The baseball world, or at least the relatively tiny portion of it that spends a lot of time talking and reading baseball on Twitter, was abuzz last night over the surprising demotion of Logan Morrison, the Marlins first baseman who is probably many things — talented, fascinating, clever, controversial, immature, great at Twitter — but is not a left fielder. That story might threaten to overshadow the ultimately much more bizarre one of Carlos Zambrano, who may or may not be retiring and leaving more than $20 million on the table. On the field, there’s Dan Uggla, whose 33-game hitting streak narrowly tops his previous career best of twelve.
I’ve decided, for some reason, that each of those three players is like one famously eccentric, very rich person. It works a lot better for the first two than the last, but I can never stop at just two of these, so Uggla has to be squeezed in somehow. Here we go:
Logan Morrison is like Donald Trump.
That’s mean. See, I feel bad already. I like LoMo, generally, or at least his persona on Twitter; he’s one of the only professional athletes in the world that is consistently interesting and funny enough to be worth paying attention to on a social media platform. He’s also quite talented; just 23 and in his first full season, even after terribly rocky months in June and July, he’s hitting .249/.327/.464 and is second on the team in homers and third in RBI and OPS+. He’s also said some incredibly ill-advised things recently, and he’s frankly not that good, yet; a first baseman relegated to the outfield by Gaby Sanchez (who, after a hot start, is starting to illustrate why he’s not the kind of guy for whom you shift around a good prospect), he’s been a disaster in the field, and he’s hit .230/.300/.420 (through Friday) since hitting a high point back on May 23. We don’t really know why Morrison is heading back to the minors — it seems likely to at least partially be a kind of punishment for his dumb comments, which seems silly to me — but there certainly could be good reasons for it. He clearly has things to work on, and it may well be that he can work on those things better by spending the next few weeks away from the various distractions offered by the terribly dysfunctional Marlins (distractions he seems to have helped create, but regardless). It’s not as though the Marlins are going anywhere this season with or without LoMo, so if they think this move is good for the club and/or Morrison, there’s really no reason not to do it. It’s not a move that should harm him in the long term; the kind of guy who would fall apart at a single perceived slight like this one was never going to make it in the first place. Basically, you can debate the merits of the move all you like, but it’s ultimately not a big deal, and fans’ uproar over it has everything to do with the persona he’s managed to create, and nothing at all to do with his play on the field.
And in that, he’s like Donald Trump, a guy who is wildly famous only for making money but who hasn’t actually been that great at making money, and who now gets a lot more attention for the outlandish, occasionally funny, often moronic things he says than for hosting the unwatchable The Apprentice or whatever the hell else he might claim his profession is nowadays. Trump was born into wealth and did enjoy a great deal of success in the ’70s and ’80s, but then saw his empire fall apart in around 1989, with bankruptcy filings and all that. His track record ever since has been mixed, with some mild successes and some total failures; his net worth has been estimated as low as $250 million and as high as $2.7 billion. But he’s reintroduced himself into something like relevance purely as a personality. Ultimately, though, he just doesn’t really matter. He’s a guy who’s only famous as a financial powerhouse who isn’t really that much of a financial powerhouse. He was never going to be a serious presidential candidate, and no one who matters takes him seriously.
So, Logan Morrison: known much more for his personality, at this point in his career, than for the thing that’s actually supposed to be his career. Often gets in trouble for dumb things he says. That’s Trump in a nutshell. And this demotion, like Trump, just isn’t worth paying much attention to.
Carlos Zambrano is like Nicolas Berggruen.
Every now and then, you hear about a millionaire who has a change of heart, donates all his stuff to charity, and goes off the map, lives as a hermit or a monk or something in the mountains somewhere. It happens much more often in the movies, but it occasionally does happen; there’s Karl Rabeder, for instance, an Australian millionaire who decided that money was making him miserable and gave everything he had to charities.
Nicholas Berggruen is not one of those guys, he just talks like one. “[F]or me, possessing things is not that interesting,” he’s said. “Living in a grand environment to show myself and others that I have wealth has zero appeal. Whatever I own is temporary, since we’re only here for a short period of time. It’s what we do and produce, it’s our actions, that will last forever. That’s real value.”
