The players’ view

The game looks different when viewed from the field

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C.J. Nitkowski wrote a fascinating column on Monday that you probably read. If you didn’t read it, you probably heard about it. If you didn’t read it or hear about it, you might still have attacked C.J. on Twitter or a message board somewhere because that’s often how it goes. It seems like C.J. got attacked an awful lot.

What did he do? He talked to a bunch of players, past and present, and found that they unanimously believe somewhat close to what he believes about Sunday’s Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon dustup, Harper didn’t handle himself well, and Papelbon didn’t deserve the scorn and blame he received.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, because that’s what you do when you summarize something. But that’s the general gist of things. And it created some minor explosions because Nitkowski offered an opinion that was essentially nonexistent on the Internet on Monday. Everyone — including me — saw the fight one way and one way only: As Papelbon being a jerk, something that seems in line with his general bearing, and Harper continuing to endure the frustrations of a team that let him down all year long.

Well, Nitkowski saw it differently. And, as he points out in the column, so did a bunch of other ballplayers. They saw Harper acting out — first by calling out a teammate in the paper and then by loafing after hitting a fly ball — and they saw Papelbon policing the matter the way a veteran ballplayer should.

To quote the ending:

“Papelbon is everybody’s favorite punching bag but it’s not deserved here. This is a game that governs itself; it always has and always will. No one is above giving his full effort every time. When you don’t, there will be a veteran teammate there waiting to remind you. Sometimes that might result in a fight and that’s OK. This is not your office.”

Let me say here that I strongly disagree with almost everything in C.J.’s column … but I never thought agreeing or disagreeing was the point. Nitkowski gave us what we crave. He gave us the players’ perspective. He gave us powerful insight into how Major League Baseball players think. This is a gift.

Thirty years ago, Howard Cosell raged against the “jockocracy of the broadcasting booth.” Cosell did not coin the word “jockocracy” — that was the writer Robert Lipsyte — but he used it ceaselessly to bash ex-athletes in the booths, saying that most of them offered nothing more than cliches and unrelated personal experiences. “And,” he wrote in “I Never Played the Game,” “often they are ignorant of the human perspective.”

History has basically swamped Cosell’s argument. The color commentary world on television and radio is now the almost exclusive domain of ex-athletes and many current and former athletes branch out into the Internet world of writing. The Players’ Tribune lets athletes tell their story relatively unfiltered. Sports Illustrated has broken several of the biggest sports stories of recent times through the eyes and words of the athlete. Cosell’s fight is over.

Now, Cosell would probably say — did, in fact,say — that all these athletes are hired because of the way all of us worship celebrity. But I think he missed on that. Yes, many former athletes were and are bland and ineffective commentators. Some are embarrassingly bad. But they keep getting hired not because of celebrity but because WE WANT TO KNOW what players think.

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This is an endless fascination for us. We want to understand their mindset. We want behind-the-scenes access, a trip into the locker room, a tour of the clubhouse. We want a sense of what it’s like to be in the pocket with a linebacker so close you can hear his heartbeat, a sense of what it’s like to catch the basketball, turn, shoot, hand in the face and not even need to look because you know it’s good. We want a sense of what it’s like to dig into the batters box and know a 100-mph fastball is coming and summon the quickness to hit it.

Yes, we do want to know, it’s why we read the autobiographies, it’s why we play the video games, it’s why we listen to the interviews. Often, we find the answers to be unfulfilling or frustrating or even maddening. Often we find that athletes cannot tell us what it feels like anymore than you or I can tell someone what chocolate tastes like. Often we find the same boring cliches behind the curtain that are in front of it. Often we find that what athletes really think clashes pretty hard against what we want them to think.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a press conference featuring Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil, a man I very much like and respect even more. The Chiefs had just lost a devastating playoff game against Indianapolis — a game when the Chiefs’ defense had completely fallen down — and Vermeil had made the unenviable but inevitable decision to accept the resignation of defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. The moment was still raw, and Vermeil, through tears, attacked, well, everyone around him.

“There might be a number of you,” Vermeil said to the gathered press, “that don’t come close to understanding what a real man is all about.”

