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Here's why athletes are wary of fans, media

April 4, 2011

This article is solely the opinion of sports editor Terry Nau.

Let’s start with a simple premise: Realistic baseball fans don’t get upset over what their team looks like in the first week, or month, of the season. They know that playoff berths are achieved over a 162-game season, and that 11 postseason victories are required to rule the world.
Baseball season is a long haul, lasting from March 31 (this year’s Opening Day) through late October. Smart baseball fans just sit back and relax, knowing that players and teams will eventually achieve their normal production goals as the games pile up.
Here’s the reality: Television and the Internet have created a whole new breed of baseball fan, one who demands immediate results, day after day, and takes out his or her frustrations on players who get off to slow starts, or fail to live up to the unrealistic expectations modern fans place on their favorite players and teams.
Case in point: Boston’s three ugly losses in Texas over the weekend to start the season. The more impatient fans are already writing off John Lackey, the veteran pitcher who got whacked around by Texas, allowing 10 hits and 9 runs in 3.2 innings of work on Saturday night. These fans wonder how Boston GM Theo Epstein ever could have signed this guy. They call the radio station and wail: “What was Theo thinking?”
On the flip side of the coin, fans and media are praising hot-starter Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed most of last season with a rib cage injury. Last year, Ellsbury was taken to task by the same people who are praising him today. It is no wonder that players view the fans and media with so much skepticism. They know both entities will turn on them just as soon as their production slips, even if for just a day, or even if they are trying to play through an injury.
My suggestion is that modern fans take a cue from the old-timers, people who had no Internet to guide them, people who viewed the baseball season as a long horse race. Racing fans never get excited until the horses reach the backstretch and start to head for the finish line. Baseball fans should do the same thing. Don’t get upset with how your team comes out of the gate. Look at the big picture.
The big picture is still pretty good for Boston. The Red Sox are one of the top three teams in the American League, along with Texas and New York. Forget what all the preseason forecasters said about Boston ranking above those two rivals. Nobody knows how this season is going to turn out. Chances are all three will be looking for one final piece of the puzzle at the July 31 trade deadline. Once everyone has their full team in place, then the race to the finish line takes off.
Back in 2008, Sports Illustrated magazine ranked Rhode Island product Chris Iannetta as one of the top rookies in Major League Baseball. Three years later, here’s what the magazine had to say: “Chris Iannetta's time is running out. He's best when he's driving the ball to right centerfield, but he's still pull happy and hung up on his power.”
The magazine probably is justified in turning on Iannetta, who has been victimized by horrendous offensive production in the first two months of each season since 2008. Even his biggest fans back here in Rhode Island understand Chris has to get off to a good start this season or the Rockies will begin looking at their young catching prospects in the minor leagues.
So here’s the good news: Iannetta is 3-for-6 after two games. He had two hits and scored two runs in a 3-1 victory over Arizona on Saturday night. Manager Jim Tracey, who was quick to replace Iannetta last April with backup Miguel Olivo, might have to hold his trigger finger for a while.
The Yankees have a new catcher, Russell Martin, who could have a major impact on the team this season, assuming he stays healthy. Martin is a proven hitter who the Dodgers gave up on after an injury-plagued 2010 season. He signed with the Yankees as a free agent, knowing that Jorge Posada’s catching career was over, and that the Yankees basically had no experienced catcher to replace him.
Martin is a better defensive catcher than Posada ever dreamed of being. The former Gold Glover, who is just 27 years old, turns a Yankee weakness in the field into a strength. He is way more agile than Posada, can block pitches in the dirt, and will throw a few runners out. He also seems fully recovered from the hip injury that plagued him late last season.
Martin’s biggest impact comes with the pitching staff. He nursed the erratic A.J. Burnett through five innings on Saturday, continually calling for the hard-breaking curve ball that Posada and backup Frank Cervelli had trouble handling. It’s possible that Burnett will learn to trust Martin the way he trusted Jose Molina back in 2009. The Yanks let Molina go after winning the World Series that year. Burnett was lost without him in 2010.
Burnett is one of the keys to New York’s chances this season. If he duplicates his disastrous 2010 season, the Yankees are in big trouble.
The PawSox begin their 2011 season at home on Thursday night and already the buzz about new shortstop Jose Iglesias is spreading around the region. The fans in Portland, Maine got a chance to see this athletic shortstop last summer and now it is our turn in Rhode Island to watch a young man who touches the “Ozzie Smith” yardstick in our minds.
Ozzie Smith, of course, is the Hall of Fame shortstop who played his position with the grace of a gymnast, leaping and diving and stretching to make plays with an elasticity of body that was hard to believe. I’m not saying Iglesias is that kind of shortstop. I’m hoping he’s one of those fielders who makes fans appreciate defense. One or two great plays in the field can make a difference between winning and losing close games. Iglesias may be the kind of shortstop who saves runs for his pitchers with the kind of defense that people in the opposing dugout will grudgingly appreciate.
Getting back to the original premise of this column: Earning the respect of their peers is the only thing professional athletes really care about. What the media and the fans think is something they will take into account, but I haven’t met a ball player yet who takes any advice from those two components of the game. Fans are just what the term says they are. Fans need to buy a ticket to get into games and there’s a reason for that.
Media personnel think they know the game, but really don’t, unless they played it themselves. You can bend your stats any way possible. In the end, understanding the game is best left to the people who play 162 games a year against the top competition in the world.
And the only results that matter are the standings printed in the newspapers at the end of the season. Everything else -- pre-game shows, post-game shows, radio talk shows -- is just noise.

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