Sometimes Giving 85% is Fine: Why Jeff Conine is Right but WrongBy
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. When Jeff Conine was asked, last week, if he would trade Hanley Ramirez and he responded by doing something other than laughing in the face of the person asking the question, he gave the wrong answer. You don’t trade Hanley Ramirez. Ever. You’re not going to get fair value in return, no matter what you get back, so no, you don’t trade the man. Especially not with a handful of years still left on his Swap Shop bargain of a contract.
We clear on all that? Good. Because, now that I’ve said that, I’d like to get into a more interesting discussion. Is the Captain America of Marlins really wrong? And, well, should it ultimately matter?
To understand where Jeff Conine is coming from, you’d first have to understand his life. As every player at that level of the sport has to be, Conine was a supremely talented athlete. In order to get to that level, though, he had to work his hardest all day, every day. It’s true that professional sports are a collection of the top 1% in the world at their given craft, but even within that 1%, there are different levels of talent. It’s the reason a player like Jeff Conine has to spend hours upon hours every day honing his skills, while a player like Hanley can show up 20 minutes late to practice and still be worlds better. Conine admitted as much:
I think obviously Hanley is a phenomenal talent, but as a guy — I’m a probably jealous too because I didn’t have that kind of talent, but I had to work extremely hard on a nightly basis to put my talent on the field — there are some nights he doesn’t work as hard as he should.
Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac argued that it shouldn’t matter, that the only thing that should matter is production:
Yes, Hanley Ramirez is struggling this season, which is why he is being vilified to an extent by Conine here. But if and when he does well (and he has been doing well recently), why do we question his hustle, effort, or “respect for the game?” Shouldn’t the ultimate thing that matters to Marlins fans and ownership be how well Ramirez plays, regardless of effort level? Hanley Ramirez at 85 percent of his effort level is still miles ahead of other players, including Jeff Conine at 100 percent of his effort.
The problem is, they’re both right. I would take Hanley at 85% over the majority of Major League Baseball, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less exasperating to think about what Hanley could be if he were to actually give max effort. And for a guy like Jeff Conine, a guy who had to put forth that kind of effort all of the time? Yeah, I can understand his frustration.
There’s more to this conversation than just on-field production, though – and I freely admit that I’m not entirely sure I’m the right person to start this discussion, but I’m going to try, anyway.
One of the more significant differences between players like Hanley and players like Conine isn’t the talent gap that separates them; it’s the sociological gap. A staggering 42.2% of the Dominican Republic lives below the poverty line. In the United States, that number is just 14.3%. So, generally speaking, it isn’t much of a stretch to think that, when it comes to professional sports and the millions upon millions of dollars one can potentially earn, the white ballplayer growing up in middle America has different goals in mind than the kid growing up in the Dominican Republic.
Work harder than everyone else, give 147%, and maybe someday you can be the best. It’s a nice thing to strive for, and it’s exactly what my parents taught me growing up, but what if my life were different? What if I grew up living in poverty and giving 85% turned out to be good enough to earn me a 70-million dollar contract? Would I still try to be the best ever? Would I even care about that label? Or would I just enjoy my life playing a game the same way I always have – the way that was good enough to get me that sweet contract in the first place – and provide my family with all of the things they could never afford? I think I might be okay with not being Babe Ruth at that point.
We all want to criticize players like Hanley for not caring enough, but maybe he does care enough, just not about the things we want him to care about. And would that be wrong? Considering the talent we’ve witnessed, considering that his current level of caring has made him one of the best baseball players in the game today, are we only being selfish for wanting more? Shouldn’t that be enough?
I get it. Here’s a guy who’s already great, but could possibly be so much more if he just tried even harder than he already does. As a fan, or as a guy like Jeff Conine, you feel cheated because of that, like you’re not getting everything you could or should be getting. But, Hanley Ramirez is more than earning the money on his contract and, beyond that, he doesn’t owe anything to anyone except himself. And if he’s content with that, then why aren’t we?
None of this is meant to explain Hanley Ramirez, specifically. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t; I won’t pretend to know anything about his family situation or his childhood. All I’m saying is that, when it comes to what we expect of certain extremely gifted professional athletes, maybe we need to begin understanding that our lives are different, our circumstances are different, and that the ultimate prize, the validation we’d so desperately crave if put in their shoes, might not mean as much to them.
And that it’s perfectly fine that way.