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BOY, HAS TEAMWORK gotten a bad name this summer! Guys scuffling in the dugout, sniping in the papers, dissing on amateur paparazzi's camera phones. Doesn't anybody have anybody's back anymore? Can't anybody get along? Didn't anybody see Bang the Drum Slowly? It's not unknown, friction in the workplace (remember when Bill Romanowski caved in Marcus Williams's eye socket? That was a good one!), but this has been a particularly newsworthy season for teammate-on-teammate action. To judge from recent events, our sports heroes are not, necessarily, in this together.
Hard to know exactly what to make of this, except that our clich�s might have to be retooled. We've always suspected, of course, that it was not always love and postgame spreads behind clubhouse doors. If we hate our colleagues so much (and we do, we do), why shouldn't they? These guys travel together, eat together and chase the same women. Plus, every once in a while, the chowderhead two lockers down will lose a fly ball in the sun. Idiot! How could they get along?
But one of the great motifs of sports is that, mostly, they do. And when they don't—and this is another of the great motifs of sports—they pretend that they do. Were there any better teammates than that great double play combination, Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance? Bet you didn't know that Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers got in a fight and entered into a lifetime quarrel after Evers jumped in a cab alone, leaving Tinker standing on the curb. And Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig? Gehrig's mother made a little fun of the way Ruth's wife, Claire, dressed their daughter, and the two sluggers hated each other for the rest of their lives. Of course, how would you have known, unless you wondered why Gehrig was always examining the dirt in the on-deck circle after the Babe had crushed another one. You certainly didn't read it in the papers.
Nowadays, that's about all you read. Terrell Owens thinks Jeff Garcia's gay and that Donovan McNabb throws up too much. (Or is it the other way around?) John Smoltz indirectly fingers Chipper Jones for a malingerer, and Jones says he'll play the rest of the season, crippled or not, but that "somebody I know better not miss a start." Tommie Harris of the Bears tells the press he'd rather have McNabb for a quarterback (doesn't he throw up a lot?) than Rex Grossman but then says he was kidding. Ha-ha. Kobe Bryant, who's gone off his medication in the off-season, told some kid videographers that fellow Laker Andrew Bynum might not be the second coming after all: "Are you kidding me? Andrew Bynum? F—— ship his ass out!" Bryant has been tougher on better centers than that, though, once calling Shaquille O'Neal "fat" and, if that didn't sting, "cross-eyed."
Earlier this baseball season Alex Rodriguez felt it important to admit that he and Derek Jeter were no longer "blood brothers" and that the days of "sleeping over at somebody's house five days a week" were long over. Actually, failure to resume sleepover is one of the mildest forms of teammate rebuke possible. It would be a little more exciting if one of the two began showing up at the stadium packing heat, say, the way Ty Cobb used to every day. (Ty hated everybody, hated them bad.) That would be a feud.
Qualifying nicely ought to have been the dugout brawl between Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett a couple of weeks back, a brawl that moved into the clubhouse where Zambrano split Barrett's lip. Down goes Barrett! Down goes Barrett! Well, they don't call them batterymates for nothing. But the catcher, who occasioned this with a throwing error (Idiot!), insisted there would be no feud. "I think it happened because Carlos and I are so close," said Barrett, who, perhaps coincidentally, was traded to the Padres last week. "I feel toward Carlos like a brother." Which, Cain or Abel?
It's difficult to draw any sweeping conclusions from this spate of in-house discontent. Do athletes have less impulse control than they used to, or are there just more strip clubs around? Same way, we don't want to decide today's athlete is too self-centered for the kind of teamwork we like to celebrate when this might just be a matter of wall-to-wall news coverage. What's worrisome, though, is that we might be losing another of those great stoicisms we look to sports for. Play hurt, play mad, play together. We never doubted all that camaraderie was forced; that's actually why we admired it. Pretending to get along is one of the most useful lessons sports can give us. The day after Evers was left steaming on the curb, he grabbed Tinker and said, "You play your position and I'll play mine, and let it go at that." They didn't talk again for 33 years. But is that what you remember about them?