Beyond the Fame and Fortune, Baseball Players are Real People

Last month, I spent several days in Arizona covering spring training for Baseball Essential. I attended six games in four days, including three as a credentialed member of the media.

My second day there, I went into the Dodgers’ locker room at Camelback Ranch in Glendale. It was my first time in a big-league locker room, and it was a little bit intimidating. I stumbled through an awkward interview with a very patient Brandon McCarthy. I tried my best to understand Juan Uribe as he spoke to me in his soft, accented voice with a cigar clenched in his teeth. Carl Crawford and Brandon League both took the time to answer my questions, and I stood in the scrum just feet from Clayton Kershaw as he discussed his performance in that day’s game against the Rockies. It was a surreal experience for a lifelong baseball fan like me to be a part of the baseball media.

But the most eye-opening thing I saw or heard in the locker room was a conversation I overheard between Kershaw and his best friend, A.J. Ellis, and it had nothing to do with baseball. This past offseason, Kershaw’s wife, Ellen, gave birth to their first child, a little girl named Cali Ann. Kershaw and Ellis were discussing their plans for getting from Arizona to Los Angeles when spring training comes to an end, and Kershaw said that he and Ellen had not yet decided if they would drive their car or have it shipped and take a flight. “We’re just trying to decide if it will be easier on the baby to spend six hours in a car or one hour on a plane.”

Why was this an eye-opener for me? Because my wife and I have had this same basic conversation many times. We live in Utah but my parents (and Disneyland and Dodger Stadium) are in Southern California, so we make that trip fairly often. Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher on the planet and a man with more money than I can even imagine, has the same conversations with his wife about their baby that I have with mine about ours!

I was reminded of this over the past week, specifically in regard to Josh Hamilton. First, I saw a tasteless tweet from a reporter named Keith Sharon. I knew when I saw it that it would soon be deleted (and it was), so I grabbed a screenshot. You can see the tweet at the bottom of the screenshot:

"Josh Hamilton traded for kilo of heroin"

“Josh Hamilton traded for kilo of heroin”

Then things got worse. A blogger for SBNation named Mat Gleason, who blogged under the name Rev Halofan, wrote a disgustingly distasteful screed about Hamilton, calling him a “coddled hillbilly” and including the fervent hope “that when you do yourself in, which you will, that, mercifully like [Steve] Howe, you take nobody else with you.” Gleason ended his rant with, “Happy snorting.” (Click here to see a screenshot of the entire worthless post.)

To SBNation’s credit, they immediately deleted the post, and within hours it was announced that Gleason had been fired. That’s great, but what is it about Josh Hamilton that makes these grown men (Sharon is 52 or 53, and Gleason says he is 50) hate him so much that they lose all compassion and empathy? Surely these men wouldn’t walk down the street and yell in the face of a homeless man, would they?

We, as sports fans, seem to think we own the athletes who play for our teams. Sharon and Gleason have both covered the Angels, and apparently they feel personally betrayed by Hamilton’s relapse.

I can almost understand Arte Moreno’s petulant, childish attitude towards Hamilton — after all, it was his money that was flushed down the toilet. I don’t agree with it or condone it, and I think it is going to bite him the next time he tries to sign a high-profile free agent, but at least I can identify why he acted the way he did.

But why, and how, is it so easy for fans to forget that these people who “let us down” are actual human beings with actual lives? Is it the fame? Is it the money?

Clayton Kershaw is extremely famous and ridiculously wealthy, and he worries about road trips with his baby daughter. Josh Hamilton is just as famous and nearly as rich, and he battles drug addiction and marital problems. They are opposite sides of the same coin, but they are both real people deserving of the empathy and respect we give to every other human being.

Some might believe that with the privilege of being a major league player comes the obligation to give away part of your life, but I think that’s garbage.

When I was a kid, Charles Barkley famously declared that he was not a role model. Other professional athletes have embraced that role and strived to live up to the faith put in them by fans. That is great, but it is their decision.

I want Josh Hamilton to be clean, not because he owes that to me — seriously, what a narcissistic view of the world! — but because he is a person. In fact, I care even more about Josh Hamilton because his struggles make it easy to look beyond the fame and fortune and see a man struggling to keep his life together. I have thankfully never struggled with drug addiction, but I have struggled (like we all have), and seeing Hamilton’s struggles makes me root even harder for him.

Baseball, the sport I love, is played by men like me, and that makes me love it even more.

You can follow Jeff J. Snider on Twitter at @snidog.

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