Archive for the 'Players' Category

P&P Conversations: Hello, Goodbye

Eric:When our friendship was but a timid internet seedling, you wrote a blog called Waiting for Berkman. While the site wasn’t necessarily about the Big Puma, it wasn’t necessarily not about the Big Puma either. Now, almost three years after you and I joined forces at Pitchers & Poets, the Lance Berkman era could be coming to an end. He appears to have torn an ACL this weekend in Los Angeles, and has already floated the idea of retiring. Thank goodness, that in the first day of Berkman’s absence, a pair of large and similarly uncouth rookies performed astoundingly well.

The Cardinals called up prospect Matt Adams, who quite visibly exceeds his listed dimensions of 6’3″, 230 pounds, to replace Berkman at first base. He went 2-4. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won the game on a 3-0, pinch hit home run by Scott Van Slyke, son of Andy. Scott is 6’5″ and weighs 250 pounds. He has a puffy face like Berkman’s and, despite his lineage, a similar bemused working class demeanor.

My question is this: What would the end of the Berkman era mean for baseball? Furthermore, is he a replaceable entity?

Ted: Only if those big rookies actually move with a grace that belies their build will they inherit the Berkman crown. It’s odd to me that such a quietly capable fielder and hitting–so smooth and confident and patient–went down simply catching a routine throw. I felt like I was watching my dad come up lame in a pick-up basketball game; it was the injury of a twilight player.

The potential retirement of the Big Puma marks a kind of turning point in baseball player media relations. Lance was and is a maestro of the old media. When sportswriters needed a sound bit or an observant and humorous sports radio interview, they could bank on Fat Elvis. Berkman didn’t tweet, he talked. He is eloquent and funny as a conversationalist, in contrast to today’s young up-and-coming social media marketeers.

That and he could hit. I’m glad he got a ring.

If this is a year of departures, it’s also a year of arrivals. Are you a Trout guy or a Harper guy? (I’m a Bryce man, myself.)

Eric: Are we already aligning ourselves into camps? I heard John Kruk talking about this on ESPN the other night, and it didn’t even occur to me that anybody was picking sides. But I guess it makes sense. The Angel-faced, fishy-named Trout does present a helluva contrast with Harper and all his stylistic excess.

If this is the Beatles vs. Stones of our baseball-viewing generation, I want to align myself with the Stones. Because a Stones man is what I am. Musically, and I think/hope/hope not aesthetically. But then I watch these guys play. Harper’s super-aggressive, sizzling, kinetic assault on the baseball experience is the more captivating; Trout’s classicist embrace of all five tools, his left-handed game from the right side of the plate, is something more archaically, innocently beautiful.

At risk of reducing this to a Simmonsian level (not that Bill Simmons would ever engage in such old-dude categorization), Bryce Harper is the Rolling Stones and Mike Trout is the Beatles. And yet, despite myself, I find myself preferring Trout. Bryce Harper is changing the way we watch baseball. Mike Trout makes me feel like I’m watching the next Joe DiMaggio. His very swing feels steeped in history. Right now, that’s easier for me to consume and appreciate.

More importantly: Who is the Beach Boys of baseball?

Ted: The Tampa Bay Rays are the Beach Boys of BaseBall. Sunny disposition, coordinated beachwear, and an elevated level of quality that will outlast the schtick….

Give me Bryce Harper. Ordained for years as the second coming, scrutinized like a British royal, called up before his 20th, and how does he respond? By playing baseball with Pete Rose-level gamesmanship mixed with the grade-A talent that he didn’t even bother with at Triple-A. Trout has his appeal, the Dimaggio-like understated disposition, and his footspeed is a totally compelling characteristic. But thus far Harper is the cultural confluence.

Do you think there’s enough going on between the two of these players to create a Nomar-A-Rod-Jeter dynamic at some point down the line?

Eric: Even though I just finished reducing them to stale classic rock archetypes, I’ll now say I don’t even want to go there. For one, I’m not even sure I can explain the Nomar-A-Rod-Jeter dynamic. I was so young, and they were so big. Now I’m old enough that if I was an MLB player I’d be entering my prime soon, and Harper and Trout actually sort of seem like kids. To burden them with that sort of expectation would be unfair. I just hope they are both great, exciting ballplayers for a long time. I hope whatever energy that exists between the two of them only serves to enhance the way each is appreciated. I hope they can be as comfortable in the media landscape as tomorrow as Lance Berkman was in yesterday’s.

