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Against Clubhouse Chemistry

There's the popular baseball story about Rickey Henderson, the game's all-time best leadoff man, being reunited with John Olerud when Henderson joined the 1999 New York Mets. Henderson, who was all about himself, said some pretty goofy things during his 25-year career but none quite as revealing as when he saw Olerud, a fine first baseman and hitter in his own right, wearing a batting helmet in the field.

Rickey asked Olerud about the helmet, and his teammate disclosed that he needed the protection because of a childhood aneurysm. "I knew a guy when I was with Toronto who did the same thing," Rickey allegedly said.

"That was me, Rickey," said Olerud. "That was me."

The story's validity has since been challenged, but the veracity is not as important as what it represents. Henderson was famous for a number of skills in his Hall of Fame career - he scored more runs and stole more bases than anyone in history - but no one ever accused him of being "good in the clubhouse."

That operative and over-used term has become more prevalent today than, for instance, labels like "five-tool player" or "lights-out stuff." Assuming that Henderson had little idea about Olerud's identity, one can conclude that familiarity with his teammates wasn't too high on Rickey's priority list. And it's not a stretch that, given their druthers, Henderson's colleagues would have much preferred a first-inning home run - he hit 81 - as opposed to hanging out with the guy over dinner.

When the White Sox last week released inept left-handed reliever Scott Downs and ate the remaining portion of his $4 million salary, catcher Tyler Flowers called Downs "a veteran, a leader, a guy people could turn to, especially with some of the younger guys in the bullpen. He was a good part of what we have going on as far as the team chemistry, the shenanigans we get into in the clubhouse."

Forget that the guy couldn't pitch. Theoretically the Sox signed Downs, a 13-year veteran who had a number of good seasons with his five previous teams, with the idea that he could retire left-handed hitters. The last one he faced was Chris Davis Wednesday in the fateful eighth inning in Baltimore with the Sox leading 4-0.

Downs walked Davis to load the bases with two outs. In came Javy Guerra, who generally has been effective, to serve up a game-tying home run to Nelson Cruz. The Sox wound up losing 5-4 in 12 innings, spoiling a sparkling performance by starter Hector Noesi.

I could be wrong, but I thought that Downs flashed a smile at Davis standing on first base as Robin Ventura took the ball from him. He battled Davis to a 3-2 count before walking the reigning American League home run champ - the 15th walk Downs yielded this year in just shy of 24 innings. As the lone lefty in the Sox bullpen, his 6.08 ERA meant that Ventura really didn't have a southpaw in a pinch. That's nothing to smile about.

Unless you're a former professional baseball player, you've never spent any time with a group of 25 young men, living and working together for seven months a year. Many days begin mid-afternoon and often stretch close to midnight. Road trips usually last at least a week. You stay at the same hotel, you have meals with teammates; proximity to one another is a way of life.

However, all of us have toiled in the workplace and spend many hours in the company of our co-workers. We enjoy the company of some of therm. We try to avoid others who drive us nuts. We are loyal to bosses who treat us well. We detest those who basically don't give a damn whether we're part of their team.

In a perfect world, all of us would enjoy what we do whether playing major league baseball or selling used cars. In reality, people complain about their work. Not all of us all of the time, but there are instances that piss us off when we would clearly prefer to be doing something else. Life can be exceptionally challenging when we are stuck in a work situation that we truly dislike.

But we show up. We like to eat. Maybe our personal "clubhouses" aren't pleasant places, but our well-being and that of our families dictate that we hang in there until we can attain a better opportunity. That's the way it is for most of us.

So as baseball fans, do we need to be concerned about the clubhouse atmosphere? Of course not. What interests us is performance. We're in awe of Jose Abreu and his 25 home runs in his first 69 games. Does it matter that he speaks a different language than Gordon Beckham and may not be his bosom buddy? Not in the least. We simply don't care. Do we wish that Beckham was hitting higher than .261? You betcha.

With the exception of a handful of players - Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez, Beckham, John Danks, Chris Sale, Alejandro De Aza, and Adam Dunn - the Sox roster is filled with guys who haven't played on the South Side for more than three years. Names like Casper Wells, Deunte Heath, Tyler Greene, Hector Santiago, Simon Castro, Dylan Axelrod and others are distant memories even though they spent time with the Sox just last season.

Nine players - remember Felipe Paulino, Donnie Veal, or Erik Johnson? - from this season's Opening Day roster are either gone or disabled. Maikel Cleto departed with nary a peep a few weeks ago. If he was "good in the clubhouse," I missed it. I do know that he walked 15 batters in 14 innings. He could have been buying post-game pizzas, sandwiches and drinks and still no one would have been sorry to see him go.

Rosters, especially on teams like the Sox who are struggling to find the right combination, are in flux. It's nice if everyone gets along, but there's no guarantee that the man dressing in the next stall will even be there a week later.

Feeling accepted and part of the team is nice, but money can be a stronger motivator. When someone like Eric Surkamp is called up from Charlotte to replace Downs, he clearly recognizes that this is his chance to make some serious bank. Surkamp responded last week, pitching in all four games in Toronto without giving up a hit. In Sunday's sterling 4-0 shutout of the Blue Jays, Surkamp retired the side in order in the eighth inning, something that hadn't happened in three weeks.

Jose Quintana, the king of no decisions, finally had a bullpen that protected the lead after he blanked Toronto for seven innings to earn his fifth win, lowering his ERA to a respectable 3.44.

The Sox scored just 13 runs in the four games in Canada, yet won three of them thanks to a bullpen without Downs and a closer named Zach Putnam and not Belisario. The three wins brought the 11-game road trip to a close with a 4-7 record. Considering the Sox lost the first five games, the weekend's victories couldn't have come at a better time.

Meanwhile, it's improbable that another team will sign Downs, who at 38 can walk away from the game having earned almost $31 million. Regrettably, he never pitched in the postseason despite being an effective relief pitcher for a number of years and apparently contributing a positive presence in the clubhouse.

I tried to think of a player who was a nightmare of a teammate, someone who had the ability to make the clubhouse as unpleasant as humanly possible. Milton Bradley came to mind.

In his 12 seasons, the volatile outfielder played for eight teams. He was traded five times and released twice. The Cubs kicked him off the team in 2009 after he was quoted in the press, saying, "You understand why they haven't won in 100 years here."

Yet his employers paid him $48 million to play a game in which he hit over .300 three times. What's more, he was a member of two teams - the 2004 Dodgers and the Athletics of 2006 - that went to the postseason.

Bradley may have been a son of a bitch in the clubhouse, but he was a pretty decent hitter. He was fortunate it wasn't the other way around.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Dave Martel:

I enjoyed your comments today about Ricky Henderson. I think the year was 2000 (I was a Mets fan back then before moving to Red Sox Nation) and the Mets were trying to stay alive on or about the last day of the season. The Mets had clawed their way back from a five-run deficit and were on the verge of winning in the ninth (or maybe it was the tenth). In the dugout the players were at the top step, urging on their comrades to make something good happen. Throughout that emotion, Ricky was in the clubhouse playing cards (his partner might have been Bobby Bonilla). There was outrage when the defeated players entered the clubhouse and saw Ricky. I recall one of the players commenting, "There were guys crying down there - and he's playing cards."

Anyway, next month I'm taking two of my grandsons on an MLB road trip which includes the White Sox v. Royals the afternoon of July 23. I'll be using your blog to do my pregame homework.

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Posted on May 22, 2020