“There are very few people in this room that have the guts to do what he did,” he said of Robinson.

“Very few people can relate to what it’s like — the level of excellence that we all hold ourselves accountable for in this business,” he said in general.

“This is what you have to do in this business,” he concluded. “And there are very few people in this room that can relate.”

As I wrote in the next day’s column, there was a Vietnam veteran in that room. There were numerous parents who worked preposterously long days and still had to find a way to make ends meet. There were people in that room who had battled with divorce, with illness, with death of loved ones, with trying times, with personal crises, with getting fired, with lousy bosses, with bankruptcy, with impossibly complex problems. I listened to Dick go on and on about the singular courage and unsurpassed sacrifice of football people and how no one outside the locker room could possibly understand it, and I grew angrier and angrier. The next day, I wrote an angry column about the lack or perspective inside the football bubble.

Later, Dick told me that he was overly emotional that day and that he regretted what he had said. I think that’s right. But looking back, I realize that I had missed something. Dick was giving us exactly what we all crave: He was giving us an unvarnished, raw and gritty view of what it’s like in a professional football locker room. Maybe it’s not the image many people idealize, but it’s is very real and illuminating. Vermeil was letting us in, letting us see that the football epicenter is dense with emotion, with loyalty, with paranoia, with passion, with love, with fury and with more than a little bit of disdain for the outside world.

CALCATERRA: Harper more of a leader than Papelbon

C.J. opened up that baseball world for us with his column. Look, here’s what I see: I see Papelbon purposely and horrifically plunking Baltimore’s Manny Machado based on some stupid and outdated baseball code, and I see Harper telling a reporter that he doesn’t believe in that code. A few days later, I see Harper hitting a fly ball in a tie game, having a second of frustration and then jogging to first base in a perfectly acceptable way. I see Papelbon stupidly screaming at Harper to run it out, baiting him into responding and then going for his neck. I see Harper as one of baseball’s best players and someone who has grown up a lot, and I see Papelbon as a volatile one-inning pitcher who doesn’t add that much value to a team and wouldn’t be on any team that I was running.

OK … my point of view as a sportswriter.

But C.J. sees it exactly the opposite. He sees Papelbon’s plunking of Machado as an expression of loyalty to the team. He sees Harper’s comment to the reporter as a public rebuke of a teammate and completely out of line. He sees Harper loaf after hitting that fly ball, and not for the first time. He sees Papelbon, as a longtime star and a World Series champion, doing what a good veteran should do — calling out a young player who doesn’t play the game right. He sees the ensuing fight as unfortunate but the sort of thing that happens in baseball. And he’s not the only one who sees it that way — every ballplayer he called offered at least a similar version.

OK … their view as the ballplayers C.J. talked with.

Every single longtime sportswriter has heard the line “What do you know? You never played the game,” thousands of times. Some of my friends are defensive about it. Some get angry. Over time, I’ve sort of come to understand something: It’s true. I’ve never played Major League Baseball. As a kid, I wanted to badly. I wasn’t good enough.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get a job as a sportswriter. And that lucky job has taken me all over the world, given me a seat at some of the world’s greatest sporting events, put me across the notepad from some of the most amazing athletes of our generation, allowed me to ask Billy Williams how he hit a slider and Steph Curry how he gets off his shot so fast and Priest Holmes how he picks a hole to run through and Martina Hingis how to get into the head of an opponent and Maruice Greene how it feels at full speed. I love the games. I love to write. That has given me a perspective that, I hope, is interesting enough to read.

C.J. Nitkowski played Major League Baseball. He was a huge prospect for the Reds — I will never forget Jim Bowden taking me out to the bullpen at spring training, pointing and saying, “That kid is going to be a star.” — and it didn’t go as planned. He struggled. But he didn’t give in. He scraped and clawed his way up,, and he got in 10 years in the big leagues, an amazing athletic achievement, and he played in Japan, and he played in Korea. He writes, he does radio, he does television, he thinks about the game constantly. He teaches me something about the game every time I hear him. And I guess that’s the real point: I don’t have to agree with him to learn. In fact, I tend to learn more when I don’t agree with him.