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The Baseball Caste System

Bear with me.

I have a theory.

Every person possesses a desire to be great at something. Call it the history or bust gene. Everyone desires to be remembered well beyond their stay. This transcends religion, culture, so on. You want to be known for something, ideally as a talented or great individual. People possess the desire for appreciation, celebration, and declaration.

You hear about this trait so often in sports that it loses all realism. This supposedly rarified drive to be great exists only in certain players. Usually those with physical anomalies. He's too short, too slow, too fat, and too ugly. The way some talk about it makes you think it should be a quality you should seek intently, poaching the possessors like elephant tusks.

You see, in baseball, you're one of three categories. The major two sects being the hard-workers and the no-gooders. I want to address the hard-workers first. The royal class of the groupings.

It just so happens the Rays are playing the Red Sox while I write this and they feature a handful of players who fit the bill. Dustin Pedroia is the most obvious. He's short. We all know this. Apparently he has the cockiness of a college kid and the self-importance of ... well a tiny person. This means absolutely nothing to most people. So what if he's short? If he can hit the baseball, let him play. Well it seems to mean everything to the people who cover the game. This isn't a self-esteem issue - although I'm sure little kids were and still are mean to Pedroia - but by golly Pedroia has apparently used it as steam. This is why he's great, because his disability causes him to aspire for greatness.

Kevin Youkilis has god-awful facial hair, a smirk-inspiring batting stance, and thunder thighs that detract from his mobility. He attended the University of Cincinnati. After drawing a million walks and seeing Billy Beane swoon over him, Youkilis became an everyday player in the majors. Because Youkilis had to step on a college campus it means he is an underdog. That's how it works in baseball. The extremely talented kids never reach college and if they do it's because they want more money. Everyone ignores his phenomenal eye and obvious baseball skills in favor of the lunch-pail, blue-collar, everyday man. The media has made Youkilis into a politician.

So we have Snoopy and Kevin the Baseball Player here, and they have this burning passion to win and succeed. How are we supposed to know this? We aren't. The trait just appears in random players across the league - although peculiarly enough seem to collect in large TV markets - only manifesting itself because so and so announced it during the game.

I can safely say I've heard about a hundred different baseball players referred to with this rare performance enhancing distinction. Which makes me wonder how common is this? Are there pills you can pop? Syringes to load? How widespread is this damn epidemic?

None of that is needed. It's all natural baby. Everyone I've talked to about this unclenching desire for long-standing recognition has experienced it. Some of these guys have played high school ball and maybe some college ball, but there aren't any professional players. So if normal people possess this then why is it glorified in professional baseball players?

I loathe people who question a player's effort. Most of you work or go to school a good portion of the year. How many times can you say you've went 95% of your days without a careless mistake or without exhibiting some forgetfulness? Put your hand down in the back, no need to lie. Everyone has bad days. Baseball players are part of everyone. Basic SAT exercise here: therefore baseball players have bad days.

Two players can have identically poor days, but we'll still lionize one the next day while cannibalizing the other based purely off the perception of effort. Derek Jeter dives for a ball three feet to his right and it's a difficult play. Jimmy Rollins boots a ball after running six feet and people question where his head is. The difference between the two is perception. Jeter has "it", the scar of victors. Rollins does not. Ignore his World Series ring and vindicated guarantees.

There is no way to logically believe we can parse through all the players and separate those who have "it". Do some players long for fame or a certain hall while others want the money more? Sure but it's still a hope for history. Outside of baseball statistics there is no way to quantify greatness. Is it your bank account? Number of friends? The amount of sexual partners? Cars you own? Or is it an indescribable feeling of accomplishment after thirty-something years of work.

Nobody tries explaining what that feeling is despite damn well knowing. Being alive and aware means you know it; the pang in the stomach followed by a sensation of driving numbness. At least that's what I know the feeling as, maybe it's a tumor or ulcer. It's overpowering in its persistence. For most of these players I assume this kept them going after that 0-6 night in Double-A. The one where mom said it would be okay if you moved back into your room if you wanted to move on.

I was told Kevin the Baseball Player was on Jim Rome today complaining about how fans don't know what players go through; that being his reasoning as to why criticizing player's performances should be taboo. Yeah, except we do know what you go through. Adding to his everyman image he flares out in frustration, his situation as a baseball player is very isolated and unique. He's been crafted to believe this, just like everyone else.

What's my purpose in writing this? What is my desired reaction, goal, why in the bloody hell am I writing another emo piece on here? Because I'm tired of fans questioning effort and feel they should know better.

Now let's address the no-gooders. Call them pagans for not buying into this cliqued religion or simply being unaware of its existence.

B.J. Upton is probably the least well-regarded player when it comes to benefit of the doubt given concerning his effort on the field. Upton is about the closest thing the Rays have to a true antihero. He goes against every sense of "rightness" they teach you in little leagues. He doesn't appear to run super duper hard, some could call him a bonafide showoff when it comes to basket catches, and he strikes out a ton in an area still stricken with K stigma. Oh and he uses rap songs about marijuana and oral sex as his ditty music, but I suppose that's implied by "rap songs".  

I write about him a lot and people usually ask me why I like him so much. The conversation goes like this:

Them: Why do you like him so much?

Me: Well, I got into advanced offensive statistics in 2007 and I realized he was really good.

Them: Okay, but last year?

Me: Well, I got into advanced defensive statistics in 2008 and I realized he was really good.

Them: ...And this year?

