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Baron Batch, Isaac Redman, and Fan Expectations: Perception vs. Reality

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In last week’s "Weekend Check-Down" of the stories of the previous week, author Ivan Cole wrote the following :

Baron Batch medically cleared

This wouldn't rise to the level of news normally. A low-round draft pick that didn't survive training camp and has not participated in a preseason game much less the regular season is now ready to give it another shot. So what's the big deal? First the disclaimer; Baron Batch has accomplished absolutely nothing in football terms. Baron Batch is about promise...

The final sentence hangs quivering in the air, bringing with it the essence of this time of year. It is all about promise. It’s about the possibilities for the coming season. Even if your team went 3-13 last year, that’s then. This is now. The hope, hope which, we are told, springs eternal, whispers into our ears "This is our year!"

For Steelers fans, this is the year Troy Polamalu is going to not only start every game but be healthy all year. Then we’ll REALLY see what he can do. This is the season Ben Roethlisberger comes into his own, throwing the ball away on occasion and taking the short throw if the deep ball isn’t there, and wins Offensive Player of the Year. This is the year James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will jointly terrorize the league and its quailing QBs, adding many multi-sack games to their resumés. This is the year Mike Wallace truly shows the world he isn’t a one-trick pony and torches opposing defenses on his way to a 2000-yard season. (And as long as we’re dreaming, we’ve locked him up already with a five-year contract, and still have enough cap room for signing our draftees! And Jerricho Cotchery, while we’re at it!) This is the year our first-round draft pick Dont’a Hightower, or Cordy Glenn, or insert your favorite name here, shows the world what it means to be drafted by the Steelers, en route to winning Rookie of the Year.

And yes, this year Baron Batch becomes another in the line of late-round and UDFA signings by the Steelers to become a legend. Between his ability to walk on water and Isaac Redman’s superpowers, opposing teams are happy to let Ben throw the ball undisturbed, rather than meet with the two-headed Running Game of Doom the Steelers will field next season.

Well, that was fun. Until Neal threw a bucket of cold water on my head (and no, it wasn’t Gatorade. There’s a shortage, as the Ravens have reserved all available stock.) As he wrote it in a comment to Ivan’s post:

Just for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate on this dreary and otherwise boring Saturday…am I the only one who doesn’t feel Baron Batch walks on water?

He stood into some linebackers in blocking drills last year. Now, he has a torn ACL. He was a seventh-round pick when his knee was 100 percent. I’m sorry if I won’t get all excited about his return. We’re not at all interested in Mendenhall’s rehab, but we’re fired up about Baron Batch returning to camp...

Neal had lots more to say, but this will suffice for the moment. The question is, are those of Steeler Nation who are fired up about Baron Batch seeing something Neal isn’t, or is Batch merely the latest in a line of young men upon whom we pin unreasonable hopes and expectations?

The previous "victim" of this was, of course, Isaac Redman. Steeler Nation became enamored with what they saw in the preseason games the year he was signed as an UDFA (2009) and he quickly became a legend in a way he probably never would have managed had he actually made the team that year. (I wrote a fan post in 2010 about the mythical Redman and his alter egos.)

Baron Batch has all of the vital ingredients for this sort of elevation: he was just barely drafted (you have to have been rejected by the majority of the league before you qualify,) he created a sensation in camp, and he was then prevented from actually playing during the season, in his case by injury. The third factor is critical, as it means any deficiencies in his actual play were shielded from view for a year, thus allowing the legend to grow unchecked.

In some ways, it must be nice to be a low-round pick or a UDFA. It reduces the burden of expectation. Steeler Nation expects her high-round draft picks to produce, and gets fairly testy if they don’t do so in what she considers to be a timely fashion. But if a "camp body" pans out he is exceeding expectations, and so is already ahead of the curve in the hearts of the Steeler fan base. Besides, who doesn’t love an underdog?

It’s easy to understand why Neal is attempting to temper the enthusiasm for what he sees as another pie-in-the-sky fantasy. But in Batch’s case there’s more. His personal story is compelling, and he has gotten his personal story before the world in an unusual manner. As Ivan said in his post:

But competence on the football field, as much as it means, is only part of the story for Baron isn't it?...Batch is the type of guy that you are inclined to root for regardless of what he's doing. You would root for him if he was applying for a job with your company or applying to attend your alma mater or marrying into your family. He may be one of those rare individuals who may be doing football a favor by his presence rather than the other way around.

