Tuesday, April 2, 2013

LaMenting LaRue: Why La Russa Got It Right* (PART 2.0 of 2)

*even if he considers it an attack on his credibility to say so

Well, well, well.  If it isn't the last part of this 3-part series that I started writing around last year's MLB All-Star game.  I've actually had most of this written for quite some time, but have been waiting to post it so that it would correspond to some significant event on the MLB calendar.  I kept "just missing" those events, right up until the last game of last year's World Series.  Turns out there's not much going on in MLB from October to April.  So goes it.

Anyway, I decided that the embarrassment of posting 7 months late was less than the embarrassment of writing all of this but not posting it because I missed some arbitrary posting window.  Besides, I kind of like how it turned out.

I hope this doesn't seem like I'm not appreciative to those of you who have been reviewing PARTS 1 and 1.5 of this series for months and months, because I am appreciative of you (you also worry me a little bit, but that's beside the point).  But for everyone else, here are the links to get you up to speed: PART 1 and PART 1.5.

When we last saw our hero, he was being let down in his quest for justice by all sorts of people and entities.  We've covered three of those people and entities.  And now, I pick up mid stride.  It's like no time passed at all:

Speaking of the media…

4.  The media.  Of course the media doesn’t have an obligation to lament baseball’s loss of Jason LaRue or to paint Johnny Cueto as a thug.  I’m just saying it could have.

Compare Cueto’s act with, say, Roberto Alomar spitting in the face of an umpire.  For years and years, Roberto Alomar could hardly be mentioned in any article or telecast without the commentator mentioning the spitting incident, even if just to say that it was a shame that the spitting incident had become such a significant part of Alomar’s legacy.

The legacy of Cueto’s assault is a hard-to-find footnote in the tiff between Molina and Phillips.  Game 3 of the Cards/Reds post-All-Star Game series was televised on ESPN.  At one point, the commentator said something like, “Cueto, in my opinion, really was a snub.”  That’s it.  Had it been Roberto Alomar fifteen years ago, the announcer would have added, “I mean, I know he spit on the umpire and all, but if you just look at his numbers, he was deserving.”

How do the media decide such things?  I honestly don’t know.  I doubt there is a rule of thumb, and the intentionality of reporting or ignoring details of a story certainly varies from incident to incident and among media outlets.

Ultimately, people watch ESPN to see their favorite players doing and saying great or interesting things.  Not very many people have Jason LaRue on their list of favorite players.

Speaking of players…

5.  The players.  We’ve already seen how Jason LaRue’s union dues were less valuable to the MLBPA than Johnny Cueto’s.  But individual players have had plenty of opportunity to act independently of their union (gasp!) to pursue something that--if it’s dark and you didn’t get a good look--could probably pass for justice.  After all, announcers promise us that players remember things like what Cueto did, and have ways of settling the score.  They allude to things like spring-training at bats, and suggest that when players violate “the code,” payback—usually via a fastball in the ribs—is imminent.

Maybe in the 70’s that was the case.  But these days, even spring training at bats are filmed, and if Cueto ever took a fastball in the ribs from, say, Chris Carpenter, it would be on Youtube in 5 minutes, whether it happened during the playoffs, spring training, or a church picnic.  Even Frank Robinson would have seen it.

Perhaps ballplayers have other ways of enforcing “the code.”  Maybe Chris Carpenter unfriended him on Facebook.  Maybe Yadier Molina hums the line from the INXS song "sometimes you kick, sometimes you get kicked" when Cueto comes up to bat.  Maybe the scoreboard guy at Busch Stadium rounds Cueto’s ERA up to the nearest hundredth of a point, instead of down.

At the very least, though, guys like Carpenter and Molina could have been reminding the public and the media that Johnny Cueto, despite possessing a low ERA and a to-die-for slider, ended a guy’s career with his cleats!

It wouldn’t be the same as a suspension, but if even just once a year, after a game against the Reds, a guy like Yadier Molina gave a shout-out to Jason LaRue—well, at least that would be something.

Specifically?  Imagine this:
Reporter: Yadi, how’d you feel about the win tonight?
Yadier: It’s great.  A win is always good.  But every time we play these guys, win or lose, I think about my man Jason LaRue.  Not that anyone asked, but he’s doing OK.  Still having headaches, forgetting things.  Keep praying for him.  That’s all I got right now.

