Sometimes sports isn’t just about what happens out there in the heat of competition.
Sure, it’s the winning and losing that brings fans to a fever pitch and puts the games on TV and makes the money such an important element to it all. So much of American society is hooked on this screaming, passionate dynamic.
But sometimes all these games are more about character. Building it. Showing it. Living it.
I’m reminded of this as I follow the New York Mets as August turns to September, and this baseball team I’ve cheered for since they were born in 1962 when I was 4 years old pulls out in front of their division by 6 1/2 games over the rival Washington Nationals.
My Mets don’t get to the top much, two World Series championships in all of my years of loyalty, another two defeats in that promised land, a handful of playoff appearances besides that.
That alone builds stern stuff within fans in the many down years.
One of the reasons for the resurgence has been the play of outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, attained in a late July trade with the Detroit Tigers. The 29-year-old native of Cuba hits big homers and doubles and roams the field with a big arms. He plays with a magnetism and a flair. His arrival has been widely and wildly applauded. I’ve written here with about my approval, adding that the Mets’ general manager Sandy Alderson should think about signing the free agent to the rich contract that he’ll surely attract at the end of this season.
To me, several actions on the field now made me slightly wary.
When Céspedes strikes out and the catcher drops the ball, he does not run to first base. He simply turns and heads to the dugout. Baseball protocol calls for the batter to run toward first base, forcing the catcher to retrieve the ball and fire it to beat him to the bag. And 99.9 percent of the time, this indeed happens. But once in a while, the ball will bounce far enough away and or a hustling runner will cause a harried catcher to make a bad throw, and the team up will get an extra out that inning.
I don’t like that he doesn’t give my team that bit of a chance.
Then last night, in 10th inning of a tied game, the Boston Red Sox’s batter hit a screaming line drive over the head of Mets’ center fielder Juan Lagares. It hit high on the fence and bounced past Lagares back toward the infield. The catcher sprinted all around the bases for a rare inside-the-park home run. Left field Céspedes did not move an inch from his spot. The cameras caught this, and Mets announcers Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez pointed this out as a lackluster play on Céspedes’ part.
The Red Sox scored three runs in the inning and the Mets fell 6-4. The cameras also caught that the line drive may have hit over an orange line, missed by the umpires, and should have been called a regular home run. No matter. Céspedes should have sprinted over on contact to back up his teammate. Was he insulted that Lagares was playing center instead of him? This I do not know.
What I do know is that this awesome player’s lack of hustle in these instances goes against the life lessons sports is supposed to instill to kids who love them so. Always go at things hard, every instance, all the time. Try your best.
Today, four teams will play in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., teams from Japan and Mexico playing for the International title and Pennsylvania and Texas for the U.S. crown. May the 12-year-olds play hard, respect each other, show that sports is a good ladder into life.
Do I still want the Mets to sign Céspedes? Tough question, that. Do I give up a principle I’ve held close to my heart my whole life because this player is so wildly talented otherwise? Is this just a little quirk to be overlooked, or even a cultural difference I’m supposed to understand and forgive? Am I over thinking this whole situation?
Here’s the source for the photo of Céspedes.
Should pro sports players be held as role models for youngsters? Should Little League coaches be character builders or just sports teachers? Should the Mets try to sign Céspedes or use the non-hustle plays to get out of offering him many years for mega money?