Few things irritate fans more than wasted talent. Well, that’s probably not true. I could probably come up with a pretty long list of things that irritate fans more than wasted talent. Mosquitoes. Traffic. Dumb movie remakes. Whitney. Spam. Gruden. Books with lousy endings. Those automated operators who tell you that your call will be answered in the order it was received. Computer freezes. Jammed parking lots. Slow restaurant service. Power failures. Lots more. So, yeah, let me take that back. Wasted talent wouldn’t be high on anybody’s list.
But wasted talent is still irritating … and by “wasted” I don’t necessarily mean talent squandered. That’s one form. But another form, the one that is more irritating, is when talent is wasted on some kind of unlikable personality, someone who doesn’t act like they appreciate the talent. The latest saga of this kind of wasted talent is, of course, Josh Beckett.
Josh Beckett is one of the most talented pitchers of the last fifty years. You could probably go back a hundred years. Beckett was the second pick of the 1999 amateur draft, behind Josh Hamilton, who is of course one of the most talented hitters of the last 50 years. Beckett is 6-foot-5, and in his best days he threw a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, a mind-bending curve and a pretty decent change-up that seemed like piling on. He could, at his best, throw all these pitches for strikes with regularity, and he could strike out big league batters with any of those pitches. In his first full year in the minors, he struck out 203 in 140 innings, walked just 34, went 14-1 with a 1.54 ERA. He was otherworldly.
And, of course, he came right to the big leagues and had otherworldly moments there too. He allowed one single in six innings his first start. In his first full year, he struck out twelve in six innings against Montreal. Then, of course, in 2003 he had a postseason for the ages, making five starts, compiling a 2.11 ERA, and capping it off with the World Series MVP he won by throwing a complete game, five-hit, nine-strikeout shutout in Yankee Stadium to clinch the game. It was one of greatest games anyone had ever pitched in the World Series.* And Beckett was 23 at the time.
*And Brilliant Reader Alex reminds: It was on short rest.
Beckett was not one of those players who was easy to admire or enjoy. Whenever he gave an interview, he seemed a little bit less likable. Scouts grumbled about him all the time. “He should be better,” they said. Sometimes, he was better. In 2007, he might have been the best pitcher in the American League. In 2010, he had some back issues and was basically unpitchable. In between, he seemed good but not great, mixing brilliant starts with stunningly bad ones. He was electrifying to watch when he was good, painful to watch when he was bad, and it was hard to get close to him the way fans like to get close to the stars. The Boston fans I know always seemed to view Beckett as a necessary evil, kind of like Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” They wanted him on that wall. They needed him on that wall. But that didn’t mean that they talked about him at parties.
Well, the last few months, Beckett has made even that sort of detached fanhood tough for Boston fans. Beckett, of course, was one of the key figures in Beergate, where pitchers — Beckett prominent among them — supposedly drank beer and ordered in chicken and played video games on days when they weren’t pitching. Whether this played any real role in the Red Sox late season collapse is beside the point. It looked bad.*
*Here’s my feeling about such things: Our daughters play piano, and every so often they have a little recital. These recitals, as you undoubtedly know, can be torturous. You listen to beginning piano students plink out off-key versions of songs with names like “Tree Dance.” You listen to little girls and boys sing showtunes from the 1950s. It’s pretty tough. But here’s my feeling: You stay, and you listen, and you clap for those kids, because in a way we’re all a team, all of us parents, suffering through the “I don’t want to practice my piano” whines, driving through absurd traffic to get to them lessons on time and so on. It bugs me when I see parents watch their kid perform and then walk out. I think it’s selfish. And I think it’s disrespectful. You clap for my kid. I clap for your kid. That’s the deal. I know not everyone agrees with me, and maybe most people disagree with me. The way I see, we’re kind of in this thing together.
And, of course, that’s NOTHING like being on a real team with real stakes and real purpose. I’m sure it’s not fun to sit in a hot dugout day after day when you don’t pitch, and it’s easy enough to duck into the clubhouse and half pay attention to it on TV, and if you’re there you might as well get some food, and if you have some food you might as well drink some beer. I get that this isn’t Little League where everyone rushes to home plate to celebrate every home run hitter, and guys yell “Hey batter batter batter” to help the pitcher out. But you are still supposed to be in it together. If I can sit through “Edelweiss,” you can sit through a few innings of baseball.
Then, last week it seems that Josh Beckett skipped a start because of tightness and decided the next day that that he was still OK to play some golf. Yes, golf and baseball have not mixed well through the years. Managers have banned it. Fans have griped about it. And this looked bad. The formula, at least from the outsiders view, is that if Beckett was hurt bad enough to miss a start, golf might have been a bad idea. And if Beckett was well enough to play golf, he might have taken the ball and pitched, especially since the Red Sox are off to this terrible start. Whatever. Whether a guy with tightness should be playing golf from a physical standpoint is not the real issue — though, I would guess he should not. If one of our kids stays home sick from school, she doesn’t get to watch television..
The issue was that in response, Beckett decided to unveil the inner workings of his mind.
“I spend my days off the way I want to spend them,” he told reporters. “My off-day is my off-day.”
And, even more telling: “We get 18 days off a year. I think we deserve a little time to ourselves.”
You know, I don’t think it’s the best sign on earth when a pitcher knows and can recite, on demand, exactly how many days off there are in a season. I mean, maybe that’s a scheduling issue or whatever, but that seems an awfully exact number to come up with — sort of like the guy in your office who knows how to manipulate vacation days and holidays to give him or herself like 23 four-day weekends. I don’t know if the 18 days off includes the All-Star Break (it will for Beckett this year) or the off-days in the postseason (also an unlikely issue for Beckett).
But whatever the case, it created an uproar. And then Beckett followed up by pitching lousy and he got booed all to heck and the Red Sox lost again and now it’s a full-blown Boston scandal.
There’s a feeling many of us have … that if we had been given another person’s talent, we would use it better. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s that we feel like we have a better appreciation for talent. But I do think it affects us. I would imagine a lot of people believe that if they had been given the talent Josh Beckett was given, they would have done more with it — on and off the field. We wouldn’t clown around and drink beer in the clubhouse while games were going on. We wouldn’t play golf a day after being scratched from a start and then snap that days off are days off. We wouldn’t …
But, is that really true? In Josh Beckett’s mind, I suspect, he’s worked his butt off at this game. He’s pitched through pain. He’s delivered in big moments. He was the pitching force behind Boston’s World Series. He’s endured the pains of the game — the slumps, the boos, the insults, the injuries. So he doesn’t want to sit in the dugout every stinking minute of every game … so he wants to take his mind off things on his day off by playing a little golf … so he doesn’t have the talent to entertain reporters and doesn’t feel like making the game look like it’s the most fun he’s ever had in his entire life … so he doesn’t want to perform Seppuku every time the Red Sox lose a game …
… I’m not celebrating him for any of this. I’m a fan of enthusiasm, and I dislike half-heartedness. I’m just saying it might be a lot more human than we want to admit. I’m just saying we might find a little bit of that in our own lives. I don’t think it’s the Josh Becketts who are unusual. I think it’s the ones who go out every day, every single day, with intensity and spirit and fire who are unusual. I certainly don’t blame fans for booing the heck out of Beckett or people writing that he should be run out of town. But I do wonder how many of them might call in sick on a Friday and not cancel their tee-time Saturday morning.