• Mike Matson

“Character”

Updated: Jul 26

This column was published July 23, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.


 

I’m done with Whit Merrifield.


If you don’t follow the Kansas City Royals, here’s the short version:


Whit Merrifield is one of their veteran players, ostensibly a team leader. He (and nine teammates) have chosen not to get vaccinated for Covid. Unvaccinated non-resident foreign nationals cannot enter Canada. The Royals played the Blue Jays in Toronto last weekend and Merrifield and his nine unvaxed chums stayed home.


This has nothing to do with Merrifield’s decision not to get vaccinated. It has everything to do with his thought process of how that decision would impact his teammates.


Merrifield compounded his problems, by saying publicly, in essence, if the Royals trade me to a contending team and that team plays Toronto in the playoffs, maybe then I’ll get vaxed. After hearing that, Royals president Dayton Moore said he was “disgusted,” and the wheels fell off a narrative that has driven this team since Moore arrived in 2006.


From the get-go, Moore has preached the Royals are a team of “character” guys.


The line between promotion and reality is always a little blurry. That’s just the way it works in big-league sports and other systems that spend energy and resources developing a narrative, so for Moore to cross over that line and express his true thoughts is huge.

Professional baseball players “are genetically gifted to play this sport,” he once said. “They’re very talented. It’s the choices they make off the field that are going to allow their natural ability on the field to take over.”


Though I got the feeling they always felt a little hinky spelling it out, I always took that to mean players with strong morals, ethics and faith, who play the game the right way, but most importantly – possess a deep and innate understanding that baseball is a team game.


No separation of church and home plate.


The Royals, and every other big-league club would not host “faith and family night” if it didn’t draw a specific target audience. It’s a Major League Baseball marketing template, appealing to the baseball fan who believes in God, at the expense of those who do not, apparently. There’s no “ambivalence night” at the ballpark. “Buy a hotdog. Or don’t. We don’t care.”


Merrifield left himself wide open for interpretations of his character. Mine is that he thinks about himself more than his teammates and that his loyalty to the Royals is suspect. As a fan, mine is not. Thick and thin. George Brett and Runelvys Hernandez. Granted, there has not been a lot to cheer about since very late Sunday evening, November 1, 2015, in Queens when the Royals won the World Series, but they’ll always be my team.


Merrifield apologized (part of the spin formula), but my guess is he will get his wish and be gone by the trading deadline, a week from this coming Tuesday. Package him, his .240 batting average and oven mitt to the Yankees for a bucket of batting practice balls and a used fungo bat. If the Yanks play Toronto in the playoffs, then we can more accurately judge his character.


Lest you think I’m being too hard on Merrifield, regardless of whether he wants the mantle, he’s a role model. All big-leaguers are. I feel bad for all the 11- and 12-year-old fans who bought the “character” line, the $150 powder blue Merrifield jersey and the concept drilled into them by their volunteer little league coach that there is no “I” in team.


Also, our teams of “character” guys haven’t won in seven years, so maybe try some guys a little rough around the edges who can throw strikes, hit the curveball and are loyal to their teammates.


The “character” spin only works if it’s true. We can no longer take solace in being a last place team of Boy Scouts. We’re a last place team of human beings, replete with the character deficiencies that plague the rest of us.


While not surprising, this episode is terribly disappointing.

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