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Picking up baseballs

Jul 31, 2013, 6:31 PM EDT

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This fascinating interview of Tino Martinez by Kenny Rosenthal reminds me again that I planned years ago to write a book called “Moneyball.” Obviously it was going to be nothing at all like Michael Lewis’ classic. The idea was to write about the late 1990s Kansas City Royals and their, um, rather awkward efforts to win.

The name Moneyball in my title came from a game that George Brett introduced at training camp one year. Players would take batting practice with no fielders. Then, at the end of the session, players would run to the outfield and collect the baseballs. One of the baseballs were specially marked by Brett — and whoever found it would get 100 bucks of Brett’s money.

It was awesome and hilarious to watch those players race to the outfield to find the Moneyball — more so because there in the group, running as hard as anyone, was George Brett himself. “I’m going pay myself!” he yelled as he ran to the outfield.

Of the many traditions and quirks of baseball, I think my favorite is that baseball players — no matter how good or unknown or famous they might be — collect and return baseballs after batting practice. I love this tradition beyond words. I don’t mind baseball players getting hundreds of millions of dollars, not at all. They are fantastic athletes who play more games than anybody in any other sport, and they provide wonderful entertainment — they should get as much as anyone is willing to pay them. I also understand the money will change athletes like it changes everyone and baseball will never be quite as intimate as it used to be.

But I hope that they always pick up their own baseballs. It’s a small thing, I know — we’re not exactly talking about the days when baseball players had to get winter jobs. But it represents something to me. Every time a coach shouts out, “OK, get ‘em up,” and you see Barry Bonds or Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones or Dustin Pedroia or Miguel Cabrera go pick up baseballs and put them back into the bucket, I feel great. It is something that ties them to the game’s history. It is something that says, “No matter what I get paid, I’m a ballplayer — and while I might have yachts and sports cars and five homes, like all the little kids playing, I have to pick up my own baseballs.”

I don’t know if the Tino Martinez saga really comes down to a couple of Marlins players refusing to pick up baseballs like he says now. As you know, Martinez resigned under pressure as Marlins hitting coach because players said he had been verbally and physically abusive. This was surprising because Martinez had a reputation as a pretty decent guy as a player. So Martinez fought back with this Ken Rosenthal interview, and this is where he talked about guys refusing to pick up baseballs. I don’t know if that’s the story.

But it’s all complicated. This question of where the line between severe demanding coaching and abuse continues to baffle America — it wasn’t so long ago that Martinez would have been fired for NOT being verbally (if not physically) abusive for a Marlins team dead last in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

In fact, in reliving the Martinez story, my friend Chardon Jimmy remembered a football coach who yelled at him: “If you ever do that again, I will reach down your throat and pull out your heart.” And I remembered a little league coach who would throw baseballs (somewhat lightly) at me in order to teach me to not bail out as a hitter. Both of us sort of laughed about it. I’m pretty sure both qualify as abuse, at least by today’s standards.

And I don’t really know what Martinez did or did not do, how far he went, whether he really grabbed a players throat or his jersey, whether that matters, how over-the-line his comments were. Heck, it’s harder all the time to know where the line is drawn. But what Martinez said about two players refusing to pick up baseballs struck a chord with me. I don’t want a generation of players who think they’re too important to pick up baseballs. I realize that’s a silly and probably dumb thing to worry about. But I worry about it anyway.

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