sox), but there are no signature players that can serve as the face of a bitter rivalry (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jason Varitek and David Ortiz do not exactly scream "bitter" rivalry).
Is this edge, this spunk, this fuel to the fire necessary? Do players need to hate one another in order to make for a better rivalry? Of course not. What should matter most is the quality of play and the next level teams to which teams go when playing their strongest adversaries.
But today, sports are seen more as a form of entertainment than ever before. There was just as much fanfare about the potential bloodshed in the Ravens-Steelers AFC Divisional playoff game as there was about who would win.
Millions of people anxiously awaited LeBron's return to Cleveland, not to watch a competitive game (if they did, they were sadly misguided), but to see how the crowd would greet James and if he would do his patented talcum powder toss.
There's no real parallel, in that sense, to baseball. Outside of the Mike Piazza-Roger Clemens at-bats following Clemens' head-hunting beanball 10 years ago, there have been rare instances of player-player confrontations.
A-Rod and Varitek got into their skirmish, but that didn't get too far. There was the bench-clearing incident between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds last season, but any excitement that brought was soon diffused by the seriousness of the matter; Jason LaRue, an 11-year MLB veteran catcher, was forced to retire following a concussion and ongoing post-concussion syndromes after being kicked in the head by Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto.
In no way am I promoting on-field violence, certainly when it results in those kind of dire consequences. But baseball could afford to have its players' blood boiled.
Let's face it: attendance figures may not be pitfalling yet, but given the length of the games, the lasting effects of the Steroid Era and the ever-growing popularity of the NFL and NBA, baseball is faring pretty low on the excitement scale.
That last factor scares me the most. Eventually, some rule change will be enacted to help shorten the games (it's practically a given as the desire for instant satisfaction rises and the length of the average attention span decreases) and the heavy skepticism that once clouded the sport is starting to pass (look at last season. The Year of the Pitcher plus a 50-home run hitter who only receives murmurs of steroid speculation equals progress).
But football and basketball seem to be basking in their respective peaks. There's a plethora of stars, strong rivalries and decent parity.
Sure, the prospective lockouts could potentially deliver a debilitating blow, but the strength of the two leagues will undoubtedly prevent an NHL-like depression (related prediction: if there actually is a lengthy play suspension in the NFL and NBA, hockey will jump-start its long-awaited return to relevance).
Right now, the gap between MLB and the NFL and NBA is relatively marginal, although football has been accepted as the No. 1 sport, "America's Pastime" (I use that term very, very loosely).
But baseball has taken enough hits (no pun intended) that, if these patterns persist, it will slowly retract into lesser territory (dare I suggest, behind MMA?). There are several ways to combat this, but one of the quickest solutions is for a player, or better, a few players to step up as villains.
Or maybe just stage steel-cage matches during the seventh inning stretch. Whatever's easier.
In all honesty? I don't think baseball needs a gimmick or a "villain" per se to continue to be a tremendous sport. I love and have always loved baseball for what it is. But the more casual fans seek something with more oomph, something to catch and hold their attention. This article is written with in mind the state Major League Baseball as a whole, and how it can survive in the ever-evolving landscape of American sports.
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