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New York Mets: Do nice guys in baseball really finish last?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: An injured Ruben Tejada #11 of the New York Mets waves to the crowd prior to game three of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field on October 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: An injured Ruben Tejada #11 of the New York Mets waves to the crowd prior to game three of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field on October 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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In the history of Major League Baseball and the New York Mets, have nice guys been pushed to the back of the line?

According to a February 2012 study by the University of Notre Dame, nice guys, at least statistically speaking, are not as likely to earn the big bucks as their less agreeable peers. In other words, the more agreeable a man is, the less he will earn.  How does this finding jive with what we know about the New York Mets and other baseball players in terms of their on-field performance?  And what exactly is the definition of a nice guy?

In a June 15, 2016 Bleacher Report, the author, Steve Silverman writes that nice guys include those who know how blessed they are and have gratitude every step of the way. He continues that they make life better for those around them and give back to society with their friendliness, warmth, and charitable nature. He mentions Anthony Rizzo, Andrew McCutchen, and former Mets R.A. Dickey and Curtis Granderson are included in the article’s top ten. I could add many others to this list including David Wright, Brandon Nimmo, Dom Smith, and yes, even Met-killer Freddie Freeman.

Ask any major league baseball player during spring training about his team’s objectives for the upcoming season, and he will likely answer “to get to the playoffs”. A more extreme answer coming from George Steinbrenner in his day, that seems to be an ongoing mantra for the Yankees, is that anything less than a World Series victory is a total failure. This begs the question: should a baseball player’s approach be an all or nothing phenomenon?  Does it depend on whether the player is on a potential playoff-caliber team like the Mets or if he is on a rebuilding team?

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Met fans will painfully remember the ugly fight that broke out between Cincinnati’s Pete Rose and Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson in game 3 of the 1973 NLCS.

In the top of the fifth inning, Rose singled with one out. The next batter, (the late) Joe Morgan grounded to Met first baseman John Milner, who threw to Harrelson trying to get a double play. Rose slid hard into Harrelson to try to break up the double play, and knocked him down at which point a fight broke out.

Rose claimed he had slid into second the way he always did.

“I’m no damn little girl out there,” he said after the game. “I’m supposed to give the fans their money’s worth and try to bust up double plays – and shortstops”.  While Harrelson was willing to let bygones be bygones, Rose, however, told reporters in the locker room after the game that he “might even slide harder tomorrow, if it’s possible.”

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Many readers on this platform are themselves active in non-professional sports. I would venture to say, for example, that many play organized softball in a local community league. I call these guys weekend jocks. Except for leagues that award a cash prize for winning their league championship, most of these jocks play because it is either an escape from the routine at work or at home, or it may be the only form of exercise one gets.  Perhaps they play because they simply enjoy the game, win or lose. Or do they?

Here’s the other side of the coin – we have all come across guys who are absolutely miserable teammates, who moan and groan and roll their eyes at any error committed on the field, after striking out, and of course at losing the game. They may even take this attitude home and explode on the wife and kids. Not a joke. Who would you rather have on your team – someone who hates losing or someone who plays to win but will not take a loss like it’s the end of the world?

Leo Durocher pulled no punches in answering this question in his book “Nice Guys Finish Last” by saying “When you’re playing for money, winning is the only thing that matters. Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot…Give me some scratching, diving, hungry ballplayers who come to kill you…you’re his mortal enemy. That’s the kind of a guy I want playing for me.”

Will this philosophy earn a player bigger bucks?  Did this work for Ty Cobb?  He was certainly among the game’s most disliked players of his time. Yet Ted Williams’ (nice guy) $125,000 salary was highest among all the post war stars, besting Cobb’s $85,000.

Do superstar players today who are known for playing “dirty” earn more than superstar nice guys?  Is it even possible to fairly assess whether Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, who threw a jagged broken bat at Met catcher Mike Piazza in Game 2 of the 2000 World Series, earned more or less dollars in his career than nicer guys directly due to his nastiness on the field?

Or is the question an uneven one due to the fact that every contract is different and circumstances are not the same especially when considering whether we are talking about a big market team, or free agency vs. team extensions, where usually a discount is in order.

So where does this leave us?  It is hard enough to bat .300 against most major league pitchers where failing a hefty 70% of the time is still considered success. Adding an intimidating pitcher to the equation like Cardinals great Bob Gibson or former Mets Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, or others famous for throwing a spitball or nicking the ball, could often turn that player into making winning no matter what the cost.  One could argue that the evidence brought forward regarding the recent Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal is another example of the winning-at-all-cost phenomena.

And that leads me to the next equally if not more angering incident involving then Dodger Chase Utley and Met shortstop Ruben Tejada in which Utley breaks Tejada’s leg on a late and ill-advised slide in Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS.  Is that really the way fans want to see the game played – aim to win no matter what it takes?  Who wants to be elected and go down in history as one of the dirtiest players in the league?

Despite the above-cited Notre Dame research study and the examples of overly aggressive (read: dirty) play mentioned above, I personally believe that a player can indeed be a nice guy, make the big bucks, and be a winner – on and off the field.

There is a brand of clean hard-nosed baseball out there without having to resort to cheating, cutting the ball, or knocking people down with the aim to maim.  However, I realize that not everyone would agree – there are many who hold the view that you ought to be a nice guy off the field, but once you step in between the chalk lines, you go for the jugular.  No holds barred. Anything less would be construed as a sign of weakness that could and would be exploited.

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How one conducts himself on the baseball field can certainly be a good indication of how one behaves off the field. Depending on your particular life’s perspective, that could be taken as a positive or as a negative.

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