Baseball isn't much organized around the principle of sacrifice. It's got the bunt, and that's about it. The hit-and-run, maybe. Everything else is kind of every man for himself, victory being an accidental consequence of nine guys trying to make their incentive clauses. Really, when you think about it, no team sport rewards selfish behavior as magnificently as baseball does. That's just the way the game is.
So it's not necessarily wicked on our part to single out selfish players, who are almost always sought on the open market in inverse proportion to their instinct for charity. (We don't intend to name them; why demean someone else just to make our story a little more attention-getting?) Nor is it especially hypocritical (a little, maybe) for us to take a past SI Sportsman of the Year (let's say a certain Baltimore Oriole) and make him the poster boy for self-involvement. Baseball is very tolerant of the miserly personality. Encouraging, actually. More than that, dependent. Maybe even insistent.
True story, more or less: A famous outfielder was on deck, bottom of the ninth, the score 0-0 in a game a few years ago. His teammate swung successfully, driving in the winning run. The outfielder, deprived of a very useful stat, was overheard in the shower: "Why does this always happen to me?"
Selfish? You bet. But Bobby Bonilla's (Oops! We let that name out, didn't we? We'll be more careful from here on) selfabsorption is the very thing that produces good things on the field. If baseball (or its fans) really valued the generous spirits of the game, some kamikaze bunter would be making the $5.9 million that Bonilla, now a third baseman for the Marlins, now earns. It would be a game of ground balls, guys taking 2-and-0 pitches, players gracefully leaving the game for pinch runners. It would be pretty boring, which isn't something baseball can afford to be.
Let's face it, teamwork is the conceit of sports columnists whose A story has just fallen through. Mike Piazza (he has been named in other sources; this one isn't on us) is no less a team player—whatever that means in baseball—for crabbing to the press that the Los Angeles Dodgers have failed to renegotiate, with any sincerity, his already huge contract. Admittedly, the fact that he piped up on Opening Day, after L.A. had lost, didn't strike the right collegial note. But do you think new owner Rupert Murdoch, who had to ask somebody what a double play was at the Dodgers' home opener, cares that Piazza might be self-obsessed? Murdoch? unless Murdoch also has to ask what the Hall of Fame is, which is where Piazza is headed, he will surely give Piazza the $100 million he wants and thus secure his own investment.
On the subject of Piazza, who got slammed by former teammate Brett Butler for being selfish even before the season began, we have further observations. Yes, Piazza probably is selfish. Los Angeles pitchers pray he gets his hits early in the game so he'll remain focused behind the plate. But isn't it also somewhat in their interest that he get his hits (201 last season, 40 of them home runs)? Do you think his two grand slams in two days earlier this month might have helped Dodgers pitchers stay focused? Now, as far as his contract demands, this isn't considered selfish behavior anymore but merely acceptable posturing among 1990s athletes. Who doesn't want a piece of the pie that Murdoch has suddenly revalued at $311 million?
Final thought: What in the world was Butler doing blasting Piazza? Butler was a guy, cancer comeback and all, who was considered one of the most selfish players of recent years. It might be horrible to say it (we're the guys to do it, though), but didn't he insist on playing out his little storybook season in 1997 even when it was obvious he could no longer help L.A.?
That leads us to another angle: There's good selfish and there's bad selfish, and it's not always easy to tell them apart. We can slip in that observation about Butler hurting the Dodgers, but wasn't he, on the other hand, performing the game's most selfless act—playing hurt? We complain about the guys who don't always want to do battle (more on those later) and then train our guns on the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. (you would have guessed him anyway) for pursuing his consecutive-game streak when Baltimore's goals might have been—probably were—compromised by it.
Can we really have it both ways? We can—we're sportswriters. But it can be a tough call. Ripken makes it especially difficult. His chase for Lou Gehrig's record was definitely more ego-driven than it was performance-related toward the end, in 1995, but wasn't his constancy justly celebrated as the American work ethic at its finest? Still, wasn't he also kind of selfish? Then again, just after the columnists called for him to grab pine in the season after the record was finally his, didn't he explode in the playoffs?
The wonder of baseball is that it accommodates the me-first personality while simultaneously glorifying team play. The game is almost entirely the accretion of selfish acts, one after another. "This isn't a sport where Magic Johnson lobs the ball toward the rim so James Worthy can dunk it," says Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman who was a cog in Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 1970s. "This is a sport where it's you against the pitcher, you against the ground ball. If you go and get a base hit for yourself, you're helping the team."