The Whistlers

Today, I’d rather think about Barry Larkin and Ron Santo going into the Hall of Fame, Tim McCarver going in as the Frick Award recipient, and Bob Elliott going in as the Spink Award recipient. Thank Murray Chass for putting that to one side for now. Chass, himself a Hall of Fame baseball writer (longtime New York Times reporter and columnist whose specialties included acute analyses of the business side of the game), has uncorked yet another in his periodic series which could be called “Valentine’s Day,” considering that Bobby Valentine has been a particular bete noire of Chass’s since Chass was still a Timesman and Valentine was the manager of the New York Mets.

Did he suffer no whistleblower gladly?

Now, Chass has amplified what was merely suspected: the possibility that Valentine threw Kevin Youkilis under the proverbial bus in April in a bid to make it that much easier for the Boston Red Sox to purge the popular third baseman. You may remember (you should remember) Valentine pronouncing about Youkilis, “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.” Chass thinks many see ulterior motives and that those folk aren’t quite right.

Physically, Valentine was probably right, though one notes Youkilis having something of a renaissance with the Chicago White Sox since he was dealt there, for a pair of no-names, in late June. Mentally, of course, Valentine was wrong. And when the White Sox visited Boston recently, Valentine couldn’t resist yet another shot at Youkilis, saying outright that Youkilis wouldn’t let the April issue die: “I think the comment I made early, he made a big issue out of, and I don’t think he ever wanted to get over it.”

Not so fast, says Chass:

[L]et’s try to understand this Valentine version of reasoning.

Valentine makes an unprovoked and unnecessary comment about a player, and the player is supposed to accept it without retort. Furthermore, the player should just forget the manager made the comment and never bring it up.

That’s the way Valentine would like it, but that’s not the way the world works, especially the sports world, where professional athletes feel empowered to speak when not spoken to. And does Valentine really think anyone is going to believe that the fault for any continuing differences between Valentine and Youkilis lies with Youkilis?

I don’t believe it, either. And I suspect as Chass does, that perhaps the real reason Youkilis was unloaded was that he proved a whistleblower. Whistleblowers are no more popular in baseball than they are in the corporate world, or in government, or in just about anyplace you can think of. You don’t unload a clubhouse leader and teacher for two non-entities without (you think) a good reason. And I don’t think anyone bought into any idea that the Red Sox were swapping Youkilis for parts of a future.

Youkilis may have been the Red Sox player who exposed the backstory of last year’s September collapse, the clubhouse and dugout indulgences of practically their entire starting rotation, Josh Beckett and company munching chicken and pounding brewskis while the Red Sox flamed out. The Boston Globe, which wrote the story shortly after the regular season ended, never named Youkilis as the primary source, but as Chass notes, the Globe “has basically confirmed it by omitting any mention of the source in the face of other reports.”

The collapse led to manager Terry Francona basically jumping the ship his rats did their best to sink before he could be made to walk the plank. The backstory exposed the capable Francona as having lost control of a clubhouse he usually policed by letting his veterans play the cops. Valentine may not have let that play into his thinking in April, and (Chass makes a point of noting this) he surely got the skinny from holdover coaches and other personnel. But Valentine has a history of tangling with popular players. (Todd Hundley on the Mets was only the most egregious example, perhaps until now.) Or, at least, trying to undermine players with problems he can’t quite process. (Valentine was particularly nasty about things when one-time Met pitcher Pete Harnisch suffered clinical depression, accusing Harnisch of lacking guts.) It leads you to wonder seriously whether whistleblowing is something else he can’t wrap around.

He wouldn’t be the first who couldn’t. And he probably won’t be the last. You can probably stock a roster with baseball whistleblowers, or those thought to be such, who may have learned the hard way about any kind of whistling.

Did questioning the Little League in print hurt him in the Show?

Joey Jay was the first Little League alumnus to make it to the Show, as a bonus-baby Milwaukee Brave. While with the Braves (who had to keep him on the major league roster his first two years, under the bonus rule of the time), Jay wrote a magazine article urging parents to think carefully before letting their kids play Little League ball: Jay had suffered when Little League officials tried barring him because he was rather tall and large for his age.  Nobody knows for dead last certain whether that Little League critique had a hand in it, but Jay never really got a chance to crack the Braves’ rotation, though his talent was always apparent. (His best season as a Brave was 1958, but he had to miss the World Series with a broken finger.) The Braves finally traded him to Cincinnati for the 1961 season . . . and Jay practically meant the pennant for the ’61 Reds. He reeled off back-to-back 20+-win seasons (1961, 1962; he was Cincinnati’s first 20-game winner since Ewell Blackwell in 1947) before he hit his downslope to stay. It was enough to make you wonder whether his earlier writing about the Little League experience didn’t harm Jay in the majors.

“The hard hat who sued baseball . . .”

