It wasn’t just that Yunel Escobar was slow to learn a second language. He was slow to learn to be a professional. How many times do you have to be told to hustle — a concept that should be universal — before it’s clear you just don’t care to do it?
No one can suggest the Braves didn’t give him a fair chance. He played 446 big-league games for this club, and his excesses worsened over time. And it’s one thing to hang on to a problem if the problem is hitting and driving in runs, but at age 27 Escobar had ceased doing that. He has no home runs, 19 RBIs.
Even with the Braves in first place, this was the right move at the right time. We shouldn’t worry about the absence of Escobar roiling the waters. He was always the guy most apt to upset the others with his disregard for the game and its conventions. He was always the Brave the others could count on to carry himself least like a Brave.
Escobar’s defenders believed the language barrier — he defected from Cuba — led him to misunderstand and be misunderstood. Coaches Chino Cadahia and Eddie Perez, each of whom acted as interpreters, told me as much last season. But should a big-league player fail so repeatedly to perform the basic task of playing hard? The message seems to get through to Omar Infante, a Venezuelan who also uses translators.
A tiny example: On a Sunday afternoon earlier this season, Escobar drove a ball in the gap in left-center. His hit brought home the go-ahead run, but somehow he managed to get thrown out at second base on a ball so perfectly placed that it would have been a double for anybody else in the big leagues. (Put it this way: Sid Bream would have made it.)
Escobar got thrown out because he watched the flight of the ball and admired his work, as opposed to running hard. The Braves noticed. The Braves always noticed. As one man in the clubhouse said afterward, exasperation in his voice: “He has been told time and time again.”
About the trade: This isn’t an exchange of equal talent. Alex Gonzalez is a serviceable big-league shortstop who played on a World Series winner with Florida in 2003 and delivered the biggest hit — a walk-off homer in Game 4 — of the Series. He’s 33, which means he’s not a long-term answer. (Inside baseball: As a Marlin, Gonzalez was known as “Sea Bass.”)
Perhaps Tyler Pastornicky, the minor-league shortstop also acquired in this deal, will develop. But what Frank Wren suggested Wednesday was that the Braves aren’t much worried about tomorrow. “We’re two years away from having to worry about that,” the general manager said. “After the 2011 season … we’ll cross that bridge at that time.”
This trade tells us the Braves no longer saw Escobar as a long-term answer, either, and they were justified in that conclusion. “He’s a talented guy,” Wren said of Escobar, “but we needed to make some adjustments on our ballclub. It just wasn’t happening here.”
This is a happier clubhouse than it has been in years, and not just because the team is in first place. Because these guys like and respect one another. The one guy who didn’t fit — and who was never going to fit, no matter how many chances the Braves offered — just got traded. “In the short term, this really improves our ballclub,” Wren said, and it improves it not because Gonzalez is a greater talent but because he’s a real pro.
Addition by subtraction, I believe it’s called.