MLB: What it's like to be one of the 12 teams looking at a long road to nowhere

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jserraglio
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MLB: What it's like to be one of the 12 teams looking at a long road to nowhere

Post by jserraglio » Tue Jul 24, 2018 5:28 pm

WAPO — Starlin Castro sunk into the seat in front of his locker and sighed. It was late on a sticky night in early July and his team, the Miami Marlins, had just surrendered a nine-run lead to lose in Washington to the Nationals, 14-12. This was the latest struggle in a season full of them for his team, and it wasn’t what the veteran second baseman expected playing for a team partly owned by legendary former New York Yankee Derek Jeter, whom he considered “a winner.”
For the 28-year-old, once a cornerstone of the Chicago Cubs’ rebuild, this was a sharp break from the last few seasons he’d played. In the last three years, Castro was traded from the first-place Cubs to the first-place Yankees to the Marlins (43-59), one of the National League’s worst teams.
“This is kind of a little bit different [than past seasons],” Castro said, “but we do the same things everybody do. We go out there and try to compete.”
Baseball’s middle class is shrinking, and more players like Castro are suffering. On this day last year, seven teams sat double-digit games out of their league’s second wild card spot. Right now, there are 12, which means every day, 300 active players — from San Diego to Detroit to Miami to Toronto and many clubs in between — all face a similar question: How do I go to the ballpark and play hard every day when, with more than two months left, my team is 10, 15, 30 games out of the playoff hunt?
Some players say professionalism drives them. For others, it’s loyalty to the team or their teammates, or earning their money, or for the next contract, or to perform well enough to become a trade target around the deadline. Castro explained: “I love playing baseball no matter where I be,” and that was enough.
Below the surface, though, players struggle with it more than they let on, said Buck Showalter, manager of the 28-73 Orioles, who are 32.5 games out of a playoff spot.
“It’s hard, but it’s in everybody’s job description,” he said. “ … [Still], these aren’t robotic people who don’t have any emotions. They have to hide a lot of it when [reporters] are in the locker room because, let’s face it, it’s an interview room as much as it’s a locker room.”
Orioles outfielder Colby Rasmus came up with the Cardinals when they were a powerhouse but was traded to Toronto, where he spent three full seasons bouncing between third and last in the AL East. Despite his experience in downtrodden clubhouses then and since, answers elude him for how to overcome it. His best attempt: “Try to stay as even as possible and hope it all works. Pray to the baseball gods, cut a chicken’s head off or whatever. You just got to do something.”
How players on struggling ballclubs handle wrecked seasons intrigues Paul Levy, and not just because he’s a lifelong Orioles fan who still watches the team almost nightly on MLB.TV. The University of Akron professor and author of the book “Industrial/Organizational Psychology: Understanding the Workplace” views baseball clubhouses as unlike any other workplace in the world. It’s not because of the daily, public work review (win or loss), nor is it the pressure from fans or high expectations from players themselves, who overachieved for nearly their entire lives to get into the majors; others sports contain those elements.
The sheer number of games, Levy said, makes baseball teams difficult ships to steer. Football coaches have a week to implement fixes and figure out what to say to the team; baseball managers rarely have more than a few hours. Further complicating matters, baseball players grapple with the type of workplace friction that any office would experience after spending nearly every day together for months. These far-back ballclubs are in a tough position, Levy said, partly because of what psychologists call “emotional contagion.” Essentially, one player’s outlook can spread like a virus, infect the whole locker room and affect performance. Sometimes this is positive — like when the “Cowboy Up” mantra spurred the Boston Red Sox in 2003 — and sometimes less so.
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“Constant losing makes it really, really hard to keep a positive outlook because [players] feed off of each other,” Levy said. “If you have a strong clubhouse with a strong group of leaders, who somehow manage to keep that positive outlook, that’s going to spread … but it’s hard.”
Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler can attest to this. Miami, his fourth team, is on track for the fewest wins since he played on a 98-loss Arizona team in 2014, and still, this clubhouse feels different. In a way, it has helped him understand why veteran-laden teams experience compounding complications.
“In Baltimore, there’s a lot of veterans and … it’s easy to let every day be mundane,” he said. “When we have a young group like this [in Miami], they come in, a lot of them are just happy to be in the big leagues. … Even the games where we’re not playing well, there’s still an energy level that we have that some of the older clubs I’ve been on didn’t have.”
Ask any veteran in such a situation and they’ll likely deny the impact of their team’s record on their mind-set or performance. Take Castro, who said the Marlins’ “games back” number and the things written about them don’t bother him: “I don’t have to put it in my mind, because I can’t control the situation.”
In these responses — echoed in similar sentiments by Chris Davis in Baltimore, Michael Fulmer in Detroit, Salvador Perez in Kansas City and others — Levy sees a comparison to research done on corporate customer service representatives. In one study, in which a restaurant patron has sent their meal back several times, the rep maintained a smile and polite demeanor while, internally, growing annoyed. Psychologists call the rep’s response “surface acting” or “deep acting,” and the study showed there is a connection between pretending to be fine and, ultimately, actually feeling better about a situation. When players dismiss those questions, the real question, Levy said, is whether they believe what they’re saying.
“Some are better than others at being okay,” he said. “Some really don’t care, some are just saying the right thing, but are still being really bothered by the comments. We just don’t know for each individual.”
As long as baseball’s competitive inequality doesn’t ease, the same teams will face the same questions, and likely provide the same answers. For many, with the season over and yet so much summer left, whether it is surface acting or legitimate feeling, that’s all there is left to say.
At his locker, Castro considered the question of whether he ever shared his experiences chasing pennants in Chicago and New York with his younger teammates.
“No, no, no,” he said. “They know. I think Jeter’s a winner. He’s been all his life a winning player. I think it’s going to be a good team in here.”
What about the early criticism of Jeter’s trades and payroll management? How do you reconcile those moves with trying to win now?
“I don’t have any control of those situations,” Castro said. “I don’t even put it in my mind.”
Veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin, who had been listening to Castro from his locker, grimaced and sprung up from his chair. He started walking across the locker room but got only a few steps before he couldn’t help himself.
“Good answer, Starlin,” he said, loudly, as if he wanted to whole locker room to understand.
Sam Fortier is a sports reporting intern at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in June, he worked as a contributing writer to The Ringer and The Athletic. Sam was born in Strafford, New Hampshire, and he graduated from Syracuse University.
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