High praise indeed. But Neal’s discomfort with Batch isn’t confined to what he thinks is a possibly unhealthy obsession by the fan base. He continued:

I follow Batch on Twitter, and I’d nearly dare to go as far as to call him self-involved. He may have many gifts, but he’s also fully aware he has them, and, in my opinion, goes out of his way to make sure people know he does...In comparison to the average football player, yes, he’s absolutely a great writer. But I think people get so starry-eyed over a smart, pithy athlete we give him heaps of praise for things that really aren’t all that extraordinary. He just tells us about it all the time.

It’s hard to believe Neal and Ivan are writing about the same person. Both are giving their perception, based upon what they have seen, and they differ in a fair number of fundamentals. Where is the reality?

Let’s take the easy one—Batch the football player. As Neal said, "He stood into some linebackers in blocking drills last year. Now, he has a torn ACL. He was a seventh-round pick last year when his knee was 100 percent." All of these are absolutely true. So why are people "fired up" about him returning to training camp and unconcerned about Mendenhall’s recovery?

Mendenhall and Batch, although coming from quite different backgrounds, seem to be rather similar in many ways. Mendenhall is intelligent and thoughtful. He has a number of interests outside of football, and is good at a number of other things. But Mendenhall, although he had some early advantages Batch lacked, seems to have missed the ability to easily connect with people. On the occasions Mendenhall has made public pronouncements from a sense of conviction he has generally managed to outrage and/or alienate people.

Batch, on the other hand, has found a voice. As he says, it seems strange for someone who failed English to be a writer, but write he does. But I don't think the quality of his writing is the attraction. I think it lies in this: his writing is revelatory. He’s not afraid to show who he is and what he is thinking. He is almost the antithesis of Mendenhall, the private, ambiguous figure Steeler Nation has never really taken to their hearts. In a society where people revere sports figures and want to be "tight" with them, Batch’s openness is very appealing.

Neal feels Batch is self-absorbed, and I can see why, but I view it differently. Against the odds, Batch has a platform. He knows this, and feels he has a duty to use that platform for a greater purpose. He’s a bit like Tim Tebow in this way, but in a way some people find easier to swallow. The difference is, Batch is full of flaws, and reveals them on a regular basis. The revealing of his flaws and struggles is part of what he believes he has to offer people. Tim Tebow would, I’m sure, also be happy to tell you he is full of flaws, but his platform, which is mainly press conferences and other public events likely to contain question-and-answer sessions, is much less conducive to this sort of disclosure than a blog.

But note my comments almost immediately morphed from Batch the football player to Batch the person. It’s hard to separate them, and this may well indicate something about what people have responded to in him. I believe they have responded as much, or more, to the "heart" they see in him, both as a player and a person, than to any promise he’s shown on the field.

I don’t meant to imply the promise isn’t there. Here’s what Mike Tomlin had to say about Baron Batch the football player. (He was discussing the various backs when asked about what the Steelers will do until Mendenhall returns:)

We all are excited about Baron Batch. We saw him in Latrobe a year ago. He’s a young guy who hasn’t done it inside stadiums in a regular season setting, and he is coming off an injury, but we saw enough there in terms of his competitive spirit and skills.

This is rather different to what Tomlin saw in Isaac Redman in his first camp, apparently. It seemed as if Tomlin saw enough of Redman to feel he wanted to keep him around, but also to feel he was far from ready for a roster spot. Of course, had Batch made it through camp it’s entirely possible he wouldn’t have gotten a roster spot. In fact, he may have been in a better position being on IR than on the practice squad. Nonetheless, it sounds as if Tomlin was more enthusiastic about Batch than he was about Redman at the same stage in his development. And I’m obviously speculating here, but I believe the difference may be in the will and determination Tomlin saw in Batch last summer. He didn't see that to the same degree in an Isaac Redman who struggled with his conditioning in 2009.

Isaac Redman has since grown into his role on the team in a very gratifying way, and his play in the post-season at Denver was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise rather depressing game. I don’t mean to imply he is lacking in character either, and he has had his own trials and problems to struggle through. Redman impresses me as a kind and humble young man, and I look forward to seeing what he can do this season in a featured role.

