Several years ago, a scout at a minor league game paused at the mention of a player’s name.
He was quiet for a moment, then, with a measured, definitive tone said, “He doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be in the major leagues.”
This point is arguable to an extent, because we’ve seen many so-called immature players be highly or moderately successful in MLB. But there was a deeper meaning to what he was saying. And I’ve spent over a decade exploring the truth of that statement in many different ways.
You see a lot when you cover hundreds of minor league games. You observe, you listen; you pick up little comments, notice private moments, and begin to see emotional patterns. Players are like anyone. They don’t change so much as they grow. They grow into themselves physically, but it’s the growing into who they are as people that can be tougher. There was a time when being in the “farm system,” whether highly touted or barely regarded, meant that you were pretty far out of sight. Years ago, local newspaper reporters were the major sources for immediate minor league news. I’m sure there was a fair amount of talk the following day if readers caught a report on the guys in Double-A. But there was no social media to give fans the skinny every moment as it was happening. Players were able to grow without much of a spotlight bearing down on them before they even stepped into big league ballpark lights.
These days, fans hear about everything, all the time. And opinions form quickly about guys who are just out of high school or college. In Yankees prospect Jorge Mateo’s case, a private incident became a public one, and his maturity level became a major talking point.
Mateo, signed as a seventeen-year old free agent out of the Dominican Republic, is coming off of a difficult season at the plate with High-A Tampa. Though he showed some flashes of brilliance and showcased his strengths still in development, he didn’t have the kind of year the Yankees may have wanted. You add to that a reported confrontation in which he reportedly questioned not receiving a promotion to Double-A, resulting in a suspension, AND add to that Gleyber Torres is clearly the team’s future shortstop, you’re left with many questions about Mateo’s future.
This is your friendly reminder that Mateo’s 21 years old.
For anyone, growing up is hard enough. Do it in the limelight, playing for the New York Yankees, with millions of self-proclaimed experts questioning your every mistake, and it’s probably a whole lot harder. The expectation however is that when a team invests their time, money and faith in you, you have to step up to the moment and be big enough to handle the hard knocks. Sure, that’s understandable. But if the expectation is that a young player shouldn’t have the space to grow as a person, and make some errors in judgment along the way, we’re asking too much.
Writers descend like seagulls at a crowded beach on stories like this. And they write the narrative in stone. They did it with Bryce Harper, a guy many big league beat writers had the challenge of writing about from afar for a brief time, but already let Nationals fans know trouble was coming. He too had early reports of difficulties written about him. He was considered a risk, despite, oh, being one of the most exciting players in baseball history before he even played a major league game. But there needed to be a story, a focus. And all the focus was on what kind of a guy he was. Harper, as young as he was, was treated like he should have his entire act together before he was 20 years old.
We don’t know the kind of player or person Mateo will be, nor do we know that about any young player who’s just starting his professional career. We can recall our own worst growing pains, but, for some reason, we don’t. We put far too much stock in the early days of a player’s career, because we hear about so many moments, on and off the field, so fast. If a player has a moment of frustration, and lashes out at his superiors, is it really earth-shattering news? Is his personality etched in stone? How quickly do we need these guys to grow up, to fast track to the big leagues to become the stars we long for? Too quickly. We want it all, too quickly, because we consume information constantly. Developing players just doesn’t allow for that kind of hurried pace.
The slow process of a baseball game is much like the (usually) slow process of player development. There are pauses. Big failures and big successes, highs and lows, and the pace isn’t rushed…at least it wasn’t, but that’s another story. The down moments can be devastating. The highs can be exhilarating. Players talk often about not allowing either one get to them. Never get too high, never get too low, they’ll say in one way or another.
I covered Mateo in 2016. And I covered the player that the scout was completely decided on. Mateo was never blatantly disrespectful to anyone to my eyes. That “incident” was away from our eyes, as it should’ve been. He went about his business every day and his manager and coaches gave him high marks for his ability and effort. But that’s boring, right? Let’s all run with the bad seed narrative instead.
Did I mention Mateo’s 21? Also, by the way, Yankees GM Brian Cashman recently told the New York Daily News that the report of what truly happened between Mateo and team brass was, “false,” and went on to say, “None of that ever happened. We didn’t reveal why we did what we did, but I can tell you it had nothing to do with anything like that.” Mateo is also showing strong promise in Spring Training, a good sign that he’s moving forward, and, perhaps, can improve upon his 2016 results.
As for the player the scout mentioned, he was unbearable to deal with: arrogant, rude and unapologetic for his attitude. He didn’t change any opinions in the big leagues. He’s no longer in major league baseball. So, sometimes, yeah, they don’t mature. You just don’t know early on.
Player development, it’s kind of a wait and see thing.