Is Matt Barnes’ Suspension a Gift for Buck Showalter?

Boston Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes walks off the mound.

In his foreword to Harry Sheehy’s book, Raising A Team Player, Joe Torre wrote, “The fundamental lesson, and that I now teach my players, is that for a team to win on a consistent basis, players need to exhibit unselfishness.”

Sports coaches will routinely tell you that they look for any advantage they can gain, no matter how small. Torre learned about selflessness, putting the team first. As he went on to say, it’s not about who does best individually; it’s better to win as a team than be a star in a defeat.

Selflessness takes many forms. Torre compared the feelings of four strikeouts in a win to four hits in losing; the former was something he learned to love more than the latter. They are the tangibles but equally as important is keeping discipline, not handing an advantage to your opponents that they can use in that moment and in future times.

Matt Barnes, the Red Sox relief pitcher, did just that and Buck Showalter is a gem in player psychology.

It seemed a cut and dried case of Barnes taking revenge on Manny Machado for his earlier hard slide on Dustin Pedroia. The third baseman denied any involvement and that may be true but given Barnes’ pitch at Machado’s head, it might also be about saving his own skin. Barnes’ four-game ban underlines there was a lot of skin to save.

view of brick building directly behind camden yards with scoreboard

In the short-term, the 2 and 2 result of the four-game series against the Red Sox last week showed little advantage to the O’s, although the two wins keep Boston at bay, three behind the Orioles 20 – 10 with a 17 – 14 record. The small advantage at this stage of the season can easily be wiped out inside one series.

It’s the hand you’re dealt.

But the incident also serves several purposes for Showalter. First and foremost, Barnes identified himself as a possessing a livewire temperament. It’s a chink in the armour of the pitcher, one that others will seek to exploit. Maybe it won’t take a hard slide next time; it could be something else but if you want to wind Barnes up, the trigger is there to be pulled.

That’s in the short-term. With a little twist of the knife, and interpretation of events, Showalter can use it as a motivational tool if Machado needs one. His average this year is down; .237 against a career average of .287 – and last year’s .294.

Need something to get Manny to focus? “Y’know, Manny, remember Barnes? He did that because he wanted revenge? The hell he did! He wants to get at you; you the man!”

Buck will be subtler – and not want to pull off such a wretched impersonation of the Duke – using the incident to hoist Machado’s averages up. Plenty of time remains in the season to do that; the sooner it starts though, the quicker the advantage accrues.

These are the weapons in a coach’s armory. Forging a siege mentality when the decisions go against them; nobody likes us, everybody hates us; they’ll fix every game to make sure we don’t win. It’s a simplistic interpretation of the machinations behind the scenes.

At the moment, the O’s are in pole position in the wild card. At the moment, 1 game and .23 per cent is the difference. These are the small advantages we seek in every match. At the moment, the O’s are everyone’s favorite outsiders to make the play-offs. Hope rather than expectation in the bleachers but some think differently; 11/1 according to sports bookmaker, Bet Way, as of May 7th and those odds are only shortening.

Showalter knows about the little advantages and what they can cost. His Seinfeld appearance fees loses money every time it is re-run; the IRS thanks him for his acting career. If Barnes follows his lead, he’ll be in the next Bourne film, as a ‘baddie’, killed off in the first reel. Showalter, in turn, will hover, taking the satisfaction of incremental win he’s achieved.

There’s an ethical side to all of this. Where do the boundaries between fair play and foul lie? In professional sports, do moral stances over-rule winning at any cost? They have to and when a pitch flies toward the batter’s head, that’s never revenge, it’s about taking out a player, shaking him up at worst.

Do morals have a part to play in sport? Absolutely, Albert Camus underlined the link and the positive effect of sport, not just in morality but also in how minds work: “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football (soccer).”

Winning is everything but winning in the ‘right way’ is more. That runs across any sport and if coaches can claim any advantage to get into the play-offs, why not take those incidents which seem inconsequential and use them to their advantage.

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