(Surely after a few years of that, Jeremy Schapp would pick up the torch and run a human interest story on Sunday night Sportscenter, right?)

Yes, this is what we’ve come to in terms of hoping for accountability: vague shaming from other players.  And even this hasn’t happened.  Could there possibly be a 6th level of dispensing discipline in a case like this when the first 5 levels fail?  Ordinarily, no.  But in steps a guy who is so not ordinary that he used to bat the pitcher 8th instead of 9th.

You know him, you probably-don’t-love-him-but-there’s-a-chance-you-don’t-mind-him-as-much-as-other-people-do, he is none other than Tony La Russa.

6.  Tony La Russa.  It seemed perfect.  After Johnny Cueto got away with assaulting one of Tony’s players, guess who could have included Mr. Kicky-head on the All-Star roster but didn’t?  You know the story.  La Russa took matters into his own hands and decided his team would do just fine in the All-Star game without 15 pitches or so from the Red’s ace.

It wouldn’t make Jason LaRue’s headaches go away, but for a 6th level of accountability, it wasn’t bad.  Call it “karma light”.

Then La Russa did something strange.  He denied that his omission of Cueto had anything to do with “the incident.”  Indeed, he took the mere suggestion as an attack on his integrity.  You’ll recall that he said the All-Star Game was too important to let personal vendettas get in the way of roster selection.  Uh, OK.  You gotta stand for something, I guess.

Of course, once the All-Star Game is actually being played, managerial integrity is in no way compromised in the least when managers prioritize “getting everyone in the game” over “putting your best 9 on the field.”  For example, double switching Barry Bonds out of the game in the top of the 4th inning of the 2007 All-Star Game completely passes the "competitive integrity" test, even if your team ultimately loses the game by one run, 5-4 (it's completely slipping my mind who was managing that game for the losing team).

So the definition of “maintaining the integrity of the All-Star experience” might be up for debate.  But whatever it looks like, it seems like La Russa could have just as easily played the “personal integrity card” when talking about Cueto.  He could have said, “Cueto’s numbers are good, and maybe another manager would have picked him.  But, to be completely honest, I get a little sick to my stomach when I imagine his cleats sinking into Jason LaRue’s face.  On a very basic level, I simply don’t want to invite someone like Johnny Cueto to play baseball with me.  It would make me feel like a sell-out.  Win, lose, or tie, I have to look in the mirror at the end of the day and feel like I made a decision that was consistent with my integrity as a human being.”

See how there are different types of integrity?  Had La Russa played that integrity card, people all over the world would have debated the legitimacy of La Russa’s stance.  The debate itself would have reminded people of Cueto’s actions.  Ending LaRue’s career may very well have become for Johnny Cueto what “spitting in the face of an umpire” was to Roberto Alomar or “hitting Roseboro with a bat” was to Juan Marichal.

La Russa instead insisted that his snubbing of Cueto somehow made a great deal of sense from a baseball standpoint.  That case is hard to build.  In fact, it would be easier to build a case that, at the time of La Russa's omission, Cueto was the single best starting pitcher in the National League.  Tony makes us question either his commitment to build a winning roster or his ability to build a winning roster.  He either doesn't value winning or he doesn't recognize talent.  Whatever critical-of-Tony stance you let Tony push you into, the important thing to remember is that it's all about Tony.  It's not about justice, and it's certainly not about Jason LaRue.  Remember him?

This begs the question:  If justice falls in a forest and nobody takes credit for dispensing it, does the recipient of said justice recognize it as such?

We’ll let Johnny Cueto answer that for himself: “I see that I have great numbers.  I thought the way I pitched this year, I’d have a chance to go to the All-Star Game.  I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know if the manager of the All-Star Game is pissed at me because I went out with one of his girlfriends.”

Wow.  The grown up in me is thinking, “Did he just say that, probably in mixed company?”  The junior high boy in me is thinking, “I’m not so much offended—it’s just not really very funny.”

Suffice it to say that if you’ve seen Johnny Cueto taking a long, hard look in the mirror, it’s probably to make sure he looks good for the ladies.

It’s a strange ending to a sad story.  Johnny Cueto ends some guy’s career, and somehow dodges any significant discipline for his action.  La Russa could have been the heroic sheriff of the story, but decided to play the role of “uncooperative conduit for watered-down karma.”  Strange.  To me, it’s also disappointing.

