Rookie Hazing

No Drag For Rookies Is No Drag At All

the-hazingSo ballplayers won’t be dressing each other up like women anymore. Depending upon one’s perspective, the latest decree against this particular subset of rookie hazing is either outrageous or long overdue. We’ve heard many opinions since the news dropped, but for the most part they’ve ignored what I think is a vital piece of the equation: Why do it in the first place?

Rookies weren’t always made to dress like cheerleaders, of course. Like any facet of the sport’s unwritten rules, the practice had evolved over time.

Once, rookie hazing consisted mainly of failing to acknowledge a greenhorn player, sometimes to a nearly complete degree. Rookies were ignored among clubhouse conversations to the point that former Giants third baseman Jim Davenport estimated that a player in the 1950s had to accumulate at least four hundred at-bats before he was allowed so much as to speak up in the presence of veterans.

One extreme example: In 1949, Indians third baseman Ken Keltner so dominated his position that when a hotshot youngster who played the same position tried to take his rightful spot in batting practice, Keltner—abetted by various veteran teammates—chased him away. The same thing occurred when the kid grabbed a glove to work on fielding ground balls. At that point Keltner was a seven-time All-Star, and viewed the rookie as a direct threat to his job. The lockout repeated itself day after day, until the kid realized that his only way to practice was to show up early, hours before the rest of the team. Luckily for Al Rosen, a fellow rookie, Ray Boone, was willing to throw early BP for him. The following season Keltner’s fears were realized when Rosen supplanted him with a 37-homer season.

That kind of mindset has evolved, of course. With the advent of enormous signing bonuses came an increased premium on young players’ success. With the advent of enormous salaries for stars, teams are increasingly forced to lean on youngsters to fill out rosters. Once, a five-year minor league gestation period was status quo. Now, players shoot through the system in as few as one or two seasons.

So how to keep rookies in line while (mostly) avoiding the kind of overt tactics that could prove deleterious to their performance? Dressing them up was one answer. The tradition may have started with a shoe store in Atlanta that in the 1970s and ’80s sold garish footwear—wild colors and platform soles—that veterans took to foisting upon younger colleagues when passing through town. Before long, pant cuffs were cut to accentuate the shoes. Outrageous thrift-store clothes were integrated into the mix. Sixto Lezcano’s Brewers teammates dressed him all in green—suit, shirt, socks and shoes—for an entire West Coast swing. (“I looked like a fuckin’ grasshopper,” he said.) Now we see superheroes and cowboys in addition to Hooters waitresses. In 2007, Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka traveled to Toronto while dressed like a Teletubby.

What those decrying the new anti-drag decree seem to miss is that the act is in no way about women’s clothing. It’s about initiation, rites of passage that welcome new members into old clubs. It has no prescribed shape, only prescribed function. (At least that’s the way it should be. There’s no accounting for those who integrate sadism into the act.)

The real issues arise not when players dress up in whatever outfit is presented to them, but when they refuse. It’s an act of rebellion that, right or wrong, can fracture a player’s standing in the clubhouse. From The Baseball Codes:

After teammates on the Orioles replaced Armando Benitez’s clothes with a dress on getaway day, he refused to don the outfit and, scream­ing for the return of his wardrobe, 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.”

“The guys who make a big fuss about it, who get mad at it, they’re usu­ally the ones who don’t last too long,” said Doug Mientkiewicz, who was forced into female clothing by his Twins teammates as a rookie in 1998. “If you can’t be mentally strong enough to wear a dress for one day when every other rookie is, too, then you’re probably not going to be mentally strong enough to handle an 0-for-35 stretch in four different cities.”

Women’s clothes are leaving big league wardrobes, but they didn’t matter anyway. Effective methods exist to welcome new members into any club, and this particular one will soldier on without missing a beat. Anybody who insists otherwise just isn’t looking hard enough.



Rookie Hazing

Ah, to be a Rookie in the 1980s

Jose RijoGreg Zaun earned notice recently with comments about getting hazed by Cal Ripken and other Orioles veterans during his rookie season in 1995. From an interview on Blue Jays radio: “They taped me spread-eagle to the training table, they wrote ‘rookie’ on my forehead with pink methylate, and they shoved a bucket of ice down my shorts.”

