For the last two months, I’ve Googled “Biogenesis MLB” about once daily. The MLB’s most recent labor scandal is particularly interesting because some of the names are not connected to PEDs, and allegedly had their names cleared (Gio Gonzalez was the first, and most notable, dropped from the alleged list). Further developments include false connections or allegations (most recently involving Robinson Cano), a lawsuit filed by the MLB against Biogenesis (an anti-aging specialist will apparently be deposed tomorrow), an interesting corroboration of Ryan Braun‘s claims from Anthony Bosch himself, and of course, parties from both ownership and labor purchasing documents from Biogenesis. If the lack of media heat on this story makes it feel like it’s disappeared, it hasn’t, although the progression of events certainly adds enough shady dimensions to make potential PED-use look somewhat less reprehensible than one might expect (purchasing evidence certainly is an interesting twist in MLB’s testing era). Surely, MLB fans are so hungry for PED justice that they won’t mind if some of the game’s stars are suspended on the basis of purchased documents or suspect evidence. Welcome to baseball’s testing era — if MLB fans don’t particularly care if their team’s stars use PEDs (or, at least, aren’t suspended for doing so), MLB itself desperately wants fans to flock to the game for their rigorous testing (as opposed to, say, the veracity of their umpiring calls or the pace of game). The upshot of rigorous testing is that fans can flock to the game for the character of the players.
Whenever I think about the idea of fans being drawn to the game for clean players and upright characters, I think about Rickie Weeks. Lately, collecting my thoughts on the many angles of Organized Baseball’s attack on PEDs, I devised a test: “The Rickie Weeks Test.” Since the Brewers’ franchise second baseman is lately struggling at the plate, some of the most interesting corresponding information about Weeks’s work ethic and approach to the game has come from the Brewers’ broadcasters and writers. These accounts of Weeks’s hard work and dedication to the ballclub is absolutely the type of character-based information that fans should devour (if not only to have our minds blown, “baseball players have to do THAT to prepare for games?”). Specifically, I noticed that as Weeks’s struggles continue, everyone from General Manager Doug Melvin to broadcaster Joe Block tout Weeks’s approach off the field. “The Rickie Weeks Test” is simple, and it occurred to me as a way to uphold the character of a player in the midst of a difficult stretch. I formed the test as a straightforward question: “If fans are serious about the character of their hometown players, moreso than their results, they will love and support Rickie Weeks.” This is the test that corresponds to baseball’s hardline approach against PEDs.
Weeks has always been one of my favorite Brewers. Perhaps some of it comes from writing articles defending him for years; it’s almost as though the story of Weeks’s career is the story of how others shaped expectations that Weeks could not live up to. From the start, we heard about Weeks’s position in the draft, and how that should correlate to guaranteed superstardom; from the start, we heard about how Weeks’s tools would guarantee a multi-faceted approach on the field. Despite his power potential and hitting potential we heard about, the Brewers consistently employed Weeks as their lead-off batter, and he used his disciplined, patient approach to draw walks and get on base at any cost in that role. One could argue that other roles might have helped Weeks develop as an aggressive power hitter, or accentuate his power hitting skills more than his patience and discipline, but Weeks nevertheless used the leadoff role to become a productive player at 2B. Our first hint that we should love Weeks, as fans, was his work at a specific batting order role at the organization’s request. Weeks is, in many ways, a franchise Brewer, so much so that his role as a Brewers player was tied to a specific spot in the order.
Forget that entering 2013, Weeks boasted 4000 PA batting .251/.350/.429 with 130 HR and 116 SB. Weeks has typically been regarded as a high-character player since he entered the MLB. Stories of his workout regimen have been told throughout his career, as Weeks is known as one of the club’s “workout warriors” over the years. He’s a student of the game, specifically Negro League Baseball, and MLB.com consistently touts ties between the Weeks’ brothers and their Negro League grandfather. He’s a member of a baseball family, as his father devotes time to organizing a team in a Florida summer college league. He doesn’t shy away from issues of race and identity, and has spoken out about the negative experiences of racism on the field, as well as the positive impact of his decision to attend Southern University. Off the field, Weeks is a charitable player, and he is quite open about his faith as a ballplayer; earlier in his career, I even remember hearing that Weeks hoped to start a Gospel radio station. Furthermore, he’s close with his family, and many of his MLB.com features focus on that area of his life. Melvin’s recent praise cuts straight to the heart of the issue:
“Last April he hit .160 and .132 the month of May. But you just can’t keep saying you’re a slow starter. Guys do have streaks. You just hope he fights his way out of it. Rickie is a fighter. He’s the toughest player on our club.”
