And on the eighth day the sports gods gave us veteran players, who have come to appreciated what they have, who have invaluable perspective, who generally have outgrown the petulance and boorish behavior that so frequently come with athletic youth. So John Smoltz is a member of the Red Sox. Watching and listening to him on Tuesday at Fenway Park, it was impossible to feel anything but delighted. Smoltz may or may not prove to be an asset to the Red Sox on the field this season, largely because that depends on the health of his right arm. But off the field, where baseball players spend an inordinate amount of time together, almost everyone in and around the Boston organization can learn something from a man who has seen and done it all.
Said Smoltz, “I value the chemistry inside a locker room and having the ability to talk to players and have an influence.”
At this stage, so should we.
With all due respect to young players, they just don’t get it. They rarely do. Having had nothing but themselves (and their careers) to focus on during most of their lives, young players end up exhibiting varying degrees of cluelessness, selfishness, and egomania. Through high school and college, the large majority of them have been subjects of nothing but hero worship. They spend more time talking about “me” and less time talking about “us” largely because they see themselves as at least one class above the human race.
After all, it takes some good, old-fashioned humility to humble a person, and most young players are accustomed to wiping the floor with inferior athletes.
But the veteran guys? With the possible exception of Rickey Henderson, they almost always have humility, because the game has caught up to them. So has life. Your average veteran player has been married, divorced, and married again. He is paying alimony or child support or both. He has had good seasons and bad ones, played on winners and losers, celebrated individual achievement, and endured personal tragedy.
He inevitably has come to the conclusion that we all do at some point: In the grand scheme of things, I’m just not that important.
The young guy? Between stints in front of his Wii and Xbox 360, he spends most of his time listening to his iPod. He shows up at the ballpark early and leaves late, working on his body before, during, and after. Along the way, he tells us about such things as his dietary habits, sleep habits, and daily routine, mostly because we stand in front of his locker and ask him.
His mistake comes in believing that somehow those things matter to anyone else. Here’s something the young player never does: He never asks about you, the way any grounded person would. He never asks you for a movie tip or restaurant recommendation, the way someone like Bret Saberhagen might. He never talks about his failures as candidly as David Cone.
He never sits there the way John Smoltz does, speaking openly and honestly, making you feel that he is, above all else, interesting. He never makes you feel as though he is telling the truth.
In Red Sox history, in recent years, veteran players have served an important role. Years ago, when Red Sox youngsters like Mike Greenwell arrived in the Boston clubhouse, they were made to feel uncomfortable, inadequate, as if they didn’t belong. The dynamic is so, so different now. In the last several years, the Red Sox have had veterans like Saberhagen, Cone, John Burkett, and Rod Beck. Tim Wakefield has gone from an insecure 28-year-old whose career was on the scrap heap to a 42-year-old father of two, and he is far more interesting now. (He would admit this.) Ramon Martinez was trying to hold on when he came to Boston. So was Ellis Burks, the second time around. Mike Stanley had the wisdom of a sage when he arrived in Boston — on both occasions.
What all of those men lacked by the time they landed at Fenway was the talent that, at one time or another, allowed them to perform at or near the peak of their industry.
On most successful teams, there is always a balance of youth and experience. It makes perfect sense. Without the urgency the young players produce, the veterans might too easily accept failure. Without the older players’ level-headedness, the younger players might self-destruct. In poor environments, they come to resent one another; in healthy ones, the older players chalk up the behavior of the younger ones to youth and the younger ones feel the older ones have their best interests in mind.
Almost always, with few exceptions, the older guys are always there to talk to us, to talk to you, to explain what has happened, will happen, or might happen. They are there to process information and to learn from it, assuming they have not learned from it already. They are there to relate experiences in a manner most people can comprehend because they have long since learned the lesson young players have yet to learn.
As much as we may all seem different, we really are all the same.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti