A story reported initially by The Athletic and discussed here by Yahoo brings up an issue that will never change in sports and probably shouldn’t change in sports – how a clubhouse/locker room is handled by the veteran players and the steps said veteran players should take to teach younger players how to behave in the top professional leagues.
In this instance, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Bud Norris is reportedly “riding” flamethrower Jordan Hicks and has been doing so since spring training. Complicating matters is manager Mike Matheny’s role in the situation as he has shed any notion of ambiguity and chuckled about it with tacit approval.
While greater attention has been paid to so-called “hazing”, for many veteran players, there is a belief that they are extending a hand to the young players and helping them by showing them the proper way to act.
Of course, there are the players who are simply jerks and, were it not for their status in the .0001 percentile of having the athletic ability to reach the top level of their sport, they’d bounce from job to job and blame everyone else for their self-inflicted problems. Mel Hall is one. Jon Rauch is another. Both needed to be threatened to stop their act: Hall by Gerald Williams when he wouldn’t leave Bernie Williams alone with the early 1990s Yankees; Rauch by Matt Harvey with the Mets when Harvey was the target of the treatment.
If the player is relatively useless and is lucky to have a job, the organization can take advantage of these issues to have the player serve as an example and get rid of him for his behavior.
Into which category does Norris fall?
He’s not totally disposable as he does have some use. But he’s not someone from whom any organization should tolerate off-field distraction. Fortunately for him, he’s having a very good year as the Cardinals closer.
Still, veterans get their leeway in overseeing the clubhouse sans interference from the manager. Matheny’s mistake is not in signing off on the behavior, but in commenting on it at all. One of the fastest ways for a manager to lose support in the clubhouse is to interfere with the clubhouse hierarchy and how the veterans police it. The clubhouse is supposed to be sacrosanct and the domain of the players. Managers stepping in over such trivial issues tends to explode in their faces.
Part of the manager’s job is assessing the situation and determining if the target of the treatment is being negatively impacted by the behavior; if it is affecting his performance and, by extension hurting the team, or if he’s just being too sensitive to mostly harmless hijinks. If it’s the former, then he must step in for the good of the club and its sole purpose: winning.
With social media and the disappearance of the line as to what the public should and should not know, outside voices who have never been athletes and part of the competitive world of intense scrutiny and pressure they inhabit will transpose a sports organization into a conventional workplace when it is not that and should not be perceived as such.
Some young players arrive in the majors and immediately misbehave. If that misbehavior is damaging the player and the team, the veteran players are correct in addressing it. If that is viewed as hazing, so be it.
As for Norris going to Matheny with infractions that deviate from the oft-mentioned and unabashedly self-important “Cardinals culture”, that’s not going to win him any friends not just with the Cardinals, but throughout baseball. It does cross a line, this time in the opposite direction, breaching the same protocol managers adhere to with their hands-off approach.
Nobody likes a rat. If said rat is costing the players money in fines and perhaps disfavor with the manager and possibly the entire organization, it can easily escalate from a veteran educating a young player to irreparable fissures. While Matheny essentially named Norris as the bullpen capo who keeps the others in line, there remains a difference between Norris following the standard he set in policing the clubhouse and running to the manager as a tattletale.
It’s Matheny’s clubhouse and he can run it as he sees fit. He’s a tough guy and old-school player. He’s extended that to his role as manager. If he’s adhering to that, he should know that the bad far outweighs the good in having a player running to the manager with stories about code violations and that he makes it worse by telling the media about it.
It’s not up to the media or fans to judge any of this, but there should at least be some boundaries on both sides and from all the insider perspectives.