By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) It has been a pretty long-held notion that at a certain point in our lives we are beyond teaching. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, as the saying goes.
23 isn’t exactly old, but a player in his fourth year in the majors is not considered somebody still getting his feet wet in the league. After getting pulled by Cubs manager Dale Sveum midgame Saturday after yet another mental error, fans are wondering if shortstop Starlin Castro is beyond fixing between the ears.
“There are only so many meetings, so many things you can say,” Sveum said. “When you’ve played this much baseball, you have to do it yourself.”
Allowing Jon Jay to score from third base on an infield fly rule play was pretty embarrassing and sums up a season filled with growing pains that is hopefully a big uncomfortable step in Theo Epstein’s and Jed Hoyer’s plan. Brain farts happen, but with Castro they seem to be habitual more so than human nature. But is he a dog that obedience school can’t help? Is he beyond correction?
“I know the outs, the situation, I just (put) my head down,” Castro said after the game. “I feel really, really bad for that happening, especially with (Travis Wood) pitching good. I have to pay for that.”
Recognizing the problem is the first step toward solving it, and at least The Dictator isn’t acting dictator-like and is willing to admit he screwed up and needs to be better. He’s a young man that was hailed as another in a long line of Cubs messiahs, but he’s never seemed to have an ego, which I’d say is a plus for a guy whose career start came with more money and fawning praise than it would take to give you or me a pretty big head.
It’s no secret that this has been a horrendous year for Castro, Saturday’s business aside. But his response to an earlier benching for a game by his manager followed by being put back in the lineup produced positive results for a time, and I expect something similar this time around.
And despite that really bad trip to the zoo Saturday, his fielding percentage in 2013 is the best of his career, and he’s on pace to commit the least amount of errors since he’s been a big leaguer. He’s committing an error once per just over every 20 chances compared to just over every 17 chances last season, just over every 15 in 2011, and just over 12 in his rookie year.
What we may need to come to terms with is that the Cubs supremely talented shortstop may be… well… dumb. And that may be okay, despite another common saying of “You can’t fix stupid.”
I like to think I’ve learned a bit about learning as I enter my seventh school year as a teacher. Sveum isn’t wrong to discipline Castro, but that doesn’t teach someone anything besides “don’t get in trouble.” Castro was back in the starting lineup Sunday, a gesture of faith by the manager showing that while discipline is necessary, it isn’t a solution.
“The way I look at it is, obviously, he had enough punishment — if that’s the right word or not — but I think to be embarrassed on national TV and what’s been written in the paper today, I think that’s plenty,” Sveum said Sunday. “I don’t think this kid can get better by not playing today and understanding the adversity we all go through in the game.”
A Chicago Tribune poll showed that the general public thought that was the wrong move, but the general public still believes punishments solve everything (and thus allows our current prison system to quietly be a stain on the American fabric). Showing somebody that there is still trust that improvement can happen allows that person to learn. It makes a Starlin Castro want to do well, which is different from just wanting to not disappoint the authority figure.
A kid in my class wanting to do well on an assignment and understand the material is one of my goals, not a kid doing an assignment merely to avoid a poor grade from me or admonishment by his parents. I realize that with a professional athlete this might sound like a soft approach, but you can’t bench him permanently, you can’t cut him, and you can’t trade him when his value is at its lowest.
But Castro isn’t a high school student, right? He’s past the age of learning, isn’t he? Actually, no, and none of us ever are really. Per David Robson of New Scientist:
“A decade ago, few neuroscientists would have agreed that adults can rival the learning talents of children. But we needn’t be so defeatist. The mature brain, it turns out, is more supple than anyone thought. ‘The idea that there’s a critical period for learning in childhood is overrated,’ says Gary Marcus, a psychologist at New York University. What’s more, we now understand the best techniques to accelerate knowledge and skill acquisition in adults, so can perhaps unveil a few tricks of the trade of super-learners […] Whatever you want to learn, it’s never too late to charge those grey cells.”
Okay, I admit that article might seem a tad highfalutin for a discussion of a can’t-get-right shortstop, but it speaks to a point that Castro isn’t mentally hopeless so long as the Cubs don’t consider him so. And he wants to learn and wants to be better. “I feel really bad,” he said. “This is a day I’ll never forget the rest of my life.” His openness to rectifying all this is half the battle, because a stubborn learner is really no learner at all. And notice that Castro didn’t disappear from view after being taken out of Saturday’s game. He changed out of his uniform but spent the rest of the game with his teammates even though he had to know he was the hot topic of a nationally televised game. A very immature idiot would have hid and pouted.
Combine that understated maturity with the stern-but-compassionate Sveum, and Castro is no lost cause. “You keep playing,” Sveum said. “There’s no experience better than just playing and learning from your mistakes. There’s nothing else you can do. This guy is a good player we have to have play well when we’re ready to win a championship.”
Hear that? “When we’re ready to win a championship.” Sveum seems to consider Castro part of the bright Cubs future. Letting him know that goes a long way in making Castro want to be that good player who plays well. And even in the dog days of August, he is capable of learning a few new tricks.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa before earning his degree from Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @TimBaffoe , but please don’t follow him in real life. He grew up in Chicago’s Beverly To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.