“Rookie Camp”

Rather than exploit and blame sports figures who get embroiled in scandals for which they are unprepared, some team owners and managers are doing something to help young players.

According to a story in The New York Times last week:  “talented players are being prepared for the temptations and confusions of sudden fame, worse now than ever before:  The therapists and former major leaguers who work in the rookie program say the psychological challenges are the most daunting in its 18-year history — even more so than when the chief problem was illegal drugs.”

The story points out that “the culture of celebrity — aided by cellphone videos, social-networking Web sites and round-the-clock sports coverage — has grown so all-consuming that it has thoroughly invaded players’ lives. It can inflate their fame, or spoil it, far faster than most can mentally adjust.”

This is particularly troubling to baseball players, for whom the transition from the minor to the major leagues can be so sudden: “These guys come straight from playing in Elmira, Duluth, Tidewater, to the big stadiums and the media,” said Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the players union. “Their transition is far more abrupt than maybe any other sport.”

The camp uses small discussion groups, role playing and, even, brief skits to illustrate the issues the players are likely to face and put them on guard against the exploitation and loss of privacy they will inevitably face.  It also helps them to deal with frustration and disappointment.  A player who was the object of attention one minute, because of his exceptional promise, can be discarded the next if he suffers a significant injury.  A psychiatrist who works at the camp noted of one of them:  “Instead of a superstar, he was nothing. Nothing.”

“These guys play not only because they’re good at it but often because the performance euphoria is a good way to deal with their personal demons. Take the sport away, and, well, they need a way to cope with what’s left.”  (See, “Coaching Baseball Rookies for Life in the Limelight.”)

The preparation of the rookie camp can be good news for fans too, sparing youngsters the painful disillusionment of reading about the tabloid exploits of their new heroes.  It can give all of us fewer opportunities to indulge our appetite for schadenfreude.  And it might help to raise the general level of public expectations for those who stand out from the crowd.