Reality Intrudes

Howie Kendrick, Jered Weaver and Anderson Rosario play "flip" before a 2005 Quakes game.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in a traffic accident early on April 29 when his SUV slammed into the back of a tow truck. A police official said Friday that Hancock was driving intoxicated, and marijuana was found within his vehicle.

It’s amazing this doesn’t happen more often.

Players are bred to compete. Life is a series of zero-sum contests, testing themselves against any challenge.

It may be as simple as playing cards in the clubhouse before the game. Or it might be a game of "flip" in which players gather in a circle and flip a baseball to each other without allowing it to fall to the ground. Drop it, and you’re out.

But sometimes the competitive streak turns ugly, as players compete against their own bodies.

An obvious example is when they try to play through pain. If they only concentrate hard enough, they can beat the pain and continue to perform. Could someone else do better? Maybe, but they don’t want to accept that, so they play through the pain.

But players often try to prove to themselves that they can defeat the effects of alcohol or other mind-altering substances.

Every organization has minor league players who get involved in drunk driving arrests or accidents, or other off-field incidents. Most of the time, fans never hear about it because it’s swept under the rug. If you’re just an organization player filling out a roster, you might get suspended or even released. If you’re a top prospect who got a huge signing bonus, a different standard will most likely apply as your employer isn’t likely to flush a multi-million dollar investment for the sake of principle — which, of course, the player realizes and therefore he thinks he can get away with it. Which he probably will.

Bobby Jenks is a prime example. Angels management dealt with one incident after another. Jenks himself chronicled his misdeeds for ESPN: The Magazine — drinking binges, brawls with teammates, suspensions. Nonetheless, the Angels kept him until they finally moved him off the 40-man roster in December 2004 to make room for free-agent signees. The White Sox claimed him on waivers, and ten months later he was on the mound when Chicago won the World Series. That moment of glory aside, his major league career has been sporadically brilliant but largely inconsistent.

Some fans gripe that the Angels didn’t hold onto Jenks forever hoping that one day he’d get his head together, but Jenks himself has told the press that being left unprotected by the Angels was a wakeup call. Whether that sticks, well, it’s the White Sox’ problem now. But he also has a wife and children who will suffer if he falls hard.

The Angels have been lucky. None of the minor leaguers involved in off-field incidents in recent years has lost his life. But it’s only a matter of time.

The best way to keep it from happening is for players to discipline themselves. And when that isn’t enough, those around them — coaches, host parents, loved ones — need to intervene.

UPDATE May 6, 2007 9:00 AM PDT — Columnist J.A. Adande of the Los Angeles Times observes that Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa’s drunk driving arrest during spring training may have set a precedent that led to Josh Hancock’s death.


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