Baseball Players vs. Baseball Players: Analyzing A Great Cliché

  • Tuesday, February 22, 2011 6:05 AM
  • Written By: Andrew Simon

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“He’s a baseball player.”

It is a statement that means both nothing and everything when those inside the game utter it.

In a literal sense, it states the obvious. But when a player, coach or front office type puts that little emphasis on it -- “That guy, he’s a baseball player” -- it becomes the ultimate compliment.

I was thinking about this Sunday when Buster Olney tweeted this: Dustin Pedroia to a friend about Robinson Cano, with respect: “He's become a (bleepin') baseball player.” pedroia likes cano's passion 4 game.

If you follow baseball, you read and hear comments like this all the time. It’s one of those cliches that baseball people toss about frequently. It’s not “one day at a time,” but it’s certainly a go-to way to express your appreciation for a guy.

But what does it really mean? Beyond the very, very obvious, that is.

To help answer this question, I spent about an hour on Google tracking down all of the instances I could find in which someone bestowed this highest of compliments or its simplified relative, “He’s a ballplayer.” (No, I didn’t have anything better to do. Why do you ask?)

First, I will share with you the list I compiled of baseball players/ballplayers to see if there are any clear conclusions to draw. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, but it should provide a solid sampling. It includes any current or recent major leaguers I found.

Derek Jeter, David Murphy, David Eckstein, Sam Fuld, Mitch Moreland, Ryan Kalish, Hideki Matsui, Gordon Beckham, Kevin Millar, Chris Coghlan, Tim Hudson, Edgar Martinez, Blake DeWitt, Michael Brantley, Russell Martin, Kenji Johjima, Michael Young, Jayson Werth, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria, Placido Polanco, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Wieters, A.J. Pierzynski, Eric Hinske, Micah Owings, Ryan Freel, Adrian Beltre, Alexei Ramirez, Nick Swisher, Nick Punto, Mark DeRosa, Brady Clark, Noah Lowry, Matt Joyce, Ian Kinsler, Joe Randa, George Sherrill, Reid Brignac, Jorge Posada, Alex Cora, Marco Scutaro, Josh Hamilton, Will Rhymes, Miguel Tejada, Mark Teahen, Marcus Giles, Pedro Feliz, Tony Giarratano, Ben Zobrist, Asdrubal Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, Dan Uggla, Augie Ojeda, Jack Wilson, Oscar Robles, Mike Leake, Daniel Nava, Reed Johnson, Jeff Kent, Zack Greinke, Brad Wilkerson, Freddy Sanchez, Ian Desmond, Greg Maddux, Mike Aviles, Albert Pujols, Aaron Cook, Nick Markakis, Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Zambrano, Angel Pagan, Andy Dominique, Robert Fick, Paul McAnulty, Khalil Greene, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mark Grudzielanek, Ronny Cedeno, Jamey Carroll.*

There aren’t a ton of obvious lessons here. We’ve got stars, regulars and scrubs. We’ve got mostly hitters but a sprinkling of pitchers. We’ve got youngsters and veterans. Scrappy white dudes are well represented, but there is at least some diversity.

So with a strong definition still out of reach, let’s dip into the case files.

First of all, there is an important distinction that must be made. Let’s let Gary Cathcart, manager of the Class-A Potomac Nationals, draw that line for us in talking about Washington prospect Steve Lombardozzi: “He's a baseball player. There's a difference between a baseball player and a guy who plays baseball. He's prepared for anything that happens in the field."

At face value, this sounds ridiculous. If you heard someone say, “There’s a difference between a construction worker and someone who works in construction,” or “There’s a difference between a pizza delivery boy and a boy who delivers pizza,” you would stare at them blankly. But when it comes to baseball, there seems to be an understanding about players vs. guys who play.

There also seems to be another important distinction, this one between a ballplayer and an “athlete.” I saw at least four examples of this, including the following quote from Kevin Youkilis about Pedroia and the Red Sox: “He’s not 6-4, (doesn’t run) fast, but he’s a baseball player. We have baseball players here, and not 6-2 athletes. That’s why we’re a good team. We have the guys that are good baseball players.”

OK, so now we know that a baseball player is not a guy who plays baseball, and he’s not a tall athlete. But what is he, then?

Since we all presumably have lives to get on with, I’ve separated the supposed qualities of these very special individuals into five broad categories, each of which I will address briefly.

1. The Cliché Clusterf*ck
The most common explanation for what makes a ballplayer a ballplayer is some other trite saying commonly used in major league clubhouses. Descriptors include: scrappy, hard-nosed, throwback, old-fashioned, a grinder, always dirty, a dirtball, a dirtbag, maximum effort and blue-collar.

2. The Inspector Gadgets
Inflexible players need not apply, as versatility seems to be a critical component of a ballplayer. This was presented as versatility in terms of position, spot in the batting order or skill set. It’s like what Dusty Baker said about Angel Pagan when both were Cubs: “He’s a ballplayer. These are things a ballplayer does – they run the bases well, they hit well, they throw, they throw to the right base, they steal a base.”

There is also a subset within this group that consists of pitchers who can do more than pitch. One such hurler is Tim Hudson, of whom a scout said: “It goes straight to being athletic. He can field his position, get a timely hit or lay down a bunt against a real tough pitcher. He’s a baseball player.”

3. Brains Over Brawn
When they both were on the Red Sox together, Jason Varitek described Alex Cora as a baseball player, saying, “His wits on the field are phenomenal. Even if he doesn’t hit, there isn’t a situation that doesn’t go by that he’s not aware of.” I’m not sure that last sentence makes any sense, but the quote nonetheless encapsulates a central tenet of baseball playerdom. This can be intelligence but is more often described as being alert or heads-up or possessing a good “feel for the game,” or baseball instincts.

4. Self-improvement
If a baseball player is struggling, he does not give up. That is because he is a being characterized by a supreme will and a never-say-die attitude. He will learn and grow and figure things out. Former Mets manager Jerry Manuel summed up this quality last season in talking about David Murphy. “He’s a baseball player,” Manuel said. “I wouldn’t put anything past him as far as adjusting.”

5. The Right Stuff
You know how there are those guys on major league teams who do things the wrong way? Maybe they don’t run out ground balls; maybe they admire their home runs for too long; maybe they forget their place and get all uppity with the manager or an esteemed veteran. Whatever the case may be, these guys aren’t baseball players in the true sense of the term. That classification is reserved for those who play with pride and respect, like Ben Zobrist. “He’s a baseball player, and I mean that obviously as a big compliment,” (Rays) executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. “He plays the game the right way.”

So there you have it. Now the next time someone tells you he is a baseball player, you can ask, “Yeah, but are you a baseball player?”

* You can read all of the quotes I found in this Google document.

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