About a decade ago, the Toronto Blue Jays signed future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas to a bad, two-year deal.
Thomas was 39 years old and beginning to break down. When he showed up with a glove, someone on the Jays staff joked: "What's Frank going to do with that?" He was coming off one remarkable season following two disastrous ones. The Jays wildly overpaid him.
Thomas also came with a reputation. In Chicago, he'd been a favourite son and, apparently, an occasional jerk. Over the years, he alienated many of the people who covered him.
Here's a lesson for free: The jobbing media never forgive and never forget – they wait.
Once his performance began to slip, the press got on top of him and took him to the ground. Thomas turned surly. Eventually, he was hounded out of town.
Two years later, he showed up at the Jays spring training facility. We expected some residual combativeness.
Instead, we got the most pro-active media campaign I've ever witnessed.
That first day, Thomas burst in like the Kool-Aid Man. He couldn't wait to meet us and shook hands with everyone present.
We knew we shouldn't be so easy, but we were charmed.
By Day 2, he'd learned everyone's name. Most players don't bother with anyone's name.
He'd go out of his way to say hello and ask how your day was going. Most players avoid contact with non-players like they're living in the movie Contagion.
When you spoke, Thomas looked you in the eye. Most players stare over your shoulder, as if searching the room for someone more interesting to talk to.
On the field, Thomas was okay at first. Then, as most predicted, he began to flag. Early in his second year, he came out flat, picked a fight with management and was released.
Throughout it all, he kept things cordial. He called you by name and looked you in the eye. When you asked about his troubles, he'd shrug.
And while his problems were noted, no one that I can remember in the Toronto media took the knives out for Frank Thomas. Because Frank was a good guy and people liked him.
The relationship between the media and the athletes they cover is often framed in war metaphors. That's apt. Though the two camps spend a lot of time in each other's company, they are foreign to one another as people. "Dehumanized" isn't too strong a word. The players are cartoon characters; the media, a faceless mob. We treat each other accordingly.
I thought about this as I watched Phil Kessel going j'accuse on the press before Tuesday's game in Florida. He was surrounded by people he sees every day. However, he wasn't talking to any of them. He was talking at them.
The presentation rendered the whole thing contrary to its motive: making his critics understand that he and his teammates are people and deserve to be treated as such. In essence: I don't see you, but I demand that you see me. That he's right is beside the point.
How did this toxic relationship develop – and why does it continue?
Sometimes, it has to do with the content of the reporting, or personal friction. There are feuds that kick off over nothing in a locker room and are resolved in print over decades. But it's more fundamental than that.
There are players I've covered for years, talked to many times about all sorts of things. I think I know them, at least a little.
Then one day, we'll walk past each other in the street, our eyes meet and they don't recognize me. Not at all.
As media, we are locker-room background – as animate as grease boards and laundry hampers. You can't remember what you haven't really seen in the first place.
Then you'll run into the same guy in a Starbucks lineup on the road and end up talking to each other about nothing. Maybe he'll see you embracing an old coach of his. Or he'll wander into an actual human conversation you're having with the GM about families or movies or a mutual acquaintance.
All of a sudden, and in that instant, you become a real person. And that player never forgets you, sometimes even years later. It's bizarre, and it happens all the time in this business.
Once that's happened, you'll never rip that guy in print. You'll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He's not just someone you cover any more. He's someone you know.
This has very little to do with the job. It's human nature.
Once you've seen and been seen, you've crossed a bridge together. Empathy's part of it now. It may not affect the content of your work, but it certainly has an impact on the tone. From then on, disagreements are squashed one-on-one. You're not friends, but you show each other a rough sort of respect.
Some players don't get that basic calculus, which is fine. They're free to behave as they'd like. They have a right to expect that things never get personal – though "personal" means different things to different people.
Beyond that, they have no rights. What they have is the environment they've created for themselves.
The question only a few take the time to ask themselves is "What do I want?" If you would like to see the best part of yourself reflected in the way people report on you, then you show it. If you don't care, then don't bother.
But if you're going to complain, you have to choose.
If Phil Kessel would like the other side to really see him, then he can start by opening his own eyes.