September 2008

Trades

Entering the 2008 All-Star break, Edinson Volquez – the just-turned-25-year-old Cincinnati right-hander armed with a lightning quick, hopping fastball, swiftly-veering slider, and seemingly-stopping- once-it-gets-to-home-plate- while-concurrently-screwing- down-to- below-the-knees changeup – had checked off the following “to do in the NL” items:  he led in ERA (2.29), had the second-highest strikeouts/nine innings rate (9.90), owned the second-lowest OPS-against (.606), had struck out the third-most batters (126), and had earned the second-most wins (12).  Over in the AL, about 834 miles away in Texas, displaying some of  the Grand Canyon-vast talents that once dropped the mouths of scouts, Josh Hamilton was tied for third in home runs (21), placed second in total bases (218), and had driven in 95 runs – the fifth-highest total since 1933, when something called the All-Star break came into existence.

Before the 2008 season began, Edinson Volquez had made 17 big league starts (over three seasons), had allowed 111 hits in 80 innings, and had given up runs with enough abundant frequency to acquire a 7.20 ERA.  Before Daisuke Matsuzaka threw his first pitch in Japan on March 25 to welcome in the new season, Josh Hamilton had played a total of 90 games in the Majors, and despite his promising rookie campaign with the Reds in 2007, most of us – colored by the saga of his past, yet hopeful of the promise just uncovered – still really didn’t know what to expect from the ridiculously talented yet troubled and somewhat unproven outfielder.

On December 21, 2007, Edinson Volquez – un unestablished pitcher with a wealthy arsenal and a healthy ERA – and Josh Hamilton – a five-tooled, once-in-lifetime-former prospect still finding his way after a viciously meandering journey with multiple stops in hell – were traded for one another.  The transaction at the time did make news, but then again, any move by any of the ballcubs during the hot stove season receives its share of attention and deconstruction.  Regardless of the amount of words aimed toward speculation, cost-benefit analysis or projecting future performance, no one could have imagined that the trade (and subsequent performances) would command so much of our attention and daily amazement throughout April, May and June. 

In a way, trades resemble the hope, expectancy, and promise of spring training.  (Baseball) life begins anew and the slate beams back at us:  clean, polished, willing and ready to be etched and drawn upon.  The outlooks and surroundings are similarly refreshed, and endless combinations of numbers stand excitedly by, waiting to align themselves in line scores, box scores, and encyclopedia pages.  We never know what will happen following a trade, and the meshing of the hope with the resultant reality serves to always color what will transpire in the future.  Challenge trades (Scott Rolen for fellow third baseman Troy Glaus), swapping prospects for established veterans during the pennant race (C.C. Sabathia for Matt LaPorta), multi-player exchanges to patch holes and eliminate redundancies (Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza for Delmon Young):  trades come in all shapes and sizes and cause myriad permutations of subsequent success (or failure) cycles.  The trade.  The simple consideration of possibilities during the offseason stands as enough reason to claim the back pages of the sports tabloids, the acquisition of a star at the trade deadline generates a palpable energetic charge, and sometimes, a simple move from one city and franchise to another provides an instant impetus for the blossoming of stardom.

More than a half-century ago, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio stood as the nonpareils of their sport.  DiMaggio – a stoic, graceful, magnetic presence – patrolled centerfield for a Yankee dynasty whose dance card seemingly always carried them deep into October.  The only portion of the DiMaggio presence which remained imperfect was his choice of home ballpark, for the vast left centerfield, 460 feet away from home plate at its greatest distance, swallowed up countless fly balls which otherwise might have been home runs for the right-handed hitting Yankee Clipper.  Williams – a lanky, brash, brilliantly adept scientist with the bat – stood in the shadow of Fenway’s Green Monster for the team that stood in the shadow of the Yankees.  The only element of the Williams’ batting story that remained outside his masterful control was that the perfect home for his sweet swing resided approximately 215 miles to the southwest, in the home of DiMaggio.  Fenway Park was made for the artful, scythe-like swing of DiMaggio, with the tantalizingly close Green Monster just a shade over 300 feet away from the plate; in turn, the short right field porch snuggled into the corner of Yankee Stadium, if once constructed for the Babe, presented a sweet and easily reachable destination for the Splendid Splinter.

With these two models of near perfection so easily perceived, one night, more than a half-century ago, a couple of executives – one from the Red Sox and another from the Yankees – under the influence of perhaps a number of drinks, decided to remedy this imperfection, and agreed to trade Williams for DiMaggio.  Of course, they never consummated the trade:  the next morning brought clear heads to both, and struck with the knowledge that the trade would unleash a fury of commentary regarding the corresponding departure and entrance of two baseball icons, the two dreamers decided to let sleeping dogs lie.  Or so the story goes.

Baseball trades never end with the handshake.  The litany of deals – some good, some bad, some disastrous, some golden – punctuate the baseball storyline each season and the breaks between campaigns.  They live long after the fact, for each spurs another transaction, another need for a piece, another potential what if.  Trades pull us in, for we all recognize the possibilities of the fresh start, and none of us are immune to the possibilities of what that fresh start can foster.  For Josh Hamilton and Edinson Volquez, the results have been splendid – each commanded the stage for the better part of three months, each took an extra bow in the All-Star game following their first half performances, and each has displayed some of the illuminating talents that made a trade so desirable in the first place.  On December 21, 2007, very few (if any) baseball fans could have imagined Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton could have inspired such magic.  But as long as there are five-tooled outfielders and thunder-packed pitchers, trades will imprint their own stories on the game, and Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton will be someday be overshadowed by another game-altering exchange.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com and mlb.com for information that helped with this piece.

