A column by Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Rick Telander this past weekend, "La Russa Crying in His Beer," exemplifies a mentality, a cultural perspective, that is extremely common these days, and very dangerous.
Telander basically blames La Russa and, secondarily, the St. Louis Cardinals’ owners, for Cardinal pitcher Josh Hancock’s death by automible accident a week ago.
Telander couldn’t be more wrong, and his well-meaning moralism will in fact do much harm and no good.
Writing about the death of St. Louis Cardinals’baseball player Josh Hancock just over a week ago in an automobile crash, Telander attempts to put the situation in perspective by noting that the team’s manager, Tony La Russa, had been arrested for drunken driving two months ago. (He had fallen asleep at the wheel while waiting at a stoplight, and his blood alcohol content was found to be a shade over the legal limit.)
When he had his fatal collision, Hancock was very drunk (blood alcohol content twice the legal level), speeding, talking on his cellphone, and in possession of marijuana. Clearly, this was madly reckless behavior, and however much sympathy one might feel for Hancock and his family and friends, it is impossible for a rational person not to see that he dared death and came up short.
Telander, however, sees La Russa and the team as being at fault for setting up a culture of alcohol and bravado in the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse. He argues this even though less than three days before the accident La Russa had a "serious heart-to-heart" conversation with Hancock about the immense dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Telander writes:
‘Maybe I could do a better job in my conversations,” La Russa said of his talk with Hancock, ”but I pulled out all the stops….”
The trouble is that in baseball, as in other young men’s sports, culture speaks louder than words.
You’re a tough young guy, you go pedal to the metal, you’re full of spit and vinegar, and, by God, you can kick anybody’s ass, throw a 100-mile-an-hour speedball, and you’re never gonna die.
It’s called testosterone.
It’s why guys take steroids. It’s caveman.
Then you see your hip, famous manager out drinking, and you see the team cooler filled with beer, and you know your club is owned by the very people—Busch—who sell more beer in this country than anyone, and you can’t stop yourself from going out and acting like a risk-taker from hell.
I believe that Telander’s point of view is the real problem here.
Tony La Russa is personally responsible for any excessive drinking he may have ever done, and Hancock is personally responsible for his own.
La Russa is absolutely not responsible for Hancock’s drinking, even if he did set a “bad example.” We see bad examples all the time, and those of us who have the wisdom that comes with humility—which is available to all of us, even children—choose to learn the right lessons from these negative examples.
We don’t emulate anything we don’t want to emulate. It’s just as in hypnosis: outside of the use of real force, no one can really make you do anything you don’t really want to do. To blame La Russa for Hancock’s drinking, or even to attribute him as a cause in a chain of events, is dead wrong.
Such thinking is what really leads to trouble for the weak-willed or selfish among us, as it allows us to think that anything bad that happens to us is not ultimately our fault. It is true that it does rain on the just, but when the unjust knowingly walk out into a tornado, they and we have no right to blame anyone else but them.
Josh Hancock had a choice every day of his life, and he tragically chose to go down the road that led to an untimely death. Dozens upon dozens of other players passed through the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse and chose a slightly or greatly different direction.
To blame Tony La Russa for Josh Hancock’s death, which is precisely what Telander’s column does, is not only wrong but thorougly damaging to the very people he wants to help. Undermining peoples’ sense of personal responsibility will not make them more responsible. It will only embolden them to greater irresponsibility.
The other Josh Hancocks of the world need to know that they are entirely responsible for their actions, so that they will avoid what is bad and enjoy what is good.
The culture of alcohol and bravado in sports clubhouses certainly has its faults, but the truly dangerous mindset is our national culture that tends to deny personal moral responsibility.