Me: Well, uh.

The underdog aspect is compelling to a ton of people. I'm hardly original in rooting for the underrated but I never claimed to be. Upton is the lead hound in the pack and  boy people love wondering how much he likes baseball.

Upton became a major league baseball player at age 19 and a regular before he could legally drink. His minor league debut came when he was 18 years, one month old. That means he's been involved in baseball essentially since he was born.

The burnout rate for accountants is something like five-to-seven years.  The mental drain and repetition makes it a temporary career. Baseball is more of a physical burnout, but certainly the mental aspects are underplayed. We've seen about a half dozen players claim depression this season. It's not a new disease; players have dealt with stuff like this for years while keeping things low. Let me digress on this point and get back to Upton.

Imagine practicing an instrument nearly every single day since you were 12-years-old. For more than half your life, all you know is playing that instrument. You play some concerts, some shows at a club, and as it turns out, people like you. The club starts paying you upfront and things look great, but you've been doing this for 12+ years. What drives you to continue? It wasn't the money until recently; it isn't the fame because you have little. Is it the desire to master the craft?

Upton has put in more hours at a baseball field than most of us will our entire lives. By suggesting that he doesn't care about the game you're suggesting that most of his life is irrelevant to him. I suppose it could be true, but why the hell would he continue to play if he hated and was disinterested by it?

Further, we know through statistical means that he's pretty good. Either he's the most talented man on Earth, capable of out producing thousands at half-effort, or he really does care. Those are the two options. You can choose one or the other, argue semantics, whatever. Point is, either he's ridiculously good without any effort or he puts forth effort and gets result.

I'm sure when Upton was five-years-old he had zero desire to become a great baseball player. Well okay, he probably had the adolescent career equivalent of lust. Everyone wants to be a great baseball player. Most of us realize that isn't happening rather quickly. For Upton this was a realistic opportunity. His desire went from caterpillar to a swarm of butterflies over the years.

Does Upton want to be great? He's human. I think it would be silly to assume otherwise. What person doesn't want to be at the top of their craft?

August marked my third year on this site. Honestly, I was just looking for writing experience, nothing serious. It blossomed into a full time gig, per se. I should be horrified at the amount of time I've put into this place but instead all I want to do is focus on getting better. This entire piece is an effort to improve. I know my limitations as a writer. I can announce that I'd like to be considered good and it comes off arrogant every time.

I consider myself competitive. There aren't millions of dollars on the line for me though; there isn't a life of glamour and fame based off what I do here or elsewhere. This is pretty much to appease myself. There's a fair chance I'm far off the base with this theory. I don't claim to be a psychologist or humanist. My only experience with human nature is being. With that being said there is no flipping way I would keep coming back every single day if I felt like there was nothing left for me to prove to myself.

Back to Upton. There's a pretty good chance he doesn't give a damn about what you, I, or anyone says. That's not uncommon in professional anything, especially sports. We don't know these players and never will, but we spend so much time pondering them that eventually we create private personas for them. Expectations so to speak. We do this for people we know as well. What Upton portrays on the field -- that seemingly careless attitude -- people take that and apply it to him twofold. Ben Zobrist runs out everything and gets dirty. People look at him and figure he's probably a good guy in real life. Now they also have the whole religious freak aspect to act as an alibi, but my point is people create standards and imagery based purely off guys playing baseball.

This leads to more conversations. These usually happen at the ballpark between friends or sometimes complete strangers. They go something like this:

Them: "Pat Burrell seems like a snob."

Me: "How would you know?"

Them: "Eh, he just acts like one."

Me: "Huh?"

Them: "During the games. Head down, shrugging his shoulders, white gloves."

Me: "Isn't that called professionalism?"

Them: "Don't use big words. He smirks too."

Me: "And?"

Them: "Forget it."

 We have multiple dynamics at work when it comes to assessing baseball players based purely off their play.  

There's a collection of players assigned a mysterious attribute that makes them want it more than others. Yet this is almost definitely baloney because every human being desires something just as much, that "something" simply possesses no definitive qualities on a case-by-case basis.

Then we have players who don't seem to care or respect the game. These guys have their on the field actions taken to the nth degree despite putting in just as many hours as the first grouping of players if not more. Truth be told, these players are almost always more talented than their hyped-up brethren.

There's another sect of baseball players who don't fall into either circle of the Venn diagram. Let's call these players lucky. While they don't get their hard work and dedication trumpeted, they can also be occasional boneheads without hearing about it non-stop. Most ballplayers fall into this group; they are largely met with apathy or general acceptance.

Human nature leads us to storm these usually misleading identities up and classify players based on things we know absolutely nothing about. Does anyone's opinion of Evan Longoria change if we know he spends less time watching film or lifting weights than Dioner Navarro? At the same time, does anyone's opinion of Navarro change if we know he does more prep and strength work than Longoria?

We don't need these generalizations based on who gives the best quotes or gets their jerseys dirty to actually enjoy baseball and understand the players better. Buying into these illusions created by others simply hurts the understanding of players if nothing else.  

The thing I want people to take from this isn't that B.J. Upton cares or that elf jokes are easy to make. It's that we talk about major league baseball players a lot without ever giving them proper credit.  Active players are, by and large, devoted to their careers through retirement, and even then you still see retired announcers, coaches, and scouts. It takes a special kind of deviant to put in those kinds of hours without going insane. We get a ton of entertainment value from the committed; don't give them disincentive by feeling the need to mold them.