Jose Canseco III

The year was 1991. Jose Canseco had gone several weeks without hitting a home run and was becoming alarmed. No matter that this was December, 1991, and the baseball season was still months away from starting. His biceps felt deflated. The rhythm of his heartbeat was far too steady. “I feel empty,” Jose Canseco said to the fish inside his massive, brilliant fish tank, “as if my broad shoulders have been robbed of their broadness.” To clear his mind, Jose Canseco took his pet lion Mark McGwire on a sunset walk through his Miami neighborhood. They encountered an old woman sitting on a lawn chair. She saw Mark McGwire’s dejected face. Then Jose Canseco’s dejected face. “Take this,” she told Jose Canseco, ripping a gold tooth from the back of her mouth. “Swallow it. Next year, you will be traded to the Texas Rangers for Ruben Sierra.”

Rey Quinones: A Hard Man to Understand

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I stopped going to classes. It wasn’t that I had better things to do; I spent a month trying to learn how to play the “B” chord on a guitar. Sometimes I would skip class, stay home and read the textbook. On those days I would wake up, shower, dress, and get ready to leave. When the time came to open the door to my dorm room and walk to class, I just… wouldn’t. I’d conjure some imagined stomach pains or blame insomnia. Then the next day, I’d imagine what it would be like to come back when everyone knew I wasn’t there the previous day, and I’d stay home then, too. It became a cycle. There were some classes I signed up for and then never attended even once.

It’s embarrassing to reflect back on that part of my life, not only for my academic failures, but for the sheer egoism I displayed. I imagined vengeful TAs and snickering classmates when in fact I was just a particularly faceless young man in a school of twenty-four thousand. I felt no connection to the teachers or students around me. No one noticed I was missing, except the professors who submitted the grades at the end of each quarter. It’s easy to look back on that part of my life and realize on the fact that there was really something wrong with me. At the time, though, I couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) grasp the entirety of my situation; the moment the time came, I treated it as only a moment. That’s what falling feels like; you don’t have time to think about it because you’re too busy falling.

Run a search for “Rey Quinones” and the majority of the articles you’ll find will be about departure. They’ll utter the names of Spike Owen and Dave Henderson, who left the Mariners in exchange for Quinones in 1986. Or they’ll talk about Mike Dunne and Mark Merchant, the prospects Pittsburgh gave up two years later. The stories are rarely about Quinones himself, only his price. When the Pirates tired of him three months after his latest deal, they found no one left to trade with, so they cut him mid-season. They didn’t even consider sending him to the minors; they just wanted to be rid of him.

Assembling the story of Rey Quinones is like doing a puzzle with half the pieces missing. His name appears throughout the usual sports page fare. He’s a collection of numbers, usually errors, tacked into the third line of game recaps. He’s a series of anecdotes by beat writers, each more improbable and hilarious than the last. He’s a name to be thrown out on deadline day, the trade rehash, the remember-when article. But the one familiar article you never find for Rey Qunones is the “Where Are They Now?” piece. No one asks. No one cares to know.

There was never a question as to whether the kid could play. He had range to spare, plenty of pop in his bat, enough athleticism to make scouts smile. Everyone agreed that Quinones could have been a star. Ted Williams described him as perhaps being a “Frank Robinson at shortstop”, a picture that assaults the imagination. Mariners team trainer Rick Griffin claimed that he could throw a ball from home plate into the second deck of center field.

And yet what we have now are the anecdotes. The most famous of them was the time that Quinones was unavailable to pinch hit one game because he was back in the clubhouse playing Nintendo. (To be fair, he was on World 8-4 of Super Mario Bros.) He failed to show for the start of Spring Training in 1987; when questioned, he claimed that he’d had visa problems. Team president Chuck Armstrong had to remind him that you don’t need a visa to leave Puerto Rico, a U.S. protectorate. Perhaps even deadlier to his reputation were his on-field foibles; despite his strong arm, he often lobbed his throws to first, and booted the routine plays. He showed little in the way of concentration. He left his team without notice or permission to attend his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, missing several games. He suffered from mysterious, nagging injuries that never showed up on the machines. It’s as though the simple act of being Quinones was too exhausting for Quinones.

Former teammate and fellow Puerto Rican Henry Cotto once said, simply, “Rey Quinones is hard to understand.” Three general managers, three coaching staffs, three sets of scouts glimpsed the reserve of natural talent. Three organizations found themselves unable to discern what, exactly, went on in the shortstop’s head. Nor could they find the location of his heart, but it never seemed to be with baseball. Quinones told reporters early in his career that he didn’t need baseball, because he owned a liquor store in Puerto Rico he could live off of. The following exchange, reported by Kirby Arnold in “Tales from the Mariners Dugout”, comes closest to approximating Quinones’ mindset:

[Club president Chuck] Armstrong was walking through the Mariners’ clubhouse before a game when manager Dick Williams called him into his office. Armstrong walked in and saw Quinones there with Williams and general manager Dick Balderson. “Rey, tell Chuck what you just told us,” Williams said.
“I’m a good shortstop, right?” Quinones said.
“You’re a very good shortstop, Rey,” Armstrong told him.
“I could be the best shortstop in the American League,” Quinones said.
“Yes you could,” Armstrong replied.
“I’m so good,” Quinones continued, “that I don’t need to play every day.”
Armstrong was stunned as Quinones continued.
“I don’t need to play every day, and you have other guys who should play so they can get better,” Quinones said. “So I don’t need to play tonight.”

When we were kids, my friends and I would tear up any Rey Quinones baseball card we saw; if we found it at a shop, we’d pay the nickel for it so that we could rip it apart. He was the team villain. The ignominy of Rey Quinones is tempered only by his own obscurity. His antics were nestled within a string of ninety-loss seasons, and the well-known shortstop he replaced, Spike Owen, hit a robust .234 in his time in Seattle. In Pittsburgh his legacy is somewhat more tarnished; it’s rare for a team to lose prospects who unanimously washed out of the league, and have the trade still be seen as a loss. It played no small part in costing general manager Larry Doughty his job. The three months Quinones spent as a Pirate were that bad. When the team cut him, Jim Leyland didn’t hold back: “I thought we were getting someone who wasn’t the best of guys but had talent,” the Pittsburgh manager said. “We got a guy who was a good guy but didn’t show talent.” He added: “I can put up with errors, but not errors with no effort.”

Professional baseball players are held to a different standard than the general population. They’re required to play through physical pain. They can’t call in sick on their birthday. We accept these things, and we’re generally in agreement that players are compensated financially for their efforts. What’s interesting is that we’re far more accommodating as fans for a player’s physical shortcomings than their mental ones. When a player isn’t very good at their job because of the limitations of their skills, we accept it; we’ve seen our share of players like Jeff Kunkel and Rafael Ramirez. But when it comes to the psychological aspect of the job, there is no quarter. Quinones was immature, a head case; there was no help, no place for him. When the Pirates cut him, the shock brought him to tears. He had claimed he didn’t need baseball; baseball, as it turned out, didn’t need him.

The more pieces of Quinones’ puzzle I put together, the more disturbing the picture became. There’s the story of the start of his final season, in 1989. Like usual, spring training had begun and Quinones was the only Mariner yet to report. This time, however, he couldn’t be reached by telephone, and neither his close friends nor his brother could make contact. “I’m his roommate and sometimes he listens to me,” Mario Diaz said. “I would like to talk to him but I know how difficult that is. We don’t live that far apart in Puerto Rico, but I never saw or talked to him this winter. Nobody sees Rey during the off-season.” New general manager Woody Woodward began with salary threats, but was eventually forced to send two scouts to find him. When they reached his home, his wife told the scouts that he wasn’t there. They soon spotted him anyway – hiding in a house across the street, peering through the curtains. He agreed to return to America with them, but he wasn’t gone for long.

