11/14/2013 5:57 P.M. ET
Ribbing in clubhouse is fine, but there's a line
Players joking around helps team chemistry as long as no one takes things too far
By C.J. Nitkowski / MLB.com
The controversy surrounding the Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin has shined a bright light on the unknown world of locker-room culture. If we are to believe what we are hearing and reading, a veteran offensive lineman took things too far in an attempt to toughen up a younger player who was struggling to hold his own on the field.
Major League Baseball is not the National Football League, and I'd be remiss to try and compare the two leagues. In fact, it's fair to say that all of the four major professional sports are unique in their own way when it comes to culture, locker rooms and veteran/rookie relationships.
Baseball creates its own culture for so many different reasons. Because it is a sport with a 162-game schedule and has almost no contact, the intensity is about as opposite as it can be compared to sports like football and hockey. That, however, does not mean the locker room can't be a difficult place to adjust.
I lived it for a long time, and there is no doubt that spending years in a clubhouse will both test you and shape you as a person. It is in fact what many players will tell you that they miss the most when their careers are over: the times in the dugout and clubhouse hanging with teammates. It is more often than not a wonderful place to be if you're a professional athlete, with maybe a few exceptions along the way.
I have often said that a baseball clubhouse is not for the thin-skinned. If you take yourself too seriously among teammates, you'll find yourself swimming upstream. A clubhouse will break you if you don't have a sense of humor about yourself, if you're sensitive or can't take a joke. It rarely happens, but these players find themselves struggling to fit in.
There is that line though, the one that some players will occasionally cross with others, when they go too far and it becomes that moment that you have to decide how much you will tolerate.
I experienced this early in my career. This first time it happened was in the Minor Leagues. I was expedited through the Minor League system and found myself playing with seasoned Minor League veterans in my early years. Because I was being moved through the system so quickly, resentment from some of the older players was impossible to avoid. It took some of them five years to get where I was starting my career and they didn't always like that.
There was one specific incident I'll always remember -- it was my first full season in baseball. I had a teammate, one who was a high Draft pick and whose career was stalling badly. The player picked before him in the Draft was already an MLB All-Star and would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. My teammate would never see the Major Leagues.
I was talking to another teammate in the dugout one day when this guy, who was not in our conversation, turned to me and said, "You know what, you're nothing but a college [expletive]." This guy was obviously trying to start something with me, and I was completely caught off guard. I had never been talked to like that by a teammate before, never with that serious of a tone and with such vitriol behind it. This wasn't a joke -- he resented me for no other reason than the fact that my career was trending upward while his was just about over.
I had a choice to make: I could engage him in the fight he was looking for or I could do nothing at all. We weren't close, we rarely talked and I didn't value any part of our relationship. But technically he was a veteran, and I had to be careful how I handled it. I just turned to him and told him that if he wanted to intimidate me, he should have done so the year before, when I had just gotten drafted. I walked away and we never spoke again.
While that incident may have seemed harmless, I didn't think it was -- it bothered me and stuck with me. I was used to being in an environment of supportive teammates, whether they were feigning it or not, with all the same goal. This was the first time I dealt with a teammate who was nothing like that at all.
A few years later, a teammate that I was close to made a comment to me about my then-girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. It was typical clubhouse speak, things I had heard before and may have even said myself a few times, but it was something I wasn't comfortable with, as he referenced her specifically.
Again, I had a choice to make. This teammate had been around longer than me. If I said nothing, I knew that meant I was giving him the green light to talk about her in that way going forward. I didn't want that, so I just told him not to go there with her. He was cool about it, and everything was fine. You might think he should never have said anything like that at all, that it was disrespectful. You might be right, but you also don't understand the clubhouse culture. It is so different than the real world and part of the reason why so many athletes have problems adjusting to life outside of their respective sport.
My first call to the big leagues came in 1995, and the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse couldn't have been an easier place to break in. I was the only true rookie there and did what rookies are supposed to do -- be seen and not heard -- and life was easy for me. I was traded to Detroit later that season, and upon arriving at old Tiger Stadium, I quickly realized this environment was nothing like Cincinnati. The clubhouse was full of rookies and we were treated as such.
We were talked to like rookies -- sometimes yelled at, sometimes slightly degraded -- and while it was never completely comfortable, it also was never a big issue. It was part of the sports culture, a rite of passage. I was thrilled to be there and wouldn't have traded it for anything. Rookies were told not to speak, were dressed up in awful outfits, were the recipients of harmless jokes and were required to do menial tasks for veterans.
It was never a problem for me, but not everyone loved it. Some guys fought it, complained about it, and for them, it always got worse. For the good rookies, the end result was almost always the veterans taking care of you -- buying you a couple of new suits or maybe taking you for a night out -- a reminder that it was all in good fun and that you were part of the team.
Today in baseball, the clubhouse environment is solid. Rookies will always get treated as such, but as each generation passes, the degree to which this is done is less and less. It's about carrying a Hello Kitty or Barbie backpack to the bullpen, being forced to sing on the bus or get dressed up as a bridal party on a road trip. Life as a young player in baseball is relatively easy in regard to how veterans treat you, but it is an important aspect to building team chemistry. There will be those times when a player is backed into a corner and has a decision to make: Will he allow himself to be treated a certain way or does he see it as too much and make that decision to fight back?
I have seen and heard about times when a rookie refuses to take the veteran treatment in stride, and sometimes that is OK. Everyone has their line and some people are more sensitive than others. There is a right way and a wrong way to be a veteran. What we are hearing about in Miami certainly appears to be the wrong way. This is what happens when players take things too far. But at the same time, veteran ribbing of younger players is an important component to the clubhouse culture, one that, when executed properly, has team benefits.
Fortunately in baseball, I've never witnessed or heard about anything like we are hearing about in Miami. There is no room for that in any sport.
C.J. Nitkowski is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.