Sunday, September 25, 2011
You don't have to be a star to be a hero
By Doug Glanville
This is a time of year when the stage is set for the heroes of the game. Many of those players are in the running to be crowned MVP. They could rise to the occasion and have that big week to propel their team into the playoffs, such as when Troy Tulowitzki carried the 2009 Rockies into the playoffs, or it could come down to a single moment, such as a Magglio Ordonez's walk-off home run that put the Tigers in the 2006 World Series.
We assume it will be the work of the "sung" heroes. Their theme music was playing in spring training, we already knew their dance moves, and when their teams seemed down and out, they would be the game-changers to complete the soundtrack for all to hear.
They are also the likely heroes. A betting man would bet the farm that when history is written, these names will be firmly inscribed in the book. Game-winning home run: Ryan Braun. Playoff no-hitter: Roy Halladay. Shut the door again: Mariano Rivera. Hit .350 with four homers in a Division Series: Josh Hamilton.
But the reality of any team is that every single player on that roster can and will win a big game. And a lot of those names may not belong to the player on the highway billboard near the stadium.
I always found the term "unlikely hero" to be a slap in someone's face. What makes him unlikely? That his name wasn't marquee enough? His salary? That he hit only .225 during the regular season? But dig deeper into any of these teams' rosters and you will find them chock full of clutch performers. Somewhere in their journey to that moment, they were someone you could count on. It may have been in the big leagues, in Class A, in the College World Series, or in a Babe Ruth summer league, but everyone on that roster has carried a team on his back at a critical time.
Even statistically, we have seen the emergence of metrics like wins above replacement (WAR). Sure, we understand that Justin Verlander (7.0 more wins than his replacement would generate) is virtually irreplaceable for the Tigers, but we miss out on the fact that the loss of Miguel Montero (4.4), Brett Gardner (4.9) and Madison Bumgarner (5.3 -- which is better than that of Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels) would also be a devastating blow to their teams. (Keep in mind that four or five more wins to the Rays or Cardinals would change their seasons.) Even if their replacement is better for some reason (a negative WAR), just from being in that everyday lineup, there will be a moment or two when he will be irreplaceable. I don't care what the numbers say.
I think back to one of the Cubs' minor league coordinators, Rick Patterson. He was notorious for being able to make himself madder and madder the more he spoke in a locker room. At one point he was fired up about how players were obsessed with where they hit in the lineup, so he said, "I don't care where you hit in the lineup or even if you are in that lineup. Every single person in this room will carry the team at one point or another during the season!"
So we sit here wondering today if the Cardinals will catch the Braves or if the Angels or Rays can run down the Red Sox. And it is very possible. So right away, just like any TV ad that is hyping up a big series, we expect to see Albert Pujols posing with his signature swing or maybe Evan Longoria jumping out of a helicopter during a commercial break or a rerun of Jered Weaver cursing out the Tigers. Those names make these games must-watch because it is easy to imagine that those players will be in the middle of the action during the final games of the season.
But we also have to note that Angels shortstop Erick Aybar has hit close to .400 in September and a Rays call-up, left-hander Matt Moore, has 15 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. Two big reasons these teams even have a chance.
This is nothing new. Tom Lawless came up big for the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series. Marty Bystrom was lights out as a late-season call up for the '80 Phillies. Scott Brosius hit big home run after big home run during the Yankees' World Series runs in the late '90s and early 2000s. And before he was "Nails," Lenny Dykstra hit a series-changing walk-off home run to allow the Mets to beat the Astros in the NLCS. And I remember every single time I played against Mike Mordecai, he buried my team. Those are guys you would not have on your fantasy team, I am sure.
In 2003, when I played with Alex Rodriguez in Texas, there was a period in July when he was an automatic out. He struggled day in and day out. Meanwhile, a virtual unknown, Michael Young, was carrying us. I even had my run, hitting close to .400 that month for the Rangers. That is baseball: The best on the planet are bad many different times during a year, and yes, that time may just come at the end of the season. And the same guy you are yelling at when his average shows .195 on the scoreboard may just rattle off a week that changes his team's season.
So if you are about to say that someone is an "unlikely" hero, take a second to think about it. Given his history and his number of opportunities, he could be the type who makes the most of a situation, such as the Phillies' Matt Stairs in the 2008 NLCS against the Dodgers. One swing put his team on its path to a championship.
There is nothing unlikely about being on a major league roster. It is not a favor, it is not charity, it is not because of the constant lobbying by your friends on Facebook
at least not in 2011. You have to have been productive at some point and the team had a need that you filled. When all is said and done, everyone on the field knows that it only takes one swing, one catch or one pitch to be a hero, and that moment is reserved for no one.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter:
When all is said and done, everyone on the field knows that it only takes one swing, one catch, or one pitch to be a hero, and that moment is reserved for no one.