After being cut by the Pirates, Quinones returned home to his home in the rough neighborhood of Rio Piedras. The Rangers declared interest in the young shortstop, but he turned them down. He joined the Santurce ballclub during the Winter Leagues, in hopes of impressing another club, and hit well. After a few weeks, he started showing up late for games. Soon, he wasn’t showing up at all.

I’m not sure exactly how, but I managed to turn things around in college. There was no epiphany, no magical moment of inspiration. After an endless string of false starts and disappointments, of broken resolutions, one stuck. I made it to class, and then I made it to another. I made the quarterly Dean’s list after having failed all three classes the quarter before; I hung the certificate on my fridge with ironic pride. I slipped through the giant emotionless university system with a liberal arts degree, a 2.5 GPA, and a little bit of hope. Eventually I spent four more years of college and got my teaching certificate. Now I’m the authority figure that terrified me as a student.

I see kids that act like Rey Quinones all the time. They get sucked into the culture of failure that surrounds their socioeconomic status, and lower their expectations to meet their pessimism. Like Quinones, they struggle with language barriers that prevent them from expressing themselves the way they wish they could be heard. They turn to defense mechanisms, irreverence or sullenness, or they just stop showing up. It’s my job to catch these kids, to make sure they understand the opportunities they have, and to keep them from going through what I did. I haven’t always succeeded; I’m not that good a teacher yet. But my peak years are still ahead.

I don’t know Rey Quinones. Few people have, I think. None of the articles I read ever seem to share much of his side of the story. But I wonder if he ever had the support he needed to be the Frank Robinson of shortstops. Mental illness in sports has come a long way since 1989, but the stigma of being a “head case” still rests on the player, and the team is still seen as being helpless in dealing with the player’s antics. How much responsibility lies where is impossible and irresponsible for me to claim. I don’t know what could have been done. All I know is that in the end, I came away feeling something that I never expected to feel about a lazy, lackluster baseball player: pity.

There’s one last piece of the puzzle. Quinones’ name shows up in one final strange, sad story. Last month the 20th Annual Cabin Fever Auction was held in Bristol, Connecticut. Among the items for bid: a 1996 New York Yankees World Series ring. The ring was given to a member of the Yankees’ administrators by the name of Rey Quinones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s little information about how Quinones joined or left the Yankees, or how the ring made its way to auction (where it sold for $14,153.00). We’re left to wonder whether that ring helped cover the operation costs of a little liquor store in Rio Piedras.

Jose Canseco II

When Jose Canseco was just a little infant, he supported himself and his twin brother Ozzie Canseco by driving Canadian tourists around Havana in a red and white 1952 DeSoto. This was the early 1980s, when body-building was just coming into fashion. Even as a toddler, Jose Canseco had vision. When he arrived at his destinations, say the Hotel Nacional, Jose Canseco would crawl underneath the DeSoto and bench press it five times, with his passengers still inside. Thusly, he collected a small fortune in tips — not just from his passengers but from awed passers by. After all, who wouldn’t spare a few pesos for a toddler who could bench-press a 1952 DeSoto with such marvelous ease?

Jose Canseco

I once got Jose Canseco’s autograph on a baseball at Tropicana Field. He was playing catch with Bubba Trammell when I called out ‘Mr. Canseco, Mr. Canseco’ and he turned and grinned. The year was 1999. Although his role that season was technically ‘designated hitter,’ Jose Canseco caught the baseball I threw to him. He walked toward me. He signed the baseball with so much force that his signature became engraved in the sweet spot. I said thank you. The felt tip of my sharpie was pushed inward and rendered useless. Jose Canseco hit seven home runs that night — he would go on to hit 34 that season. The next day, Wade Boggs crushed my baseball with his teeth and washed it down with Budweiser.

13 Ways of Looking at a Hall of Fame Candidate

w.h. audenSince our blog is, after all, called Pitchers & Poets, we thought we would subject a few of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates to the imaginary scrutiny of both a pitcher and a poet of our choosing. Below, see the Hall of Fame analysis of a professional pitcher, and the response from a prominent poet, as you await the final ruling:

Jeff Bagwell

Cardinals hurler and freelance groundskeeper Jim Otten: “Unless steroids make goatees grow faster, you can’t prove anything.”

