Athletes lead shamelessly blameless lives

JOHN EISENBERG

August 01, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Jeff Ballard had not won a game at Memorial Stadium for 22 months, and when the Orioles finally sent him to Rochester, he said, "They can't justify any reason for doing this." There are nightclub comedians with six-figure incomes who aren't that funny.

Jeff Robinson had allowed a mind-bending 170 batters to reach base in 104 1/3 innings in 1991, and when the Orioles finally sent him to Rochester, he said he would rather go play for a team that appreciates him. It's been years since Mel Brooks showed that much imagination in his movies.

Paul Kilgus, the third of the troika of pitchers the Orioles demoted the other day, at least had the decency to keep his mouth shut -- a wise idea for any pitcher who is winless with a 5.08 ERA at the end of July. But it was easy to read Kilgus' displeasure into his terse "it's a done deal."

Welcome to the era of the blameless athlete, in which the rarest words heard are: "It's my fault." It isn't. It never is. Not to hear them tell it, at least.

Today's athletes, at least many, have been coddled to the point they feel they can do no wrong. There is always an excuse when something goes wrong. It is management's fault. Just a bad night. The wind blowing out. Oily burritos in the pre-game spread. It is never "I was lousy." Not often, anyway.

We shouldn't be surprised. Their scribbled names are worth good money, and they get huge raises for batting .215 and there is always someone waiting around to tell them they're terrific or lob a softball question at them for the 11 o'clock news. How can they not believe they're bulletproof?

Of course, ballplayers aren't the only ones. Passing the blame is an American tradition. There is always someone to blame, a supervisor, a rule, a computer. Ever tried to get anyone at Blue Cross to fess up to anything? Richard Hunter blamed Kurt Schmoke yesterday. Nixon found people to blame. Everyone does. Athletes are just particularly adept at it.

Jeff Robinson thinks he was taken out of the rotation because the Orioles didn't want to pay him $25,000 for making 20 starts. He has somehow convinced himself that his winning one game since May 29 had nothing to do with it.

Ballard thinks his demotion is all about being made a scapegoat for the past two seasons. He has somehow convinced himself that his 8-22 record and 5.09 ERA in those seasons is secondary. Norman Vincent Peale couldn't do it better.

It is true what both players said, that the team has more problems than demoting two starters can solve, but they're missing the point. You start somewhere.

Wouldn't it be reassuring to hear them face one speck of the whole truth and say, "I just didn't do the job"? Wouldn't it make you feel you at least lived on the same planet as these people you cheer for?

Instead, they both got all swollen and asked to be traded. That's the way it works now. No parting is pleasant. There is always a wronging in progress. That the player didn't do his job is minor. It's that he isn't appreciated. It's that the grass, real or artificial, must be greener elsewhere.

Robinson screamed the loudest, and the Orioles must accept some of the responsibility for that. They traded for him. They fostered his belief that he was desirable.

He does have a powerful arm, but he had a 5.96 ERA last year, the highest in the league among starters. No reasonable team would give up anything for him after that kind of year. The Orioles did only because they were too cheap to pay Mickey Tettleton. That wasn't Robinson's fault.

Still, after struggling again this season, Robinson should have the humility to recognize something is wrong, that his raw talent isn't enough. He has admitted he took cortisone shots to keep pitching, which is gutsy, but it doesn't absolve his many shortcomings, which he doesn't address.

Ballard is a simpler case. He just stopped fooling hitters and couldn't admit it. It's unfortunate. He knows how to pitch, proved it down the stretch in 1989, but he was never the same after his arm operations that winter.

The sad truth is the only person he has fooled lately is himself. Over and over, he has explained his losses as bad luck, hitters making the most of tough pitches, the whims of an unpredictable game. His refrain was, "I had good stuff." Hitters clobbered his good stuff a lot.

We should applaud Kilgus for keeping his mouth shut. Maybe he understood the only reason he was here was the Orioles were too cheap to pay Joe Price. Anyway, it's no surprise he took the news better, or at least at a lower volume. Thrice-traded, he knows humility.

It isn't just bottom-rungers who learn to admit mistakes, though. Some top-rungers do. You've never heard anyone accept blame faster than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Rickey Henderson will tell you when he just gets beat. So will John McEnroe, Dwight Gooden, Greg Norman, Gregg Olson. It is basic psychology. They're confident enough not to be humbled by admitting failure.

Maybe Robinson and Ballard understand deep down that they didn't cut it, and they're just frustrated. But it doesn't appear so. It appears they really believe they were wronged. You have to bless 'em for such self-confidence, but as Custer's lieutenants said when Custer called for the charge at Little Big Horn: "This is just a joke, right?"

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