If I had a "this is what I believe" speech like Crash Davis delivered, somewhere on that list would be that baseball players should feel safe to tell the truth that they do, indeed, have individual goals and want to post good individual numbers. Somewhere along the way, it became frowned upon to care about your personal accomplishments, and I'd love to start rectifying it.
We'll discuss this through the lens of a recent example of a (former) big name going against the grain.
The man we used to call King Felix has made over $200 million playing baseball, has looked pretty washed up since around 2016 and is heading to his age-35 season with a new club. He's never made the playoffs, so perhaps continuing to play is him looking to check that box. But he signed with the Orioles, who have been among baseball's worst teams since 2016.
Is he just hanging on for the ol' love of the game? Surely that's part of it and still getting paid seven figures is tough to turn down, but he also said something recently that I loved.
What drives Félix Hernández to pitch for the Orioles in 2021, he was asked: "The Hall of Fame."— Jon Meoli (@JonMeoli) February 18, 2021
Hernandez further elaborated to reporters at Orioles camp that he thinks getting to 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts could do the trick on getting him to Cooperstown and that's what he's got his sights on. I took a look last summer at Hernandez's thin (right now) Hall of Fame case, but the specifics here are beside the point I want to discuss in this space.
"Forty one!" he said emphatically before I even finished the question. "Not that I'm counting," he added sarcastically with a smile.
I followed up, asking if that was a goal at this point.
"Yes, I want it," he said.
Unfortunately, this type of talk from players is the exception rather than the rule. I really wish that would change.
Now, I'm not blaming the players. There's always pushback from the masses on this. We've been so trained as a sports society to view this type of talk as selfish and being selfish is bad. No one wants to be seen as the selfish jerk that only cares about his numbers and not his teammates. He should be worried about the team winning games, they'll cry.
The problem with this line of thinking is that baseball is actually an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. You can't get better pitches by working well with your teammates the same way a team in basketball can move the ball well until someone gets an open look. Pitchers can be helped or hurt by defense, of course, but the biggest deciding factor in a pitcher's numbers, long-term, is how he pitches. Plus, there isn't really a scenario where a "selfish" pitcher or defender actively hurts his team by trying to put up numbers, a la a basketball player trying to score even in the face of a double team. The whole "individual player is selfish" thing simply isn't a baseball discussion. But there's a stigma about wanting to get yours in all team sports and that extends to baseball.
I remember when I wrote the Alonso story, I ended up seeing a bunch of people tweet that they thought he was selfish and it would hurt the team. How? Hitting home runs helps his team. Helping your team is good. There's no scenario here where it hurts his team at all (and, no, Pete Freaking Alonso shouldn't be trying to do anything but hit home runs, so save your "bunt" or "move the runners" nonsense).
Take note of Hernandez's comments, too. He said he keeps playing because he wants to get into the Hall of Fame. That has surely been spun somewhere on this godforsaken internet as Hernandez not caring about his team winning. And yet, he named two numbers: Strikeouts and wins. Strikeouts are great for his team and wins can't happen unless his team, you know, wins.
In what world would a pitcher wanting more strikeouts and wins be bad for a team? A hitter wanting to hit home runs is bad?
Get outta here.
If we can start to move past this mindset that any goals regarding individual numbers or the Hall of Fame -- or any awards like MVP or Cy Young in between -- perhaps more of the players will get aboard admitting the mindset publicly like Alonso and Hernandez.
We aren't there. The overwhelming majority of the time I ask a player about individual goals or numbers, I get any number of these "in a can" non-answers:
- I don't pay attention to numbers.
- I just want to win.
- I don't have any expectations.
- I don't set goals.
- I don't know.
And the list goes on.
Again, I don't blame the players. For so many of them, the last thing they need is some writer to get a juicy quote and run with "[insert young player's name]'s goal this season is to win MVP!" We all know what is down that road for the player, from other teams using it against him to people yelling at him on social media about how he isn't good enough to win MVP and what a joke that he even brought it up.
Nor is this a case where I'm begging players to give me more writing material. There's plenty of that.
No, this is simply me wishing out loud -- or in writing, I guess is more accurate -- that we could all get to a place where players honestly admitted things. Here are a few talking points:
- Yes, you know what your numbers like batting average or ERA are. You absolutely know how many home runs you had last year, have at any given moment this year and how many you'd like to end a season with. Every single player pays attention to his numbers at every level. It's OK to admit it.
- If you are approaching any kind of record, yes, you know what the record is. Yes, you really do.
- Obviously you want your team to win, and it's OK in the process to be one of the people who helps your team win. In doing so, you'll post positive individual stats. There's nothing to hang your head about there. Being good at your job is good for the team. The good individual numbers come with it, as does a feeling of accomplishment!
- It's perfectly fine to admit that you have high expectations for your individual performance, which includes putting up good numbers. You wouldn't have made the majors if this wasn't the case.
- If you are approaching the Hall of Fame conversation, you are aware of that, even if you don't know exactly how close you are.
- You want to be a Hall of Famer! You want to win awards like MVP! THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ANY OF THIS.
Human brains are amazing in their capacity to multi-task. We don't have to compartmentalize things like this. It can be concurrent. A player can want his team to win every game, including winning a World Series title, while still wanting to accomplish big things as an individual player. Again, this isn't basketball. When a batter is up to bat, he's essentially playing an individual sport. Him wanting to hit a home run isn't selfish. It's the opposite, in fact. It's the best possible thing he can do to help his team win. Let's all stop shaming the players for wanting to be good players.
We can all start to do our part by never saying a negative word regarding a player speaking the way Hernandez and Alonso did in the examples above. Eventually then the players will follow suit and then down the road we'll even start learning what kinds of individual goals they have for the new season ("Giancarlo Stanton wants to hit 75 home runs this year!").
That'll be fun, right? And fun is what it's all about here in the sports world.
Now, who is with me?