Poet WH Auden: “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities, and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections to find his happiness in another kind of wood.”

Barry Larkin

Reno Silver Sox hurler Nathan Ginsberg: “One of the best hitting and fielding shortstops of his generation. Writers, you know what to do.”

Poet Allen Ginsberg: “When will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Christs?”

Bernie Williams

California Angels farmhand Ronald Sylvia: “Probably not Hall-worthy, but he had a great career.”

Poet Sylvia Plath: “His head is a little interior of grey mirrors. Each gesture flees immediately down an alley of diminishing perspectives, and its significance drains like water out the hole at the far end.”

Jack Morris

Old timey Pittsburgh Allegheny Ed “Cannonball” Morris: “Heckuva competitor, good lifetime numbers, and a fine face-whisker set. Probably deserves a shot at immortality.”

Poet Robert Lowell: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance, a greyhound’s gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure, and suffocate for privacy.”

Edgar Martinez

67th round draft pick for the Houston Astros in 1996 Ben Keats: “I have never met Edgar Martinez, but I once saw him order dinner from across the restaurant.”

Poet John Keats: “He hath heard the Lion’s roaring, and can tell what his horny throat expresseth.”

Tim Raines

Early 80s California Angels starter Dave Frost: “Rock has been overlooked for way too long.”

Poet Robert Frost: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”

Logan Morrison: I am a Human Being, Damnit

Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes movie in which James Franco trains a super-chimp to live as a sort of hybrid of a puppy and a human child? The super-ape learns very quickly, becoming more and more human. But oh no! He is taken away from James Franco and placed in the care of evil public ape-facility owner Brian Cox and his acne-ridden employee Draco Malfoy.

The super-ape, Caesar, can only take so much abuse from Cox and especially Malfoy. Eventually, sick of it all, he strikes back at Malfoy and in a dramatic moment, speaks for the first time. It looks like this:

Anyway, when I read the news about Logan Morrison’s grievance against the Marlins this morning, I thought about Caesar and Malfoy. Today, Morrison stood up for all-ape kind and said NOOOOOOOO.

In no way, of course, am I trying to make the case that Morrison or his fellow MLBers resemble apes — only that owners treat them as subhuman commodities.(Fantasy owners do this too. And all fans. Even me, sometimes. But if P&P is anything, I hope it’s a force for reminding people that baseball players are more than just a walking statistical output machines, even when those players are Eugenio Velez.)

Here’s what Morrison actually said:

“I want to stand for what’s right. The players’ association agreed I should apply for a grievance. It’s not an easy decision or a decision I took lightly. It’s about protecting rights. Guys who have been here for a long time want to make sure their rights won’t be stepped on.”

Obviously that’s more tempered than the Morrison we’re used to. But it’s not far from the truth about him. Never in all of his tweeting and talking and all of that has Morrison struck me as un-serious about his team, about playing baseball well.

Over two years ago (wow) I wrote a post called “Nate McClouth and the Modern Indentured Servitude.” I wrote this:

Trades, and the whole idea of trades, are really kind of insane.

Where else on earth can supposedly competitive entities, allegedly separate businesses, legally traffic in humans like they can in sports? What other environment would encourage something like that? Critics bang fantasy baseball for overlooking the human aspect of the sport, for reducing players to their statistics, but they forget something. Fantasy GMs are trading imaginary rights. Real GMs trade human beings.

This also applies to the way some organizations play fast and loose with moving players between levels. That Logan Morrison was needlessly called down is totally obvious from a statistical perspective. But what about the fact that the Marlins in all likelihood lied about the reason for the demotion?

The grievance is a worthwhile endeavor at the very least. Not just for Morrison (who is the right mix of wronged,  savvy, and on courageous) but for all players who are misled by management, and for fans who would rather have an intellectually honest front office guiding their favorite team.

That intellectual honesty question is another post for another day. But I’ll say this: it seems obvious that management, players, and fans can benefit from relationships that are more honest and, even accounting for the inherent conflicts, somewhat less hostile.

Brian McCann Has Never Been a Train Robber

Bryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April.

