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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

January 18, 2013 at 2:09 PM

Te’o saga reminds us, like Al Martin years ago, that athletes can get entangled in their narratives

almartin.jpg

(Al Martin is congratulated by John Olerud and Jay Buhner after scoring a run in 2001. Seattle Times staff photo).

The Manti Te’o saga is the craziest one I’ve ever seen in sports, and that includes Nancy Kerrigan getting clubbed in the knee, the Spanish basketball team having to give back its gold medal in the 2000 Paralympics because they faked being intellectually disabled, and Carlos Silva getting a four-year deal.

Reading the original Deadspin story was a jaw-dropping journey. Watching the web instantly explode, and continue to teem, with theories, mirth and indignation has been hugely entertaining, the ultimate guilty pleasure. And waiting for the next development has become a national (international?) obsession.

Right now, I have no idea what Te’o knew, and when. We may never find that out, definitively. Like everyone else, I have my notions. I find it hard to believe that Te’o concocted this whole thing from the start, but I also find myself skeptical that he was totally duped until the moment he supposedly had his epiphany in early December that this was all a hoax (and yet continued to perpetuate the tragic story of his late girlfriend with the media).

I think we’ve seen enough past examples of a player getting so entangled in his or her narrative – including mythical aspects of it – that they simply can’t (or choose not to) escape. I’m thinking of former Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson concocting a whole persona of being a Marine in combat in Vietnam (as well as a being offered a basketball scholarship to UCLA, also not true), leading to his firing when he was found out. Turned out Johnson had been in the Marine Corps reserves, stationed in Camp Pendleton.

Right at Notre Dame, home base of the Te’o tale, was where George O’Leary had to resign in disgrace, five days after getting his dream job as head football coach of the Fighting Irish. O’Leary, it seemed, had fudged on his resume years earlier, adding a master’s degree in eduction and a college football career that didn’t exist. Tell me this passage from Gary Smith’s classic Sports Illustrated profile of O’Leary doesn’t resonate today:

His wife had noticed the falsehood about his playing career. “Ah, a guy in the sports information department at Syracuse told me to make it look good,” George fibbed. His mom and dad had noticed it too. “Ah, it’s not important. I don’t know how it got in there,” George said. “I gotta get it out.” He thought about it. But he couldn’t risk it. Fame had removed his control of the lies; they had flown everywhere now, on paper and in cyberspace.

His children believed the lies. His brothers and old pals from C.I. figured they were just part of the hype machine. When George’s more recent friends asked about his college career, he’d say, “I could hit you, but I couldn’t catch you,” then nod toward the scar on his knee and allude to a football injury–but not mention that the blow had actually occurred years after college, when he was coaching. The wave of his hand and his silence discouraged more questions, and who had questions about New Hampshire football anyway?

It was the perfect lie, and George the perfect agent for it: Who would suspect subterfuge from a sledgehammer? Who’d suspect it from a religious man with no tolerance for preening, the same modest man at a million a year as he had been at $14,322? If his secretary hadn’t pulled his coach of the year awards out of a box and displayed them in his office, nobody would have laid eyes on them.

And then there was Seattle outfielder Al Martin — a bizarre tale of deception in which I was very indirectly involved back in the otherwise magical Mariners season of 2001.

It began with an innocent item in the Mariners notebook that ran in the May 23, 2001 Seattle Times. It wasn’t even the lead item — that was about the Mariners considering signing Tony Fernandez after he had been released by the Blue Jays. Here was the second item in Bob Finnigan’s article, under the retrospectively ironic headline, “Hitting the Wall”:

Outfielder Al Martin said the last time he had his bell rung like it was Saturday, when shortstop Carlos Guillen inadvertently kicked him in the head, was in 1986.

Back then he was playing strong safety for USC in a football game against Michigan.

“For some reason, probably because I was young and dumb, I decided I could make a head-on stop of Leroy Hoard,” Martin said. “I hit him, or rather he hit me. You remember those big tree-trunk legs Hoard had? That’s what hit me.”

It was a great anecdote, and right in keeping with this entry in Martin’s bio in the 2001 Mariners media guide: “…attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship…played two seasons at strong safety for the Trojans…” The Mariners had merely passed on what had been printed for years in the Pirates’ guide, Martin’s original organization — as provided by Martin.

A few weeks later, I got a call from a colleague in San Diego, who had read the item and wanted to follow up on it. He called up the USC sports information department for some details on Martin’s football career, and was told there was no record of it — and in addition, USC never played Hoard’s Michigan team during the years he claimed to be at USC.

I informed my bosses, and thus began a thorough investigation into Martin’s claims of a collegiate football career. Bottom line is that it never existed, as we detailed in this Aug. 28, 2001 article. To this day, the story of inventing a football career has stuck with Martin (who never denied the accuracy of the Times article), and is usually the first thing brought up when you mention his name.

Two years later, Martin told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that the fallout from the Hoard incident was “a living hell”. The same article delves into claims by Martin in that year’s Tampa Bay supplemental media guide that he was named to the 1994 National League All-Star team but replaced due to a wrist injury. That appears to be untrue.

It’s very small potatoes in the big picture, but it may speak to the phenomenon at hand — either the inability to stop white lies from careening out of control, or the need to bolster one’s image by burnishing the facts. Is that a result of insecurity, or vanity, or the seductive appeal of eliciting sympathy/admiration? I’m no psychologist. And I can’t say this is what happened in the Manti Te’o case.

But it wouldn’t be the first time.

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