Bounties vs Targets—the NFL and MLB

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The New Orleans Saints have been given harsh sentences for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging a culture of paying cash bonuses for his players on hard hits and knockouts of opposing players. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season; GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the season; and Williams, who was hired as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in January, was suspended indefinitely—NY Times Story.

On Sunday afternoon Peter Gammons, filling in for Jerry Remy on the Red Sox TV broadcasts, was talking with broadcast partner Don Orsillo about the NFL bountygate. Gammons said it was inexcusable and that if anyone in baseball did it, Bud Selig had told him that those involved would be banned for life. Period.

If it was a player, I’m sure the MLBPA would have something to say about that penalty.

In what was a conveniently timed sequence of events, Phillies’ starter Cole Hamels hit Nationals’ rookie Bryce Harper in the back with a fastball in Sunday night’s Phillies-Nats game in Washington and then inexplicably announced that he’d done it intentionally in an “old-school” method of initiation for an arrogant, hot shot rookie.

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo called Hamels a series of names including “gutless” and said he was “opposite of old-school”. Ken Rosenthal said it was an overreaction on the part of Rizzo for a legitimate play from years gone by. Other sportswriters like Jon Heyman, admired the “toughness” of Hamels.

This is on the heels of Mike Francesa’s suggestion two weeks ago that the Mets, rather than give Jose Reyes a small video tribute on his return to Citi Field as an opponent with the Marlins, throw the ball at his head.

He said this twice.

It’s very easy to encourage these types of things when not actually standing in the box and facing the prospect of getting hit with a 95-mph fastball that can end a career or seriously injure the recipient.

I don’t have a problem with Hamels popping Harper; I do have a problem with him announcing it as if he wants credit for it. It was obvious to any longtime observer of baseball that it was done intentionally, but did the pleased-with-himself Hamels need to say, “Look! See what I did?”

In essence, because Harper is a former number 1 overall pick and is widely expected to embark on a potential Hall of Fame career starting now, he had a bulls-eye on his back and Hamels hit that bulls-eye.

We can debate the propriety of the decision by Hamels to throw at Harper just like we can debate collisions at the plate; umpires having larger strike zones for rookies to test them; or any other rites of passage that occur as a common hazing ritual for newcomers.

But you don’t announce it.

This all fits in neatly with Gammons’s discussion of the bounty program used by the Saints.

What’s missed in many of the analysis and commentaries regarding the Saints is that it wasn’t the program itself that got them in trouble. It was that the NFL told them to stop it, they said they would and didn’t.

And they got caught.

The NFL—conservative as a whole and run by Roger Goodell, whose father was a Republican U.S. Senator—is image-conscious and serious about their perception and disciplinary programs. Punishing the Saints is a combination of punitive measures and a message to everyone else not to do this.

Transferring one sport’s rules and regulations to another can be done in theory but is difficult to do in practice. There’s an overt failure to account for the differences between baseball and football. I’m not talking about the classic George Carlin comedy routine in which he declares the superiority of football to baseball—YouTube link. I’m talking about the fundamental differences between the two sports on and off the field.

MLB players have guaranteed contracts and 100% medical coverage. NFL players don’t. Because NFL players’ contracts are not guaranteed, there’s more pressure for them to play in order to keep those game checks coming in. They can be cut at anytime and be completely out of work. The NFL, such as it is, is a close-knit community and if a player is judged as not being willing to take shots and medications to get out on the field and play when he’s hurt, the rest of the league is going to know about it. It spreads like wildfire and affects their careers negatively or ends them completely.

For every star like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who have the power to command their organization to make certain maneuvers, there are the rank and file players who have to adhere to the culture or else. It’s a brutal version of survival of the fittest and most resilient, rewarding the player who can live through the war of attrition in exchange continued employment.

This doesn’t happen in baseball.

When a player signs a $100 million contract in football, his stature as a talent predicates a large signing bonus which he gets to keep, but the rest of the deal isn’t guaranteed; therefore it’s not really $100 million even though that’s what the news reports say without full context of the disposability of the contract. We see situations where teams can’t cut a player they’d dearly love to be rid of (Santonio Holmes of the Jets for example), but can’t because of salary cap ramifications. But that’s due to overzealousness and a myriad of other factors such as arrogantly thinking “we’ll be able to handle this guy”. Historically when one team can’t “handle” a guy and gets rid of him based on that and that alone, no one—not the Jets; not the Al Davis Raiders of the 1970s and 80s—will be able to handle him for any amount of money. That’s a foundational error.

Contracts in baseball are such that when Albert Pujols signed a $240 million contract with the Angels last winter, it was guaranteed that he’d collect $240 million if he never plays another game.

How many MLB players do you read about committing suicide after their careers are over? Winding up in serious trouble with the law? Have debilitating injuries?

Just last week Junior Seau committed suicide and it was forgotten the next day because the “tragedy” of the day became Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL and being lost for the season.

Which is the true tragedy?

Both are future Hall of Famers in their respective sports; both were well-liked; but Rivera will collect his $15 million salary for 2012 and receive a similar contract for 2013; Seau was rumored to be having financial troubles and domestic squabbles and was entirely unable to adjust to the freedom, emptiness and depression of not having a season or game to prepare for to go along with the wear-and-tear of a 13-year NFL career.

