New York Mets pitcher Robert Gsellman’s ill-advised reply Tuesday to general manager Sandy Alderson’s statement that he had to pitch better (“I don’t really care”) drew widespread and deserved condemnation. Alderson was clearly irked when discussing the matter, but let it go for the moment because Gsellman was scheduled to pitch Wednesday night.
Out of self-preservation, genuine regret or both, Gsellman was sufficiently contrite after his so-so start against the New York Yankees to save him from harsh sanction. Had he maintained a posture of defiance, the potential punishment of a demotion to Triple-A with no September recall would presumably have been sufficient that maybe he’d start to care.
Unintentionally, however, he highlighted the unusual nature of sports in relation to bosses and underlings.
Sports and the entertainment industry are unique in terms of the business model. The hierarchy is unconventional with the “underlings” making far more money, having longer contracts and being of significantly greater indispensability than their “bosses.”
In sports, particularly baseball and basketball, the coaches and front office executives must get the highest-paid players to buy in to what they’re doing. In some cases, like that of LeBron James, the player is almost literally making the decisions or is at least consulted on all major moves. There aren’t many athletes with the cachet of James. But general managers, managers and coaches still must tread lightly with certain players not just to keep from losing their support, but to avoid getting a negative reputation with players throughout the league for whom the atmosphere might be the determinative factor as to where they choose to sign.
Then there are performers who act as if they’re in a position to disregard those above them when they’re not, and find themselves demoted, transferred or dismissed.
Needless to say, Gsellman falls into the latter category.
Alderson is notoriously slow to anger. His demeanor puts forth the impression of someone whose pulse never surpasses 85. Having been in baseball for more than three decades and dealt with the likes of Jose Canseco, Alderson has seen it all. Yet this from a player like Gsellman is new.
For him to be as obviously agitated as he was when addressing the Gsellman comments is indicative of his level of irritation. In and of itself, it’s not just the comment that was troublesome, it was the blatant indifference and lack of respect beneath it, especially for a pitcher about whom Alderson’s statement was 100 percent accurate and who has proven very little in the majors. Had the Mets not been so ravaged by injuries to the pitching staff early in the season, Gsellman would have been back in Triple-A Las Vegas before the end of April.
Gsellman apologized and the issue has been squashed …for now. But this is something that will curry disfavor with the organization and raise eyebrows throughout the rest of baseball. Perhaps he inadvertently said what he was thinking — he’s still only 24 and most people will not say or do the same stupid things at 30 that they did at 24 — and maybe he really doesn’t care what his boss thinks. He wouldn’t be the first athlete to roll his eyes at his department boss and even the owner, but to be so blockheaded as to say it publicly is a red flag.
All this is tolerable if his performance improves to the degree that no chastisement — about which Gsellman does or doesn’t care — will be necessary. Judging by his mediocre performance against the Yankees and that he allowed a home run to Aaron Judge about which we, as a country, were lucky stopped in the upper deck of Citi Field for fear of North Korea thinking missiles had been launched, he is not an indispensable part of the Mets future. Matt Harvey got away with his antics because, despite all his forays into the gossip columns and behavior that eventually resulted in a suspension earlier this season, he never went as far as Gsellman did. Also, he was Matt Harvey — Cy Young Award contender and a guy who put fannies in the seats. Gsellman is neither.
Of similar importance to disciplining Gsellman is the Mets’ current situation. As they integrate their top-level prospects Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith into the majors, the last thing they need is a negative influence on how to behave. The Mets spend a lot of time on media training for their young players and the dull platitudes and positive spin that most of their young players utter when interviewed is a direct result of that. Like a baby’s formative years, their careers can be heavily influenced by what they see now. There are exceptions to the “say something/say nothing” template that teams prefer like long-gone Jordany Valdespin and, for this one moment, Gsellman. All their work as an organization can be undone by mishandling the Gsellman situation. This, too, is a potential problem from Gsellman’s impudence.
We’re not talking about a former first-round draft pick with lights-out stuff who is granted more latitude due to the club’s investment in him. He’s a 13th-round pick who was not expected to be a key component. He’s got ability and in 2016 showed that he can be effective in the majors, but none of that warrants him acting as if he’s more important than he is.
There might be a thin line between his temerity with Alderson and the guts he showed on the mound as a rookie, when he made it a habit of wriggling out of trouble, helping the Mets get beyond their injury-plagued pitching staff to make the playoffs. That’s difficult to teach and is often mental, but maturity goes beyond performance; it is also about having an idea of what can and should be said publicly and what would be better kept to oneself no matter the level of frustration or momentary lapse of mental filter.
Audacity can be a good thing and a bad thing. In this case, it was bad. Gsellman’s contrition implies he’s learned his lesson, but the residue will linger while he’s pitching like a guy better suited to middle relief than someone the club needs going forward. His pitching will predominately dictate his role, but verbally backhanding his GM when he has neither the record nor the experience to do so is a black mark that will certainly not help his cause.
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