The best Westerns do not feature the men who laid the tracks for the railroad’s methodical predictability, and seldom do they make heroic the movements of a conductor checking his watch for an estimated time of arrival or of a gritty man, hunched over and sweaty, shoveling coal into a hot furnace. No, the best Westerns feature the men who threaten the set path with dynamite, upending the train’s metal cars, blowing open the safe’s cold door, holding passengers and employees at gunpoint, stealing the business man’s gold, and preventing the execution of plans laid in hard steel. In short, watching too many westerns can make a person believe that the only way to be a hero is to become the personification of riotous freedom. And, if you come to believe that rebellion is the stuff that makes men courageous, then you can also come to believe that order is a lukewarm drink sipped by quiet men. And baseball is full of quiet men.

Brian McCann has never been a dynamo, and he’s never been a train robber. There is no mystery to the Braves catcher. He’s homegrown and ripe with familiarity–another ballplayer taught to swing a bat by his father. And, if he were in a Western, he’d probably have a green visor and an accountant’s arm bands, because the truth of the matter is that Brian McCann’s game has always been calculated, reduced or enhanced by a score on an eye test, a vision-correcting prescription, or how many starts can a catcher make without blowing out his knees. Nothing about Brian McCann has sparked our imaginations to run wild about whether he’s killed a man, got a family somewheres, or just how far can he hit a baseball. By consistently hitting around twenty home runs every season, he’s shown himself to be a power hitter that always makes contact, and there’s something less dramatic about a slugger who doesn’t come to the plate with an all or nothing mentality. In other words, Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good, for his style of play is not as inspiring as say a Buster Posey’s, who has risked his very life protecting the plate. And, while announcers, fans, and analysts weep over his tragic sacrifice, the cuddly McCann is discussed in a manner that, like his name, suggests he is merely capable. Both men are catchers, but only one is followed through swinging saloon doors by hushed whispers and pointed fingers. Only one of them is a gunslinger, and Brian McCann is not that man.Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good

To have a torrid passion for the game of Brian McCann, an individual would have to be in love with the catcher almost as much as they are in love with the game of baseball itself, for even his game-winning hits, whether in the All-Star game or a meager regular season outing appear to be the work of percentages, that they were due to happen, like an accountant playing the odds in poker, rather than the mythos of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs or Jason Heyward’s spring training blasts. And, while McCann’s swing is round and smooth, it’s delivered in a very matter of fact style, lacking the poetry of Ken Griffey, Jr., the killer instinct that rode Fred McGriff’s line drives like a bullet, or the freakish monstrosity of a Barry Bonds lightning strike. And it also lacks the same static crackle that resonates from the bat when Chipper Jones sends one flying for the fences, but I doubt there’s any science behind the difference; the physics of Brian McCann hitting a baseball 400 feet are the same as when any of those other guys do it; so why then doesn’t a Brian McCann home run have the same scorched earth effect as it sizzles down our optic nerves and is engraved upon our brains?

Somewhere along the line, the career of Brian McCann became less than the sum of its parts. He was too quiet, too underrated, too underappreciated, and there was a storyline that was all too easily available for defining his career; a metaphor that was perhaps too perfect to do anyone any good, even if that somebody happened to be a Major League baseball player who hits clutch grand slams with an air of regularity.

Cowboys and baseball players are the quintessential American heroes, but how many cowboys wore glasses? Then consider not just the Western genre but all of Western literature, and ask the same question: how many of our heroes wear glasses? The list probably isn’t much longer than Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, and Ben Franklin; a pacifist lawyer, a moping teenage wizard, and a bald tinkerer, not exactly the vivacious, muscular archetypes of the sports world.

For the longest time, no matter who was calling the game, the discussion about Brian McCann began and ended with a mentioning of his glasses. Were they fogging up? Was he wearing them? Was he not? To Lasik or not to Lasik? What did he see at the plate? Behind the plate? He was always at the crux of where the baseball universe unfolds with a Big Bang crack of the bat, but he was reduced to a pair of eye glasses, or spectacles, which has the same root word as spectator. Think T.J. Eckleburg, gold rims and blue sky, in a Braves uniform and a catcher’s mask, and you have Brian McCann reduced into a passive symbol, like a teddy bear at bedtime, watching, listening, not saying a word; his whole world limited by a flimsy pair of frames.