So Berggruen sold off most of his possessions. He no longer owns a home. He pocketed the proceeds, however, and now lives in hotels. He also retained his art collection and his personal jet. Which, to me, are pretty much the two things you would want to be sure to own if you wanted to show yourself and others that you have wealth, and it’s not as though living all your days in hotels (and I’m guessing we’re not talking about Econolodges here), which is far more expensive than owning almost any home, is living the simple life. While Berggruen has focused on “socially responsible investing” and has made plans to leave his fortune to charity, there’s very little evidence in the various profiles of him on the internet that suggests his self-sacrifice (and there is a hit to his overall net worth from his not owning any property, of course) is doing anyone else any good while he’s here on earth.
Zambrano is crazy, and insanely temperamental, and apparently nearly impossible to deal with. But what happened Friday was over the top even for him. If he were to go through with his announced plan to retire — and I don’t think there’s any way that happens, but if it does — he’d be leaving on the table over $20 million between the end of this year and all of next (he has a $19.25 million vesting option in 2013, too, but it has almost no chance of vesting). His contract hadn’t been a terrible one before this year, but it’s clear that he’s just not the pitcher that he was, and the Cubs would surely welcome the chance to rid themselves of those hefty obligations to a mediocre pitcher, even putting aside the personal baggage that comes with him. It’s not that much money, though, in baseball terms, and there’s not much they could do with it over the next two years that would appreciably change the team’s fortunes. Like Berggruen’s giving up all but the most extravagant of his property, Zambrano’s retirement sacrifice would be real, but hardly crippling, and would serve no apparent purpose.
So there are a lot of weirder, even less flattering things you could compare Zambrano to, but in “threatening” to retire from a job in which he needed only to show up at make more than $20 million, Zambrano is a lot like this very wealthy person I’d never heard of until an hour or so ago who forgoes owning a home and most other things to no real purpose.
Dan Uggla is like Howard Hughes.
No, not in that way, though if I could make a case that Uggla’s going to end up living out his days sitting by himself in a locked room, this would be a lot more interesting to write. Rather, it’s in the way Hughes completely reinvented himself; he became fairly well known in Hollywood throughout the mid to late twenties, producing over 25 films including the Oscar-winning Two Arabian Knights. Then suddenly, in the early thirties, Hughes became obsessed with aviation, and became even more famous for that (which, the fame, is essentially what drove him mad). I suppose you could try to come up with a way to make film producing kind of similar to aviation, and maybe in the early days of both industries, they were kind of similar — but that’s you, not me. They seem pretty drastically different to me. Hughes was an actual renaissance man in the mold of a Da Vinci, the first and only true American one I can think of since Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Dan Uggla has made an awfully good career for himself out of hitting home runs, drawing walks, striking out a ton, and playing just enough defense at second base to get by. His career high hitting streak entering 2011, as I noted above, was twelve games. He entered 2011 with just a .263 career batting average, and from the start of this season through July 4, was hitting just .163. That player, at that incredibly low point in his career, was as unlikely to rattle off a long hitting streak as just about anyone in the history of the game, including at least a few pitchers.
But rattle he has, running his streak to 33 straight with a three-hit effort on Saturday. Whether it’s real, not, or (most likely) something in between, Uggla has completely reinvented himself, hitting (through Friday) .370/.426/.740 since July 5. He’s cut down a bit on his strikeouts, and he’s hitting a ton of home runs while also, for pretty much the first time ever, mixing in a large number of singles. His walk rate has dropped significantly from his career rate (7.8% for the streak, 10.4% on his career). He made a solid career for himself as a walk-and-homer guy, like Hughes with his movies, and now has suddenly switched to being this free-swinging, high-average guy with power, and (like Hughes with his aviation stuff) is doing even (much) better.
I don’t think it’s real — his .379 batting average on balls in play, compared to a career average of .294, suggests it’s more a case of Uggla getting healthy after a dreadful first half and getting insanely lucky than an actual reformation — but then, I also don’t think he’s likely to go completely insane and become a hermit and die alone and unrecognizable in an airplane. You take the good with the bad.
I have to admit that I’m still feeling pretty bad about comparing a guy like LoMo, who I really like, to a guy like Trump, who I really do not. But the simile game, she is ruthless, and uncompromising, and almost totally random and trivial. So that’s just how it goes.