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It was a stone bummer on Saturday afternoon, having to watch the U.S. soccer team concede a goal in the first overtime period of its round-of-16 World Cup game with Ghana, then go on to lose 2-1. After Landon Donovan converted his second-half penalty kick to tie the game 1-1, I figured the comeback kids were going to find a way to emerge victorious over the team that sent them home in 2006, and earn a pass into the quarterfinal round.

Sadly, it was not meant to be. The U.S. had several nice scoring opportunities, but none of them resulted in that go-ahead tally, and both of the major defensive miscues wound up as goals for Ghana.

Several times over the course of the U.S.-Ghana match, I received texts from an old friend. This friend, who played on the Perryville High soccer team with me, was offering his pungent observations on the quality of the U.S. midfield, which was playing pretty dreadfully in the first half. Along with a bunch of descriptors I can’t print here, my friend used the term “bunch of lazy bums,” to convey his feelings on how the team was performing. When Ghana scored the game-winning goal, my friend sent me his final text, and it simply read “BUMS!”

I laughed for a while, mostly because I could envision my friend, who is an excitable person, screaming “you bums!” at the television screen. My thoughts, however, quickly changed to, “I don’t care if they didn’t play that well, those guys work too hard to be called bums.”

The very next night, while watching the IronBirds play Brooklyn at Ripken Stadium, those thoughts came drifting back to me. Making the start for Aberdeen on Sunday was Mike Gonzalez, who began the year as the Orioles’ closer, but was placed on the DL after two serious meltdowns in a three-day span at the beginning of the season. I’ve heard a lot of nasty things said about Gonzalez, and I’ll bet his performance during Sunday’s game, in which he allowed a two-run homer in one inning of work, won’t cause the detractors to take anything back, but at a certain point I really think you need to look at the big picture before you say something hateful about an elite level athlete.

Let’s stick with Gonzalez, because he’s a pretty good example of the work it takes to get to the highest level of a sport. Between 1997 and 2002, Gonzalez played on five different teams within the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system, bouncing up and down between the AA and Rookie League levels. Over those five seasons he pitched in 106 games, going 41-26. So, in 2003, after five years of banging around the minors, he finally gets a shot to play for Pittsburgh’s AAA affiliate in Nashville, gets traded to Boston and plays for the Pawtucket Red Sox, is traded back to Pittsburgh, and only then, in August of the season, is he called up to pitch for the Pirates. If you didn’t know, Gonzalez had some mighty fine seasons as a reliever in the big leagues before coming to Baltimore in 2010.

Gonzalez certainly isn’t a minority among players who have made it to the majors, and I think that if you looked at the minor league history of many of MLB’s non-superstars, you’d see a similar pattern, that being that they spent a lot of time between the ages of 18 and 23 bouncing around, trying to earn a starting spot at the next higher level. At each of those levels, they had to produce or they were history, headed back to AA where everybody can’t hit 95-mph fastballs. At each level, they had to work harder not to get buried on the bench.

This may sound like I’m saying everyone should automatically respect elite level athletes because of the effort they’ve put forth, which I don’t believe at all. I think most are overpaid, I think a great many of them are ego-driven man-children who have been warped by being coddled for so long, and, since I’m on a roll, I think that this country puts athletic excellence on too high a pedestal (you might never hear that from another sports writer). As for Gonzalez, I’d probably boo him if he blew another save in Baltimore, and the way he’s getting hit by A level batters is pretty pitiful. All that said, next time you’re gearing up to call some athlete a lazy bum, or some variation of that insult, remember that they probably worked harder than you could imagine to get where they are, so they certainly aren’t lazy. Just yell, “you stink!” instead.


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