About the worst thing you can say about Weeks is that Negro League scholars have not found a record of his grandfather playing with Newark’s Negro League club. However, since he played toward the end of that franchise’s run, it is quite plausible that roster turnover, the focus on black players signing in the MLB and leaving the Negro Leagues, or changes in the franchise obscured official documentation of some of their ballgames. Certainly, this is not the type of scandal that will define a player during MLB’s testing era. (Anyway, that’s an issue suitable for a doctoral dissertation, rather than depositions, arbitration panels, and suspensions).
What’s quite interesting, during Weeks’s slump, is the urgency of articles about the “Weeks Situation.” I noticed this on my Facebook feed, for instance, where FSN Wisconsin articles pop up with specific takes on how to handle the slumping veteran. I noticed this while checking out JSOnline’s Brewers section, where news articles and commentary alike address the issue of Weeks’s production. With the club struggling overall, other storylines come to the forefront, and it’s interesting to see how vigorously the Brewers’ broadcasting and press corps defend Weeks; there’s a definitive split between fans’ attitudes about Weeks and press attitudes about Weeks. What becomes clear is that our experience of Weeks as a fanbase is not connected to the work that Weeks does everyday to prepare himself as a Brewers player; of course, we cannot possibly know what goes on in the clubhouse unless someone else tells us, and it’s quite clear that for that reason, those connected with the organization have formed different opinions of Weeks than the fans. We often forget that this is a job for ballplayers, but surely we can understand from our own experience the benefits of working with people that never quit, or maintain strong character, even during the tough times. (If any of us haven’t experienced that, we should either count our blessings for such an easy path, or note the rarity of hard work through tough times).
This outlines “The Rickie Weeks Test,” for from fan attitudes we can learn about fan expectations. We can also learn what fans want to see on the field. Ultimately, of course, the easy answer is that fans want winning. Fans don’t necessarily care about the character of their winning players so long as they’re winning. Perhaps that was the greatest shock that accompanied reports of Ryan Braun’s alleged failed test; that report didn’t invalidate our experience of winning, or our experience of Braun’s abilities and success on the field, so much as it planted uncertainty about the future. There was always a chance, in our minds, I think, that Braun might not always be the greatest player in the National League; however, the reports about his alleged failed test arguably planted doubts in our minds about how we might experience the face of the franchise’s successes and failures going forward. Make no mistakes about it, Braun is our guy; this set of labor issues involving Braun doesn’t affect our support for him as a Brewers player, which I find to be an interesting counter to MLB’s assumptions about the testing era.
In the testing era, as other eras, fan attitudes about baseball players are not cut along moral lines. Certainly, we can be presented with productive, upstanding citizens on our rosters, and still not support those players, or still uphold their flaws over their strengths, or simply ignore the good that they have done the franchise in order to uphold our own narrative (in Weeks’s case, fans write the, “he could have been so much more” narrative, or, the “he never lived up to his draft pick” narrative. This has been the case for years, even during some of Weeks’s successful seasons). Oddly enough, even when presented with what MLB so clearly defines as a villain, fans won’t outright reject those villains, even for all the labor scandals that MLB can pin on that player’s shoulders. Fan loyalty, in that regard, is connected to something else, something outside of character or individual success.
As for Weeks, I challenge Brewers fans to support Weeks as we support Braun. What I find rather interesting is that fans can have no problem jumping to support every potentially exonerating detail in Braun’s labor cases (which is a good thing), while not drawing from Weeks’s vast collection of personal strengths and character traits to support him during his slump. Braun’s labor issues occurred off the field, and never corresponded with declining production, so perhaps it’s easier for us to draw from his clear-cut, on-field success to support him than it is to submerge ourselves in murky, internal details of character to support a player during a slump. In a way, this whole idea is naive on my part; a slump is a slump, and we only like players so long as they are good (“support a player during a slump!? This is baseball! You must be crazy!”). This truth slices deeper than most, when defining the fan experience of baseball, and it’s remarkable that throughout MLB’s testing era, we still do not find the character of our favorite players to be the defining aspect of our support.
JSOnline. Journal Sentinel, Inc., 2013.
MLB Advanced Media, L.P., 2013.
Other sources cited as linked into article.