Zaun recalled this (and much more) as a good thing, and lamented its deficiency in the modern game. He’s since backtracked a bit, going so far as to apologize to Ripken (at least according to Ripken), but this was normal baseball behavior in Zaun’s day, and his fond reminiscences on the topic are hardly unique.

In the spirit of rookies getting tied down by veterans, here’s an unedited interview snippet from former Reds ace Jose Rijo, conducted for The Baseball Codes in 2007:

If I was going out early to eat, they would put me at a table and say, “You’re a rookie, you have to wait for a veteran before you can eat.” They tied me to a chair with my plate right in front of me. That’s the type of thing I went through. Now, rookies don’t even wait for the game to end to go in and eat, they don’t stay quiet when a game is lost, they are emotional. I hate that.

Who tied you to the chair?

Oscar Gamble and Don Baylor. Believe me, I learned my lesson, and I’m glad they did that to me. It was an honor for me. I was like the bellboy for the team. Believe me, looking back now, it was a beautiful thing—it’s something everybody should experience, to come onto this level and learn these things. You don’t learn how to be a leader unless you learn first by having it done to you.

They tied a hungry Jose Rijo to his chair, with a plate of food just out of reach. It’s behavior of a bygone era, obliterated by huge rookie contracts and early-onset egos that are tuned to automatically recoil at such overtures. Was that kind of hazing a good thing? According to guys like Rijo and Zaun it was. But societies evolve and methodologies change. Today’s 20-year-olds aren’t attuned to the same kinds of messages as their counterparts from 20 years ago … which leads to the occasional comment from guys like Mat Latos, bemoaning lacking clubhouse standards. But when that type of hazing becomes institutionalized, a subset of the culture that is drawn to the abuse more than the message is afforded significant leeway to unload as it sees fit. And whichever way one chooses to spin it, brutality for brutality’s sake doesn’t tend to make for better people.

Rookie Hazing, Ryan Wheeler

One is the Loneliest Number: Arizona Offers Some Long-Lasting Ice

All alone in the dugout.

We’ve grown accustomed to rookies getting the cold shoulder in the dugout after hitting their first home run, a process of good-natured icing by their teammates that serves to remind them that, even with their deserved accolades, they’re still rookies.

On Saturday in Houston, however, the Diamondbacks took things to an extreme. After Ryan Wheeler hit his first big league jack into the left field stands, he was left to wonder . . . and wonder . . . and wonder just how long his teammates were going to maintain their charade. (Watch it here.)

As a smiling and solitary Wheeler took his seat on the bench, cameras trained in on him, waiting for the moment at which Arizona players would jump up and congratulate him. Stephen Drew, sitting next to him and unable to stifle his grin, had to pull his jersey up over his mouth.

Eventually, however, Astros pitcher Chuckie Fick threw another pitch to the next hitter, Patrick Corbin, which the telecast was obligated to show. They quickly cut back to the dugout camera, without much luck. Wheeler was still sitting, alone, when Fick delivered again. It wasn’t until Fick was winding up for the third pitch of the at-bat—a span of some 40 seconds—that Arizona players finally relented and gave the rookie his just due.

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing thoroughly, I guess. Don’t believe anybody who says that the Diamondbacks are not committed to their craft.

Kyle Drabek, Mike Trout, Rookie Hazing

Spring: A Time of Renewal, and Making Rookies Miserable

Spring training is a time for players to prepare for the season ahead. Typically that would mean on-the-field business … except that somebody keeps stocking clubhouses with rookies.

And veterans need to prepare their hazing chops just as much as their batting eye.

For a simple prank we turn to Dunedin, Fla., the spring home of the Toronto Blue Jays. Ricky Romero took some gum, blew a bubble, and stuck it to the cap of rookie Kyle Drabek. As is customary, none of Drabek’s teammates pointed it out, leaving him to bear the shame of the bubble-cap through much of the team’s workout.

The prank is as old as bubble gum itself. The fact that the Toronto Star meticulously documented it with a fabulous photo essay, however, makes this one particularly worth our while.

More serious business occurred in Arizona, where, during the Angels’ game with the A’s, a scoreboard message appeared imploring fans to call “Mike Trout directly with your baseball questions,” and included a phone number. Trout’s actual number.

The player who got it posted: Jared Weaver.

At 19, Trout is among the most hyped players in the minor leagues. Which doesn’t do a thing to alter his rookie status.

Or keep him from needing a new phone number.

(Thanks to reader James Ho for the Blue Jays tip.)

– Jason