For all the modernity in today’s game; for the allowances teams make when the opposition mobs one of their own after a game-winning hit; for the inter-team chatter around the batting cage; for pitchers willing to permit batters to crowd the plate and dig in; for the definition of “blowout” that has gone from five runs to six runs to eight runs or more—there is still something sacrosanct about the silent rookie.
This is the player who enters a big league clubhouse wide-eyed and ready to learn, partly because he’s willing, and partly because it’s expected. It’s the guy who keeps his mouth shut, the better to watch, the better to absorb.
“In my day, rookies didn’t speak unless spoken to,” said George Brett. “Nobody paid attention to you. You just kind of kept your mouth shut and did what was expected of you. You listened, observed and learned.”
Jim Davenport estimated that one needed 400 at-bats before he could speak up. Lefty Grove had already won four games for the A’s by the time team veterans so much as acknowledged his presence.
“As rookies coming up in Detroit, we were told to be seen not heard, and that’s what we did,” said former Mets manager Jerry Manuel. “We kept our place.”
The sentiment is no longer enforced with quite so much vigor as it was even a generation ago, but it still exists. Which is why veterans notice when a guy like Jordany Valdespin hits a clubhouse.
Valdespin has made quite the impression on his teammates since the Mets called him up in late April, not all of it good.
Reported the New York Times: “In this, his rookie season, [Valdespin] has become an unusual wild card, a player equally capable of providing an instant spark or a head-slapping blunder . . . whose judgment and maturity may still be a work in progress.”
Mets manager Terry Collins has expressed his own concerns, specifically addressing the value in rookies being “very, very quiet” as they earn their position. There’s a reason for this: Valdespin’s behavior, while not necessarily outlandish, has not exactly been rookie-like. His is an outsized personality, the kind that takes over the clubhouse stereo, and by multiple accounts he has not made much of an effort to fit into his expected role. His teammates, needless to say, have noticed.
They responded last week with a not-so-subtle reminder, in the way that veterans have long been not-so-subtly reminding rookies of things. Valdespin had worn a white T-shirt on the bus from the team hotel in San Francisco to AT&T Park, despite the dress code requiring collared shirts.
Following that night’s game, Valdespin arrived at his locker to find the sleeves of his T-shirt shredded, and colorful messages—“NY Loves Valdy” (complete with a heart in place of “loves”) on the front, and “El Hombre” (a reference to him referring to himself as “The Man,” after pinch-hitting a homer off Jonathan Papelbon in May) on the back .
El Hombre was not pleased. Angry, he began yelling in the crowded clubhouse about the inequity of it all.
This was the moment at which Valdespin could either have earned points with his teammates, or alienated himself further. During Chan Ho Park’s rookie season in 1996, his Dodgers teammates shredded his suit (which they later found out had been given to him by his mother), then watched, befuddled, as he threw food across the room, tossed his chair into a row of lockers and wept openly.
When rookie Armando Benitez found the clothing in his locker replaced by a dress, he pinned down a number of veterans against the far wall of the shower room with a steady barrage of baseballs picked out of a nearby bucket. (In the end, the pitcher refused to capitulate, even after being told that his clothes had been packed and were already en route to the airport. “He wore a T-shirt and a pair of shorts on the frickin’ plane,” said one team member. “That didn’t sit too well with the veterans, I can tell you that.”)
Valdespin, however, appears to have learned an important lesson. He stormed to the back of the clubhouse after seeing his shirt in tatters, but—apparently after being talked to by some veterans, including David Wright—returned before long with a grin on his face, and proceeded to model the shirt, going so far as to pose for his teammates’ cell phone pictures.
“I got mad at that moment, but it’s funny now,” Valdespin said the following day, while wearing the shirt again. “It’s a process. I need to keep learning.”
Based on that statement alone, there’s hope for the kid yet.