Batch hasn’t yet had the opportunity to prove himself, and moreover is coming off an ACL tear. What does this injury mean for Batch as a football player, particularly a running back? Well, as you might expect Batch has plenty to say (taken from this post on November 30, 2011):

Since tearing my ACL I’ve had a flood of emails, letters, and calls showing support from people telling me that they are praying for me and rooting for me. I want to thank all of those people; you have no idea what all of your support means.

Interestingly enough, I’ve had just as many fellow athletes with the same and different injuries from other teams contact me asking me about how I’m keeping such a positive outlook throughout this whole injury process, as well as people in general going through rough spots in life inquiring how I’ve kept my head up.

I guess athlete or not we all have our injuries...It’s always been interesting to me to see how people respond to adversity differently. Some handle it better than others. Some crumble. Some grow stronger. Specifically it’s always been interesting to me to see how athletes deal with serious injuries differently. I’ve seen certain athletes quit and never come back. I’ve seen some that come back and are never close to what they were before the injury. I’ve seen some come back from injury stronger than they were before and become better players.

The really interesting thing is that you can have 2 athletes with the exact same injury go to the same surgeon and have the same operation performed. One athlete comes back better from the injury and the other never comes back and plays. This has always caught my attention. Why does this happen? One thing that I’ve learned is that rarely is it the physical limitations on an athlete after recovering from an injury, but the mental side of things that defines the end result.

Many times the physical is just an illusion. It’s something that we make up in our minds to justify our doubt.

So if recovering from injury isn’t necessarily physical but mental, then it’s something that can be taught. Recovery is something that can be learned. Healing is something that can be perfected. Overcoming is a skill, and should be practiced as such...healing doesn’t just happen. Recovery doesn’t all of a sudden show up. Overcoming a trial is never a mistake. There is a process.

He then goes on to discuss this process, not from the physical but the mental standpoint.

15 days ago he said the following:

[It] feels good to give you guys an update and not have to tag it with ‘rehab update’ being that I have been fully released and am no longer rehabbing. It’s been roughly 7 months since I tore my ACL in training camp. The road to being fully cleared has had its bumps but it hasn’t been the worst injury that I’ve had, and my previous injuries definitely prepared me on how to deal with this one from a rehab standpoint. Luckily confidence hasn’t been an issue when dealing with my knee... I have been able to jump back into where I was at without hesitating or thinking about my knee...I’m probably at about 90%. Straight ahead I feel faster than I ever have but I still have work to do on my cutting stuff being that I have only been back at it for about 2 months. Overall I’m feeling fantastic. Since getting back to Pittsburgh and training the last 4 weeks I have dropped 12 pounds and am back at my playing weight of about 215.

He put a video of a workout in the post, in case you’re interested.

So what’s the reality? The reality is, no one knows the end to his story. Will he come back better than ever, blow everybody away at training camp, earn a hat, as Tomlin would say, and be a part of Todd Haley’s new unbeatable offense? Will he injure something else the first day of training camp which forces him to give up on football? The reality may well be something quite different from either. What I believe Baron Batch has demonstrated thus far is he has the character to deal with either of those scenarios, or any others that may occur.

Is Steeler Nation unreasonable to get fired up about Baron Batch? Certainly, in the sense that it is unreasonable to pin great hopes on any single player. After all, every man on the field is one injury away from IR or retirement. I don’t think there is anything wrong about getting fired up, though, as long as it doesn’t lead to unreasonable expectations. Baron Batch is a seventh-round pick just coming off an ACL tear who has proven nothing in the NFL as of yet. For him to become a serviceable backup is a good outcome in the statistical sense, and definitely beats the odds.

But we are Steeler Nation, and we are looking for more than that. It is always possible he will, like Isaac Redman, actually fulfill some of those entirely unreasonable expectations. But it's also worth remembering this—someone can be an extraordinary human being without necessarily being an extraordinary football player.

That said, a lot of people are rooting for Batch, including, as I noticed while reading some of the comments to his posts, fans of other teams altogether. He is the type of player who puts a human face to a franchise. And it's a great face. I wish him all the best, and I hope to write up some of the triumphs of No. 35 at Latrobe this summer.