(This may be a bit rambling at times, but I hope it gets its point across without sounding too overly sappy…)
I was at the SABR Seymour Medal Conference in Cleveland this weekend. Author Tom Swift was awarded the Seymour Medal for his intriguing biography which I’m looking forward to reading, Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star. The keynote speaker for the event was Joe Posnanski, writer for the Kansas City Star and, far-and-away, my favorite guy to read about baseball.
His speech was a good listen, and I’m glad I was able to be there for it. For anyone who reads Joe’s blog, the subjects of his speech were nothing new: Buck O’Neil, the Big Red Machine, and Duane Kuiper. He spoke about Buck and his unflappingly positive outlook on life; he spoke about Pete Rose and his, let’s just say, less-than-pleasant personality; and, finally, he spoke about his childhood hero, Duane Kuiper. Kuiper, he said, was hardly the best player in baseball, and that was exactly why Joe identified with him so well. People like George Brett or Mike Schmidt may have been the obvious stars of their time, but, to someone like Joe, they were more-than-men. Kuiper, on the other hand, was a merely mortal playing amongst gods. He was the proof to every kid like Joe who knew he wasn’t the next Mantle or Mays that they could still reach the majors. Kuiper was a hero precisely because he wasn’t a great player.
Joe also pointed out that it’s sometimes easy to forget that everyone in the big leagues, no matter how marginal or forgettable they might be, is a Duane Kuiper-like hero to some kid out there. Cody Ransom, Tony Pena, Jr., Joe Thurston… they probably all have their fans. It was a great observation by Joe, and it certainly made me think a little bit about how we watch and root for players today.
But what it really got me thinking about was Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown’s hero who was famous for making a spectacular play on a routine fly ball, who once hit .004 for Stumptown of the Green Grass League, and who once got fired from his managing job after calling for a squeeze play with no one on base. Obviously, Duane Kuiper wasn’t exactly Joe Shlabotnik – Kuip did play in over 1,000 games, after all – but the mentality that Joe spoke about is definitely there: if there was anyone that Charlie Brown could identify with on a personal level, it was Joe Shlabotnik.
Now, my appreciation of Charlie Brown and Peanuts in general is well established, but this is something that I somehow avoided. My childhood hero was, almost randomly, Cal Ripken, Jr., who is about as far from Duane Kuiper and Joe Shlabotnik as you can get. I was always rooting for the Kuipers of the world, though. Nothing makes me happier than to see a guy like that succeed. My question, then, is who are the Duane Kuipers/Joe Shlatbotniks of today?
When I was explaining to my terrific girlfriend why it was funny that Duane Kuiper was Joe’s favorite ballplayer, I likened him to Craig Counsell. It was a comparison that she could understand, since Counsell isn’t exactly the best player on the Brewers and doesn’t exactly have a large fanbase. But I’m not sure it’s the best comparison. Counsell does play some great defense, and that’s what keeps him on rosters.
Is it David Eckstein then? There’s no shortage of press about the “scrappy” little man who plays with so much “heart”. Is that what we’re looking for? I think I have to say “no”. Eckstein gets a little too much love from the media for that, I think.
What about Cody Ransom? He’s been in baseball for a long time now, but has only had a few brief stints in the majors. He, like Counsell, gets by on his defense, though it’s not enough. If it was, he probably would’ve survived A-Rod’s full injury, instead of getting replaced with the likes of Angel Berroa. I remember watching Ransom play in AAA in Fresno, and then get some tastes of the big leagues in San Francisco. It was pretty obvious that he wasn’t MLB material even then, so all this talk earlier this month about him was amusing to me. He might match Joe Shlabotnik’s career a little more closely than some other guys, but I still don’t think he’s the answer to our question.
How about Luis Castillo? Livan Hernandez? Mark Grudzielanek? They all have their stories, but I’m not sure any of them can ever be considered a Joe Shlabotnik or Duane Kuiper. Most of them had at least a couple of seasons where they were top-notch players, which just might disqualify them.
Right now, I think my personal Joe Shlatbotnik/Duane Kuiper is Chris Burke. I saw Burke play as a visiting player in AAA five or six years ago, and he was just fantastic, with great offense and great defense. But he was playing second-base in Houston’s farm system, behind Craig Biggio. It was a bad place to be in, and, as he reached the majors, he didn’t really have a place to play. They tried him in the outfield, but it didn’t really work out. He did hit a series-winning home run in the 18th inning of the 2005 NLDS for the Astros, though, which earned him a very long and since ovation. Since then, he’s been signed and released a few times, and is now with the Padres. He may not fit the mold exactly, but I’ve been rooting for that guy for years.
There are definitely some problems with my list, though, the least of which is that I named mostly only scrappy, white middle infielders. Hopefully others can suggest a few more relevant players to choose from.
Regardless, I hope people take the time to do what Joe Posnanski was talking about on Saturday and think about the players today who best reflect the enjoyment and hard-work of the Duane Kuipers and Joe Shlatboniks of the game. Baseball may be a child’s game played by men, but there are plenty of men out there who are working their tails off just to be on the field. When one of them can take it to the next level and get regular playing time, it seems worth acknowledging.