A few days ago, Ted wrote a great column that revolved around the general principle that familiarity with the limitations of a subject breeds disinterest, and maybe even disappointment, because it is the idea of unlimited potential that spurs the imagination to run wild. To back up his statement, Ted cites the example of how a city’s enthusiasm wanes drastically after a team is mathematically done with its season. Another example of this principle can be found by looking at the television show Lost, and how more people watched when the island could be anything they as a viewer imagined it to be, but the more the show proved that the island was really nothing more than a physical hub for the characters’ physical time on earth (or a wampeter, a la Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle) and the real focus of the show was simply the characters’ relationships with one another the more people split into camps that admitted confused frustration, hurled scornful disdain, or heaped on praise.

And people’s reactions to the show’s ending, especially the negative ones, seemed to be founded on the stubborn belief that the show should have been what they imagined it to be, rather than what the writers wrote it to be. And the same vehement reactions can be seen in how the average fan reacts to a prodigious athlete when his/her talents wind up less than what the fan had hoped and longed for. And that’s the challenge with rooting for a player like Brian McCann: the response to his play on the field is never visceral, because he is, to quote long-time NFL coach Denny Green, who we thought he was, and, therefore, we will never be surprised nor disappointed with his play.

When McCann came to the Majors, he was twenty-one years old and viewed as the obvious sidekick to future face of the franchise and (then) can’t miss kid, Jeff Francoeur. Chipper Jones was thirty-four and still hitting well over .300, but the search for the heir apparent had already begun and McCann garnered very little consideration for the position. Francoeur was the guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hitting his way into the hearts of the fanbase, and McCann was prepping to give the Hall of Fame introduction. Now, it’s five years later and Francoeur is in Kansas City and less than we wanted him to be, Chipper Jones is one more injury away from a church softball league, and the young phenoms, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward (well, one more than the other), are all the rage, and McCann, who carried the Braves’ offense single-handedly for the first half of the season, has had his thunder interrupted by Dan Uggla’s hit streak. In some ways, it’s as if McCann’s baseball cap is already faded blue, like a synthetic throwback, that, somehow, he got old without a legacy.

So, while the only catcher to hit twenty home runs in each of the last four seasons (including this one) inhabits a universe that is neither shrinking nor growing, he does shed his skin, like a snake giving us the chance to every so often admire his sheen.
There are athletes who explode into our worlds, announcing themselves like hurricanes, threatening to decimate what was, leaving the past in a haze of grainy black and white photographs, and then there are those who catalogue the scope of their world in mechanical increments, without our knowing, and we find them one day like a bear in the attic, bridging us to some mundane, insignificant moment when we may or may not have learned something. And, while scratching our heads for the memory, we say to ourselves:

“Damn, Teddy Ruxpin sure could talk, couldn’t he?”

The Joba File: Private Anxiety Made Public in Baseball’s Age of Potential

Joba Chamberlain elicits a negative response from the average baseball fan that far outweighs his time spent as a big league pitcher. For a few years, Chamberlain was the lightning rod for Yankee-hating, embodying what outsiders disliked about the team.

The Yankees fan base, meanwhile, accustomed to a team that develops its own foundational members, asked too much of the kid. The Yankees called him up to the big leagues after just a year in the minors. In the hustle to nudge him, with Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes, up onto the Yankees pedestal once occupied by the four horsemen, Yankee fans made him Joba before he was Chamberlain. In the rest of the country, his unique first name became a slight, and a shorthand term for a long-held distaste for the Yankees. Soon, the name Joba came to symbolize a fatigue not only for the team’s ruthless big money practices, but also for the media’s clear favoritism towards East Coast franchises.

That Joba Chamberlain was the symbol of this sentiment is misguided and unfortunate, and more a result of bad timing than anything that Joba did. Because, generally speaking, Joba Chamberlain is the opposite of what people don’t like about the Yankees.

