I wonder if fans were more sympathetic toward aging players before the free agency era. I seriously doubt it. I'm sure fans have always given struggling players a hard time. These days, it's common to hear a player's salary come up when he's slumping horribly. "You make $15 million, throw a strike, get a hit, for crying out loud." If a player isn't producing, it must be because he's a fat cat, too rich and complacent for his own good. Fans have a right to their opinion of course, but often I feel as if this attitude discounts just how difficult it is to play baseball, particularly for players who are over 35 years old. I get as frustrated as the next guy at Kevin Brown, but I feel that it's easy for me to forget how tough it must be for a guy his age to continue to compete at an elite level. Physically, and mentally, playing baseball into your late thirties must be an incredible challenge. In an article that appeared yesterday in The Baltimore Sun, Laura Vecsey profiled Rafael Palmeiro:
Palmeiro's eyes dart here and there. He talks with a mix of passion, longing, anxiety.
...But his head is down. His frustration is evident. His disappointment over disappointing his teammates and fans is obvious.
Anxiety is the word that stuck with me. In the third inning of last night's game with the Yanks trailing 2-0, Bernie Williams came to the plate with men on second and third and nobody out. He popped out to shallow right field, failing to drive in a run. The camera followed Williams as he returned to the dugout. His mouth was tensed, and he clasped his hands together as if he were praying. But the gesture didn't look like a prayer, it looked as if it was everything he could do to prevent himself from losing his temper. It was just a moment, but it spoke to the kind of anxiety he must be experiencing internally. Moments later, he was sitting next to Don Mattingly, a placid look on his face, talking about the at bat.
Hideki Matsui, mired in the worst slump of his Major League career, must be able to relate. But Matsui still has several good years left in him. For Palmeiro, who homered last night, and Williams, time is running out. The pressure is also on Jason Giambi, who was evidentally approached by Joe Torre and Brian Cashman yesterday about possibly heading to the minor leagues to help his lagging confidence. Giambi insisted that working with Mattingly would be better for him at this time than a trip to Columbus.
"I'm a firm believer of the mind ruling the body, and it's not good right now," Torre said. "I saw a calmness (before), but calmness in spring training is one thing. When you're 0-for-4 during the season, it takes on a different face. He was more patient in spring training. Physically, he had a little more life in his body, and I blame the psychological stuff."
Giambi was treated well by Yankee fans early this spring. But any sense of goodwill has run out, and the reaction to Giambi is getting downright nasty. No matter what happens, it doesn't feel like Giambi's career in New York is going to have a happy ending.