You can call baseball a “contact” sport, but considering the uproar when a collision at home plate occurs and knocks out the catcher, it—clean or not—becomes the impetus for calls to outlaw the home plate collision entirely. It degenerates into a pseudo-contact sport. In football, the mandate is to hit hard—it’s inherent; in baseball, a hard hit is a rare, incidental and predominately unintentional byproduct.

In football, they’ve taken steps to reduce the injuries and number of hard hits because of the bottom line need for offensive production and the stars being on the field to keep the fans engaged and happy, but they’re still very large, well-conditioned men running into one another at full speed. People get hurt. If you can’t or won’t play through pain and the backup will, then your job and career are in jeopardy without any outlet for the aggression that led to an NFL career in the first place, nor the opportunity to make the kind of money they’re making once their careers are over.

Players don’t know what to do with themselves once their regimented lives as football players are done. The simultaneous addictions to the attention, painkillers, money, pain and the compulsive need to keep going in spite of the threat of long-term damage already in place is being exacerbated; irrationality and rudderless post-career lives are too often rife with financial missteps, legal entanglements, after-effects and early deaths.

Coaches and managers are not exempt from the urgency of their professions.

MLB managers and coaches are not working the hours that NFL coaches are. Rank and file MLB assistants are comparatively well-paid and their jobs are many times as a result of patronage, friendship, loyalty or payback. In reality, apart from the pitching coach, not many MLB coaches influence the team to any grand degree.

Not so with the NFL on any count.

NFL assistants work ridiculous hours and, apart from star coordinators, aren’t paid all that well and, like the players, if they don’t have friends in the league or a good reputation, they won’t have another job when they’re let go.

John Madden left coaching because of his ulcer and didn’t return because he replaced it by carving out a Hall of Fame broadcasting career. Jim Brown retired at the top of his game to go to Hollywood. Barry Sanders and Tiki Barber both retired while they still had a few years left in them, but also had their health.

How many other football players can say that?

Mostly they play until they’re dragged off the field knowing what awaits them in the aftermath.

The sporting ideal of competitiveness, honor and fair play doesn’t truly exist. Baseball players subsist in the bubble of individual achievement within a team concept. It’s one man against another when a pitcher and hitter square off. It’s not that way in football where no one player can function without the other ten men. Football players are warriors who know their time is short and every play could be their last with nothing to fall back on aside from a lifetime of pain and mounting bills for medical and family expenses. Baseball players are covered. Football players can’t just turn off that intensity and otherworldliness that allows them to ignore aches and pains that would hospitalize a normal man.

Baseball is languid; football is full-speed and frantic.

Comparing baseball and football is apples and oranges. They’re different. A bounty program wouldn’t specifically exist in baseball because how would it be enacted? A bounty program in football is easy because, in general, a player contract in the NFL is a bounty, but it’s a bounty the player places on himself. He knows when he signs it that one day, he’ll have to pay up with his physical and emotional well being.

Sometimes he pays with his life in quality and permanence.

They know that going in and, invariably, it gets them in the end.

The bounty a player puts on his own head is carried out by football itself.

And football is tantamount to the monolithic hit man that never, ever fails in its objective.

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Should the Mets Honor Chipper Jones?

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There was a raging debate on Twitter as to whether the Mets should give a farewell to the retiring Chipper Jones when the Braves come into Citi Field for the final time this September.

Some say no. Some say yes.

I can understand those that feel the Mets shouldn’t be honoring an opposing player, but apart from that the arguments against it don’t hold much water.

The number of players that would warrant an opposing team acknowledging his career-long performance and who openly announce that they’re retiring before or during that season are relatively few. Former basketball star Julius Erving did it and essentially had a tour that went on for an entire season.

It happens.

Wayne GretzkyJoe Montana and Jim Brown didn’t say, “this is it” and didn’t get the opportunity to have all their opponents and fans wish them well.

In baseball, I can’t think of any player who’s said he’s retiring and been feted by opponents in an overt fashion mostly because players on that level don’t admit they’re retiring until they retire. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t decided yet.

Mariano Rivera has intimated that he’s going to hang it up after 2012, but the main reason he hasn’t openly said it yet is because, I believe, he wants to leave himself room to continue playing.

With Jones and the Mets, it’s not as if they’re retiring his uniform number or giving him a car as they would a player who’d been a star for the Mets. If they do anything, it’ll be a 10-15 minute goodbye to give grudging credit to a great player whose biggest moments always seemed to be against the Mets and whose departure will make the rivalry far less interesting. My guess is that they’ll give him a memento from Shea Stadium. The fans will applaud for Jones not because they liked what he did to the Mets, but because of the way he did it with class, consistency and professionalism.

There was never a hatred between Jones and Mets’ fans. When they chanted his given name of “Larry”, it wasn’t vicious and he laughed it off. He was respected in a competitive fashion without the vitriol that accompanies the palpable and mutual loathing between Pedro Martinez against the Yankees.

Jones named one of his children “Shea” after the Mets’ former park where he had those huge moments. If it’s possible for an opposing player to embrace New York, Jones managed it.

There are players whose dignity earn them that type of honor. Rivera, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr.—their behaviors accorded them a certain stature that would make it more of a “we’re fans of baseball and thank you for playing the game correctly” rather than cheering for a despised opponent.

Chipper Jones is among their number and deserves that moment between himself, the Mets and Mets’ fans.

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