Continue reading ‘The Joba File: Private Anxiety Made Public in Baseball’s Age of Potential’

The Man Who Couldn’t Hit

On May 25, 1972, Frank Fernandez pinch hit for Cubs starter Bill Hands in the sixth inning, grounded out to third base, and returned to the dugout.  It was his final at-bat.  Because of it, he had unknowingly put himself in the record books.

The at-bat lowered his batting average from .1997 to .1994, thus cementing his career batting average below the Mendoza line.  If the ball had snuck through the infield, or hit a pebble in the dirt, he would be forgotten.  Instead, he is forgotten, but he holds an interesting title in baseball history.

Frank Fernandez is the greatest player in baseball history to hit below .200 for his career.

In 902 plate appearances over six seasons, Fernandez’s career was more valuable (in terms of wins above replacement) than Kenji Johjima, Eddie Taubensee, or Jose Guillen.  This despite never having a starting job or a regular role, seeing many of his plate appearances in a pinch-hitting role, and spending his entire career within the second deadball era of the sixties and early seventies.   His career walk rate is the seventh best of all time among players with 900 trips to the plate.  “I’d like to hit,” Fernandez once complained.  “But I don’t seem to get many pitches to hit.”  Fernandez obviously had a specific definition of what a good pitch was.

His finest season came in 1969, platooning with Joe Gibbs.  In 298 plate appearances, Fernandez hit a career-best .223/.399/.415, with 12 home runs and 65 walks.  Appearing in only half the games that year, he was the fourth-most valuable hitter on the team.

Playing for New York, under the weight of its heroes, Fernandez’s career was a disappointment.  He had dropped out of college at Villanova to play baseball, giving up not only school but his first love, basketball.  He was a busted prospect, flashing enough to whet the appetite of the fan without the singles to support it.  Once, Fernandez took a bases-loaded walk that scored the winning run of the ballgame.  Afterward, reporters asked if he’d been afraid to take the payoff pitch, saying that there’s nothing more embarrassing than taking a third strike with the bases loaded.  It could very well have cost his job.

“I was embarrassed all night long,” Fernandez replied, having made two errors.  “How much more embarrassed could I be?”

Fernandez is remembered today by a single anecdote.  When one is a .1994 hitter, one’s life is fraught with missed opportunities.  For Frank Fernandez, such a life came to a head on August 27, 1970.  Late in the game Fernandez hit a shot off Mike Cuellar down the third base line toward Brooks Robinson.  Usually, this would be fitting.  Instead, this time the ball was hit so sharply that Robinson had no time to react.  The ball hit his shin and ricocheted directly into the hands of shortstop Mark Belanger, who had ample time to make the throw to first.  He didn’t.  The throw sailed wide and Fernandez wound up at second base.  Over the intercom, Baltimore’s official scorer ruled the play an error.

For a man who spent his life desperate for base hits, this insult was enough.  Fernandez was caught in the middle of a philosophical argument: do we judge a man by what he does, or what happens to him?  When the ball left his bat, based on its force and trajectory, it was a base hit.  By the time it reached first, independent of his actions, it had become an error.  Ultimately, Fernandez had no control over his fate.  Upon scoring on a Campaneris single, he took the only thing he had, his batting helmet, and flung it at the heavens in protest.  As tends to be the case in these moments, the act was ultimately futile.  He was ejected, fined $250, and ridiculed.

“All Fernandez is making all the fuss about,” said Harry Caray in the booth, “is whether he hits .200 or .198 this season.”  In fact, it meant hitting .199 or .200 in his career. In the end, it’s a strange and arbitrary demarcation, and yet, like Mendoza, it came to define him.  But to diminish “all he was making a fuss about” is to take a man out of context, to separate his actions so as to filter the life from him.  We can’t judge that play without understanding eleven years of bad hops and diving catches that came before.  Baseball is a game of constant failure, where even the best of players succeed only 40% of the time.  For Fernandez, a backup on the World’s Greatest Baseball Team during one of its least great eras, the weight of that disappointment is all the more crushing.  At some point, it is enough.

(Sources for some of the material in this article include “Yanks’ Catcher in the Wry”, by Frank Dolson, in the October 1968 Baseball Digest, and “An Official Scorer Who Has Lived to Tell About It”, by Bill Christine, in the July 22 1979 issue of the New York Times.)