Catching Up With an Anderson

Phillies Mike Schmidt 2234
Braves Hank Aaron 3600
Cubs Cap Anson 2995
Brewers Robin Yount 3142
Cardinals Stan Musial 3630
Pirates Roberto Clemente 3000
Dodgers Zack Wheat 2804
Giants Willie Mays 3187
Padres Tony Gwynn 3141
Red Sox Carl Yastrzemski 3419
Yankees Lou Gehrig 2721
Browns/Orioles Cal Ripken, Jr. 3184
White Sox Luke Appling 2749
Senators/Twins Sam Rice 2889
Indians Nap Lajoie 2046
Tigers Ty Cobb 3900
Royals George Brett 3154
Rangers Ivan Rodriguez 1723
Astros Craig Biggio 3060
Reds Pete Rose 3358
Mariners Edgar Martinez 2247
Mets Ed Kranepool 1418
A’s Bert Campaneris 1882
Expos/Nats Tim Wallach 1694
Blue Jays Tony Fernandez 1583
Angels Garret Anderson 2340

The list above represents the career hit leaders for 26 current franchises (I am excluding the four most recent expansion clubs – the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Marlins, and Rays).  17 of the 26 players (the first 17 on the list above) have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and two more (Craig Biggio & Ivan Rodriguez) almost certainly will join the group once they are eligible.    Of the remaining seven players (Pete Rose, Edgar Martinez, Ed Kranepool, Bert Campaneris, Tim Wallach, Tony Fernandez, & Garret Anderson), only one – Anderson – still dons the uniform of the team he represents at the top and has the daily opportunity to add to his franchise-leading mark.  

Among active players still with their first team, Garret Anderson has been with his club for longer than any other player in the American League.  On June 2, 1994, he suited up for the California Angels, batted third in the lineup, collected two singles in four at-bats, and made three putouts in left field.  Not a volcanic debut, but then again, Garret Anderson has never been tied to words or phrases so explosive in nature.  Instead, he has worked at his craft quietly, consistently, with an air of a worker bee fulfilling his duties and adding to the overall buzz attendant to a group with a singular goal and focus.  Too often, we overlook players like Garret Anderson, for our attentions, exclamations, and even our ires are reserved for the men who dance and fret their way upon the center of the stage.  Sometimes, moments magnified by circumstance and achievements brightened by context do not exist in a particular career.  In these scenarios, the essential data points – the numbers – can provide a glimpse into a career and create flesh where previously one only perceived a skeleton.  
Since 1871, 13,303 players have mustered at least one hit in the Majors.  Garret Anderson has collected more safeties than all but 122 of those players.  He once doubled 56 times in a season – only 12 times in the history of the game has a player had more.  With 15 more two-baggers, he will reach a milestone (500 doubles) only attained by 47 other players.  And finally, in Major League history, no player has ever come to bat as often (8399 plate appearances) with as few hit-by-pitches (six).  In broad strokes, these are some of the markers that have defined and provided substance to Garret Anderson’s career.  We can also dig a little deeper, and find other moments to color in the outlines provided above.  In 2003, he won the Home Run Derby, started in left field for the American League in the Midsummer Classic, and was named MVP of the game in honor of his three hits (including a home run) and two RBI in the junior circuit’s 7-6 victory.  In 1995, after hitting .321 and slugging .505, Anderson finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, losing out to Marty Cordova.  He placed fourth in MVP voting in 2002 – the year he clubbed those 56 doubles and helped lead the Angels to their first-ever pennant and World Series title.  In the third inning of Game 7 of that World Series, with the score knotted at one apiece, he laced a three-run double to right field and gave the Angels a lead they would never relinquish.  While Anderson stood at second base and evenly clapped his a hands a few times, the stoic look – the same countenance he had worn in the batter’s box before his game-changing swing – remained, and the entire baseball world was given a glimpse into the ballplayer whose dedication to his craft and ability to drive a baseball has seemingly followed one long consistent path toward a place atop numerous categories in the Angels’ offensive leaderboards.

Among the thousands of players who have suited up for a Major League game, only 18 have spent their entire careers with one team and stuck around for at least 20 years.  It appears that Anderson – now 36-years-old and in the final stages of his 15th season – will not join that group; nor does it seem likely that, as the injuries have increased and the playing time and the adeptness with the bat has diminished, he will string together enough hits to reach 3000 for his career.  But flip through an Angels’ media guide, and his presence and legacy remains undeniable.  From the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Garret Anderson has been a constant.  He started off wearing the classic home whites and road grays with “Angels” in red block lettering across the chest and a blue and red cap emblazoned with a connected ‘C’ and ‘A’, endured the pinstriped blue period featuring angel’s wings in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and was still hitting line drives when the classic, red-hued look returned just in time for the team to win the title.  Garret Anderson has played more games, scored more runs, doubled more times, driven in more runs, and been on base more often than any other player in the 48-year history of the franchise.  He joined the club when Mark Langston and Chuck Finley were the aces on a team that finished 20 games under .500; now, he stands as the patriarch on a club following the lead of pitchers like John Lackey, Joe Saunders, and Francisco Rodriguez toward the second-best record in the American League.  In terms of Angels’ baseball, Garret Anderson has seemingly seen and experienced it all – the vagaries, disappointments and exaltations connected to virtually any baseball story and life.  Through the roller-coaster ride, he has been as steady as they come – a ballplayer focused on the goal, a ballplayer even and accomplished, a ballplayer collecting knock after knock after knock until one day he stands atop the hit-list of the only franchise he has ever known.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.