Imagine it’s the last series of the regular season, a playoff berth is on the line, and your best player gets so drunk the night before a game that he’s three times over the legal limit for driving, gets taken to the police station at 6 a.m. after a fight with his wife and then comes to the ballpark still drunk.
He goes 0-4 and strands six runners on base in a 5-1 loss. His club wins the next game but winds up missing the postseason after losing Game 163.
Would you want this player on your team?
It’s a question the Tigers are asking themselves about Miguel Cabrera this offseason, and it’s a question other teams — including the Red Sox — could be asking themselves if Detroit puts Cabrera on the trading block.
There is no denying Cabrera’s talent on a baseball field. The 26-year-old first baseman is a .311 career hitter and already has 209 home runs and 753 RBIs in seven seasons. He is a four-time All-Star and owns a World Series ring.
If he keeps producing at that rate, he will have a plaque in Cooperstown one day.
But will he keep producing at that rate?
A few years ago, there were concerns about his weight. Now there are shadows of doubt about his focus.
Cabrera is guaranteed $126 million over the next six years. That’s a lot of money to spend on someone who might — or might not – be disciplined.
The Cabrera case raises a larger issue about character in general.
How important is character? When evaluating great players, how much consideration should be given to mental makeup, what makes them tick, how they conduct themselves, what doesn’t show up in box scores, their personality?
It’s a very subjective argument.
The Oakland Raiders of the mid-1970s had a roster that would have given the Hells Angels a good fight in a bar brawl, and they won a Super Bowl.
The Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s was known for beating each other up as much as punishing the opposition.
And Babe Ruth might have played harder off the field than on it, and he was one of the best players in baseball history.
That is just the starting point. The list of professional athletes who have burned the candle at both ends is longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls. "I could tell you some stories" was invented for pro jocks. Most of them are not reading The New York Times every morning, and some of them have probably even used a swear word once or twice before.
Having good manners is not a prerequisite to being a star. Immoral behavior doesn’t preclude entry into any sports Hall of Fame. But there’s a big difference between being a Bible-thumping teetotaler and a good teammate.
A good teammate doesn’t have to be in bed by 11 with the lights out or get a nomination for Father of the Year. A good teammate doesn’t have to help old ladies cross the street or rescue stray dogs from burning buildings. A good teammate doesn’t have to volunteer at a homeless shelter on off days, read to the blind in the offseason or create a charitable foundation to end world hunger.
All of that is nice, but at the end of the day, a good teammate just has to be trusted to give his best effort every time he puts on the uniform. The sad truth is that players are not getting paid to be role models or first-class citizens (some chose to be, but it is not an obligation). They are getting paid to produce, put fans in the seats and help win championships.
That means avoiding trouble and being responsible. What players do out of the spotlight is their own business, and no one has the right to tell anyone how they should behave. But a good teammate owes it to his teammates and any organization to come ready to play every day (replace "play" with "work" and this applies to everybody).
Cabrera let a whole lot of people down the first weekend of October — his team, Tigers fans, the city of Detroit, Major League Baseball and himself.
Cabrera wasn’t the only reason the Tigers collapsed at the finish line, but it didn’t help to have their cleanup hitter three sheets to the wind at the most crucial point of the season.
Cabrera has had some time to reflect on the ramifications of his actions. Maybe it was just one bad day. Maybe he's struggling with demons.
Like all athletes, Cabrera puts his pants on one leg at a time. And like the rest of us, athletes are prone to the same human failings, pressures and stress we all face as part of daily life. Certain traits increase the odds of surviving the grind.
It’s easy to forget this when you see someone hit a baseball 450 feet.
But character is an important intangible to think about during the hot stove season. Lack of it can do more damage than the worst slump.
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