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Big-league clubhouses still havens for crude behavior

The job is wearing you down.

Production is dwindling, and heartburn is rising. You are stuck in a funk, and beginning to worry how long you can hold on to your position. Somehow, you need a way out of this slump.

So, you ask the guy in the next cubicle, mind if I wear your thong?

If this thought has never occurred to you, then you've obviously never worked in a Major League Baseball clubhouse, where superstition is rampant, immaturity is expected and vulgarity is applauded.

In case you hadn't noticed, we have been reminded of these truths in recent weeks. First, the White Sox used a pair of blow-up sex dolls in the guise of a slump-busting ritual. Then Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi revealed he has a gold lame thong he wears whenever he is desperate to get out of a slump, and teammates Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon acknowledged borrowing Giambi's underpants for their own inspiration.

"You're not worrying about your hands or your balance at the plate," Damon told the New York Daily News. "You're worried about the uncomfortable feeling you're receiving."

Call it gross. Call it juvenile. Call it baseball.

The concept of clubhouse as frat house is certainly not new. It's not even much of a secret. Ever since Jim Bouton's book Ball Four was released in the early 1970s to the chagrin of baseball officials — and the delight of a diehard 12-year-old baseball fan in St. Petersburg — the facade of clubhouse sanctity has been ripped apart.

Bouton revealed baseball players to be exactly what you might have expected of a group of young men with too much time, freedom and fame on their hands. They are, in a word, irresponsible.

The roof of the Shoreham (Hotel) is important (peeping tom) country because of the way the hotel is shaped — a series of L-shaped wings that make the windows particularly vulnerable from certain spots on the roof. The Yankees would go up there in squads of 15 or so, often led by Mickey Mantle himself. … One of the first big thrills I had with the Yankees was joining about half the club on the roof of the Shoreham at 2:30 in the morning. I remember saying to myself, "So this is the big leagues."

From Ball Four

Maybe this is why it shouldn't be a surprise that former Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell once held a clubhouse seance to rid the evil spirits in his bat during a slump.

Or that, when Omar Vizquel went through a fielding slump, teammate Tim Laker hung the shortstop's glove in a noose and surrounded it with candles, a Buddha statue and a roasted chicken to rid it of its curse.

Slump-busting in baseball is half joke and half desperation. An acknowledgement that a player has done all he can on the field, and is now resorting to whatever bizarre inspiration he can find.

Former Cubs All-Star Mark Grace created a stir a few years ago when he went on a national radio show and explained the best cure for a slump was having sex with the most unattractive woman a player could find.

Taking a grenade for the team, is how players describe it.

"Fatheads" is how Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd later described the players in a scathing column about male attitudes.

Right before the plane landed the guys were telling stories about how much we'd been getting on the road. And as we were getting ready to leave the plane and dash into the loving arms of our waiting wives, (Jim) Pagliaroni said, very loud, "Okay, all you guys, act horny."

From Ball Four

There is, really, no excuse for their behavior. The key, I suppose, is how you choose to look at it.

A Washington Post columnist recently drew parallels to the sex dolls in the White Sox clubhouse to an HBO documentary on rape in the Congo. Maybe I'm not sensitive enough, but that seemed a trifle farfetched.

Sometimes, a joke really is just a joke. Maybe it's a crude joke. Maybe it's juvenile. But that doesn't mean every prank carries some sort of latent, societal message.

A fringe Rays player once relieved himself in a gift-wrapped box and had it delivered to the opposing clubhouse where a former teammate had just become a father. Disgusting? You betcha. Funny? Maybe to a third-grader.

The point is, this is typical of the humor in a clubhouse. And it has been that way for decades upon decades.

The ballplayers themselves haven't changed all that much. What's different is the size of the window we have to peer inside their world.

When (Fred) Talbot arrived at the ballpark a uniformed policeman handed him a letter. …We all knew what it was: a legal document written by a local lawyer friend of (Merritt) Ranew's that announced a paternity suit against Talbot by an anonymous girl in New York. … He opened the letter, looked at it, put his head down, looked at the floor for a while, gazed up into the air, shook his head slowly from side to side, started to read the letter again … meanwhile everyone in the clubhouse was biting his lips, trying not to laugh. Talbot stomped out a cigarette, reached up into his locker, opened the envelope and read the letter again. … Finally … (Gene) Brabender felt he had to tell him it was a joke. "Some joke," Talbot said. "Why didn't you just send me a telegram telling me my kids had been burned to death."

From Ball Four

It is a unique place, the baseball clubhouse.

Insulated, crass, sexist and, yes, sometimes very funny.

It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to wear a thong there.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Big-league clubhouses still havens for crude behavior 05/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 2:57pm]

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