Ballplayers, the Press and the Truth

The New York Times

February 20, 2009

By Doug Glanville

I had messed up.

Steve Finley, of the opposing Arizona Diamondbacks, had just tagged up from second base, and not only advanced to third but was able to score on the same play — something practically unheard of in baseball. What I’d thought was the third out of the inning was actually the second, and it was nobody’s fault but mine. Mistakes like forgetting how many outs there are happen. Most of the time, no one notices. But it’s one thing to miscount when you’re on the bench; it’s another when you’re the captain of the outfield — in my case, the Phillies’ centerfielder — and therefore responsible for knowing the number of outs like the back of my hand.

Finley touched home plate, and I stood in the outfield in a daze. On the mound our pitcher, Robert Person, took his hat off and scratched his head, wondering what in the world was going on. I couldn’t wait for the inning to end. Once the true third out was recorded, I ran in from center, feeling sick to my stomach. The Diamondbacks fans were letting me know about it, but probably not as much as I was letting myself know about it. I had egregiously contradicted my reputation as a cerebral player, one who didn’t make a lot of mental errors.

It was just that on this particular day, part of me was home in New Jersey with my father, who two days earlier has suffered the first of what would be a series of debilitating strokes. I knew it was bound to affect my performance on the field. I just didn’t know how or when it would manifest itself.

My miscue led to Arizona’s scoring a run that turned out to be crucial in their 3-2, extra-inningvictory, and I was certain the media would be waiting for me with questions I didn’t want to answer. So on my way to the locker room I took a detour and sought the support of third base coach John Vukovich, the Phillies’ father figure and a passionate protector of his “children.” I broke down as I told him my situation. John ran around to inform the general manager, Ed Wade, and the manager, Terry Francona, on my behalf. Ed graciously offered me a pass to go home. Terry took matters into his own hands and told the press, “Give the kid a break, his father just had a major stroke.”

Eventually, I would appreciate that Terry’s intention was to protect me and get the reporters to ease up. And to some degree, it worked. On the other hand, the floodgates were now open and I had no plan for what I was going to say.

In such moments you go through the most difficult internal battles regarding the media.

We witnessed it in its grandest form this week as Alex Rodriguez addressed the public at a press conference about his steroid use. Most players interview with an open-ended, piecemeal approach in the locker room. But on special occasions, players can talk to everyone at once, under the supervision of the team public relations department. Those encounters are tightly organized and often limited in both time and scope — a much more controlled setting than is typical.

But the general rule is that players are thrown in the media fire right out of the gate, although there are occasional efforts by the team (I’m thinking, for instance, of my experience in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system) to give you some tips to use under pressure. I still remember a few: speak in short answers; maintain eye contact; keep your emotions in check.
Once you make it through an interview session, you often don’t get direct feedback about how you fared. Not so in Rodriguez’s case. It seemed, instantly, there was a poll stating that half the viewers found him believable, half did not. I thought he did what he set out to do by proactively detailing his choices, working to regain the opportunity to redeem himself and doing what he could to move forward. But whenever 50 percent believe you and 50 percent don’t, I guess you could flip a coin to determine whether you did an effective job. Blissful ignorance is probably the easier route.

As you rise through the professional ranks, you see the P.R. machine grow in size and scale. There are minor league teams with one reporter covering them. At the major league level, you answer to an army of journalists.

For the most part, interviewing is a free-for-all. There was a league-wide rule that reporters couldn’t enter the locker room until 15 minutes after the end of the game — a “cooling off” period — but once that expired, it was time to talk. If you weren’t involved in key plays or attached to a breaking story, you probably didn’t get any questions. But if you were in the thick of the action, get ready.

For starting pitchers, this was routine whenever they pitched. There would be a sea of TV cameras, microphones, journalists, columnists, beat writers, you name it. They had a job to do: pass on the news to the fans. If a mutual respect formed between you and the press, it would be a positive relationship. Over time, I made many friends who were part of the media, who are for the most part caring people.

But that may not be how every player feels.

In any event, I knew how it all worked. I understood that I was a public figure. But when my father got sick, in a way I resented that I had to tell them anything about what was happening on the home front. I didn’t know if some rogue reporter would try to get his medical records or maybe sneak a picture or two. I wanted the right to tell only the people I wanted to know, not millions of strangers. (There were even guys on my own team who I probably wouldn’t have told.) Weren’t there some things I could keep to myself without being seen as deceitful?
I answered all of the questions about my father over the next several days, and the aftermath yielded a 24/7 inquisition into his health. I was spending more time talking about him than being with him. Although I understood that fans, teammates and front-office managers were genuinely worried about my state of mind andhis health, I had no privacy, no place to go and reflect, no place to escape or even deal with the relentless fear that my father was dying.

And up until then, baseball used to be that place of escape. I could forget about my worries, I could take it out on the little white ball or just run free in the outfield. On the field, I could be all jock and not the “rocket scientist,” as my former Cubs teammate (and current baseball legend in Japan) Tuffy Rhodes used to call me. I considered it a safe place. No questions were asked.

That all changes once you sign that professional contract and then make a name for yourself. There is no pleading the fifth in this arena, certainly not without consequence.
And maybe you are hiding something — or protecting something, like a sick father or a broken marriage. Maybe you don’t want to share the information that a debilitating disease is the reason you weren’t in the line-up yesterday. Maybe you don’t want to tell the world you made a selfish mistake by taking steroids because you’re not ready to have your daughter look at you differently. If you do want to tell people, you at least want the right to tell them yourself.

If we really want to know who these players are, we’d embrace their lies as well as their truths, because their lies tell you just as much about them. They tell you what they are afraid of, what they would sacrifice themselves for, what demons they have not dealt with, what they are working on. These things have every bit to do with who they are as their .325 batting average from the year before.

If, as a public figure, I have a responsibility to show everything about who I am, then those in charge of what I share also have a responsibility to use it carefully, and those who enjoy that information have a responsibility to be patient. There is so much discussion about these players and what makes them tick that it’s only natural to feel that we know them well. And we expect more from them, somehow, because of the magic and beauty this game emits and the young fans it inspires.

But beyond the wands, the robes and the press conferences, we really don’t know these players intimately. What we know often isn’t based on a relationship with one-on-one depth. Yet as a player you’re expected to share things that you might not even tell your own brother.

So whether you are A-Rod or the last guy to make the team out of spring training, you might not always be as forthcoming as some would like. It could be for fear of not living up to something, or to keep someone safe, or maybe it’s pure deception — all the ways we all use to avoid facing certain unpleasantries in our lives. It’s human nature to preserve and protect. And even though this game inspires magic, its magicians need the latitude to be human.

New York Times 02/20/2009


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