When Carl Furillo was cut by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1960, while on the disabled list with a torn muscle, the proud right fielder didn’t take it meekly. He sued the Dodgers, claiming the team released him wrongfully (his contract said he couldn’t be released when injured) to keep him from the higher pension a fifteen-year player would receive and to keep from paying his medical expenses. Furillo actually won the suit (he collected $21,000) but he went to his grave (he died at 66 in 1989) never really knowing whether he’d been blackballed out of future work as a coach or manager. (Roger Kahn—who caught up to Furillo when Furillo worked installing elevators in the World Trade Center; one can only thank God Furillo didn’t live to see the towers come down on 9/11—called his The Boys of Summer chapter on Furillo, “The Hard Hat Who Sued Baseball.”)

“A kooky beatnik . . .”

Jim Brosnan wasn’t exactly trying to blow whistles on wrongdoing when he wrote The Long Season and Pennant Race, arguably the first two from-the-inside looks at life in the Show. Brosnan also wrote frequent magazine articles from his perspective as a useful relief pitcher. He wasn’t even close to the sort of expositor Jim Bouton would prove a decade later, writing of feelings and inside technical knowledge rather than every daily detail, but it didn’t stop Joe Garagiola from calling him “a kooky beatnik.” As much a humourist as a diarist, Brosnan had written of one season when he transitioned from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Reds, and another as a from-the-inside look at the Reds while they were winning their surprise 1961 pennant. (Brosnan was one of that team’s two key relief pitchers, with Bill Henry.) When Brosnan was traded to the White Sox for 1964, he retired rather than accept the team’s management’s demand to send every article he might write to their front office for team approval.

No silence about a racial snub . . .

Earl Wilson refused to keep his mouth shut when he and a pair of white Red Sox teammates were denied service in a Florida bar in spring training 1966, after the server crowed, “We don’t serve niggers in here.” When Wilson took it to the team’s then-management, they warned Wilson to stay quiet, as though the incident never happened. Wilson fumed quietly, then took it to the press. It cooked the righthander with the Red Sox; he would be traded to the Detroit Tigers early in the season, for a middling relief pitcher and a fading outfielder who would, among other things, hit fewer home runs as a Red Sox than Wilson—a fine hitting pitcher—hit in his entire major league career. Wilson, for his part, would post a few fine seasons for the Tigers (he led the American League in wins in 1967) before retiring.

Published and perished . . .

Even Bouton wasn’t exactly trying to blow whistles on wrongdoing when he wrote Ball Four, necessarily, though he did expose some juicy details about the one-sided negotiating positions into which players in the reserve era were subject. Like Brosnan, Bouton kept a diary of his 1969 season between the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros. He merely recorded far more details of life on and off the field. But once the book was published, and Bouton’s candor raised a bigger uproar than Brosnan ever provoked, his major league days were numbered. Though his manager at the time swore Bouton was cut purely because he’d finally lost whatever he had left in his pitching arm (he’d been reduced to a junkballer by arm miseries that began in 1965), the timing probably made even Bouton’s enemies wonder whether it was his best-seller and not his hittability that ended his career. And no baseball commissioner tried actively to suppress Brosnan’s books or Jay’s article.

The needle and the damage done . . .

Curt Flood probably didn’t help his own cause by publishing The Way It Is at the height of his legal challenge to the reserve clause, even if former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, taking Flood’s case pro bono, may have done the most to assure Flood of losing before the high court. When Ken Caminiti went public (in Sports Illustrated) a year after he retired, and became baseball’s first player to admit having used actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, there were published fears that he, too, would be blackballed from the game. (He’d worked as a spring instructor with the San Diego Padres, for whom he’d played a few seasons including his MVP season, and seemed to have a future as a full-time coach somewhere.) A troubled man who had already battled alcoholism and cocaine, Caminiti’s life spiraled further beyond control (his marriage collapsed; he lapsed back to cocaine) until his death of a drug overdose in 2004.

It isn’t impossible to think that Kevin Youkilis punched his ticket out of Boston, where he was popular and respected most of the time (he did have that dugout run-in with Manny Ramirez once upon a time, not that Ramirez was always the most popular Red Sox), not because his skills were fading, not because his body might yet betray him again, but because he might have been the man who let loose a secret at least half of Boston might not have wanted to know.

“[W]ho is wrong here?” Chass asks. Then, he answers.

The guys who committed the acts or the guy who told about the guys who committed the acts? If Beckett and pals created an environment that helped produce the September swoon, was it wrong for Youkilis or anyone else to disclose their role?

Whistle blowers aren’t popular in any industry and are often treated with disdain, but they serve a valuable purpose. If Youkilis or someone else had blown the whistle when the beer and fried chicken first made an appearance in the Boston clubhouse, maybe the Red Sox could have created a September song instead of a September swoon.

Big “if.” And who knows what Youkilis’s Red Sox life would have been worth if he had blown the whistle before the collapse?

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