But does it matter?  Does it matter if Cueto is disciplined at all, or if hundreds of people and dozens of systems shrugged their collective shoulders at Jason LaRue losing his livelihood and possibly his ability to function normally?  Does it matter?

Short answer: Not really.  It’s a game.  There are a lot of injustices in the world, and this is a pretty minor one.  Plus, some of us believe that every act of injustice will be answered for anyway, so it’s not a matter of “if,” just “when.”

Long answer: Kind of.  It’s no great revelation that I view Johnny Cueto as the bad guy in this story (though it doesn’t seem like there are very many good guys).  On a personal level, yes, I like to see the bad guy “get his”—probably more than I should.  It’s personally unsettling that Jason LaRue has been let down in so many ways.

But there is a more significant way that it “kind of” matters that Johnny Cueto got away with assault.  In fact, there is someone who has been let down even more than Jason LaRue.  That would be Johnny Cueto himself.

Theoretically, at least part of the purpose of most punishments is to inspire change in the one being punished.  Most formally-issued consequences (e.g., token suspensions) do little to inspire change.  But—perhaps especially in the entertainment world—the grassroots “punishment” called “indignation of the masses” regularly jars bullies and airheads from their selfish delusions of invincibility.  Not always permanently, but sometimes.

Consider the two baseball-related examples from this essay:  Roberto Alomar spitting in the face of umpire John Hirshbeck, and Juan Marichal hitting Johnny Roseboro with a bat.  These two incidents have at least two things in common:
-The public outcry against the culprits (Alomar and Marichal) was immense.
-The culprits and the victims eventually became friends, and in doing so demonstrated the value of things like forgiveness and respect—things that most of us try to model, and teach our children, and even write about.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation.  Maybe the public’s perception that these guys “crossed a line” is not what prodded these guys to look at themselves and make important changes.  But it sure looks that way.

Will Cueto and LaRue ever talk about how much they respect each other?  From the ruins of this situation, will an example of forgiveness rise like a phoenix?  I doubt it.  Cueto has been affirmed.  He probably feels he has done no wrong.  He possibly sees himself as the victim.  He may even think that he’s funny.  He has no pressing reason to change.  LaRue, meanwhile, may or may not have a forgiving heart.  Even if he does, it’s unfortunate that the public’s interest in this conflict has waned to such a degree that no one outside of LaRue’s family and friends may behold his graciousness. 

Perhaps this story is a learning tool after all.  In life, justice is not always served.  When it is, it is seldom as immediate, drastic, or satisfying as we would like it to be.  The decisions people make are unpredictable, except in hindsight.  Even our own decisions (like going out on the field during a brawl because we think we are fighting for the right side) are easy to second guess, especially when they lead to unexpected and disproportionate consequences.  Even so, we’re not sure what we could have done differently (we can’t just stay in the dugout, can we?).  We are let down by our bosses, our friends, and by organizational systems that we never realized how much we counted on.  As time passes, questions of “what happened?” and “who was right?” are buried by easier-to-process truisms like “everyone made mistakes” and “people have moved on.”  Soon, details of “key elements” are remembered differently by different people, then not at all (before the 2012 All-Star Game, Jason LaRue’s career ending was an important detail of this incident).  When the dust settles for everyone else, we ourselves may dwell on all that is still unsettled as we replay the memories that feel fresh and inescapable (strange, the things you can still remember even when you’re concussed).  Maybe we still hope for justice.  And maybe we will have to settle for a random blogger recounting “what went down” for his scores of readers.  Or maybe not even that.

If we are brave, we can forgive and move forward.  This is hard to do with so little fanfare, so little closure, and so many scars and headaches.  Maybe there exists something more satisfying than justice, and even more satisfying than being a big-league ballplayer.  Maybe there are bigger things to hope for, things that not even Tony La Russa can offer.  Maybe there are bigger things to depend on, things bigger than the media or the most powerful union in the world.  Maybe we would never have discovered these “bigger things,” these opportunities and possibilities, had we been granted the justice that we wanted.  Maybe the life lesson is that even if the “lesson” seems lost for others, there is still “life” for us.  A concussed life is still a life worth living.  The life of a Major League fastball will fade over time.  The life of hope will not.


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