There's not an unlikelier story amid the yearly All-Star Game hoopla in Arizona this week, and while the mainstream media seem more interested in who isn't at the Midsummer Classic, we're thrilled by the story of one guy who is. Whether he pitches in the game or not, the incredible story of 33-year-old Ryan Vogelsong-- from blue-chip prospect to trade bait to damaged goods to has-been to never-was to -- whoa, waitaminute-- the unlikeliest of aces on what's supposed to be baseball's best pitching staff-- is and ought to be the story of the moment, because it's 'way too corny for Hollywood yet it's all true.
For Giants fans over the past decade, if we even thought of Vogelsong at all, it was as the indirect butt of some sort of joke: he was the guy Brian Sabean used to flim-flam the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates into giving us Jason Schmidt. At the time the trade was made in 2001 (yes, that's right, ten years ago) it looked like the standard midseason swap. The Giants gave up promising youth (top pitching prospect Vogelsong and young outfielder Armando Rios) to gamble on a up-and-down righty (Schmidt) with a history of both arm trouble and dominating performances, plus rent-an-outfielder veteran John Vander Wal. On one level, the trade didn't work; though Schmidt was good in '01, the Giants finished two games behind Arizona in the race. But over the next three seasons Jason Schmidt established himself as one of the best right-handers in baseball, and he probably should have won the 2004 Cy Young Award (Eric Gagne, indeed). All told, Schmidt was the Giants' rotation anchor for five and a half years, while Vogelsong-- well, Vogelsong essentially fell off the edge of the world. Over the same span he won exactly ten games for the Buccos, and was summarily released and out of O.B. while Schmidt was still winning games for the Giants. The story was that Sabean had known all along Vogelsong was susceptible to the arm problems that derailed his career, and had essentially swindled the Pirates by trading them "damaged goods." That's baseball for ya, reducing a man's career to a not-very-funny punchline.
Vogelsong, now 33, was a non-roster invitee to spring training this year after playing in Japan for awhile; maybe somebody saw something, or maybe somebody had a soft spot. Seeing his name on the NRI list in March, we offered the tepid hope that perhaps, if unnaturally lucky, he'd catch on as a long reliever and maybe find a way to contribute as the year went by.
Well, a 2.17 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 6-1 mark-- a few of those wins have stopped potential losing streaks-- ranks as a contribution, don't'cha think? And, okay, perhaps if the NL All-Star manager had been someone other than Bruce Bochy, Vogelsong's modest 91 innings in 16 starts might have been entirely overlooked. But when you look at where he was, and then look at where he is-- awwww, c'mon folks, is there a more compelling baseball story anywhere right now?
Admittedly, the past week has not been one of baseball's more enjoyable interludes. The heartbreakingly sad incident in Texas upset us so much we actually shut the TV off during SportsCenter and simply sat there in the dark for a long, long time. Even the kind, thoughtful remarks from class act Josh Hamilton seemed, at the time, wholly inadequate and even insipid, though it's hardly his fault. Prayer helped, but not much at first. Time has helped, a little. Tonight helps a little more (especially considering the NL just went up, 3-1, on a monster shot by Prince Fielder). But what will happen the next time a player tosses a ball toward the upper deck, or even an elevated deck? Should the souvenir tosses be limited to the ground level only?
How many times have we been to a game where, between innings, promotional items were fired out of air cannons into the upper deck? How many guys have leaned 'way, 'way over that rail trying to snag a foul ball? According to USA Today, just this weekend another man in another stadium lost his balance in a similar situation, but was pulled back to safety by his companions.
That dear six-year-old boy had no chance to pull his dad back, and this seems a good time to take a short break and do a little editing. Or something. Sorry about that, folks.
Well, the absence of Derek Jeter and a handful of other players who seem to prefer resting their weary bodies to playing in the All-Star Game has energized the Usual Suspects in the media, who always seem eager to point out how today's wimpy players just don't measure up to the mighty, mighty men who used to play this game, dagnabbit. A beloved, crusty old veteran (Willie Mays, this time) opines that the modern player seems to have confused the honor of being selected for the All-Star Game with the onus of being selected for jury duty. Willie, it ought to be remembered, was among those who for several years played in two All-Star Games each season. (By the way, "handful" seems about right; those who are physically able but not playing in the game total five players out of 80-some so honored.)
There's a new rule, adopted at the behest of the players' union we presume, which forbids last Sunday's starting pitchers from appearing in the 'Game on one day's rest. This year the ineligible list included our own Matt Cain (and what a great game he pitched Sunday, hah?) plus CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander, marquee names all. How often in the future is that likely to happen?
Another development is the exaggerated perceived cost of losing a player to injury in the game. With eight teams now eligible for playoff berths, the relative cost of losing has gone 'way, 'way up. Managers and GMs, and inevitably players as well, start thinking like insurance men in these situations, and risk avoidance becomes paramount. A manager might well think, "If I run Carlos and his gimpy knee out there in an exhibition game and he gets hurt and is lost for the season, we're toast and they're gonna blame me!" And that kind of thinking can certainly extend to career-minded players as well. Remember, until 1969 only two teams out of sixteen (and later twenty) made the postseason; that is, the World Series. For all but a handful of All-Stars back then, the midsummer classic was it for high-profile games.
Back in "the day", as they say, the reserve clause was binding from year to year and interleague trades were severely restricted. The vast majority of players, even if they didn't stay with one team their whole career, almost always stayed within the same league their whole career. A fine rivalry sprang up between the two leagues, occasionally spilling over into open distaste, and the players loved putting it over on "those other guys" during the All-Star Game. Nowadays, a player might be playing in the NL this week and in the AL the next; it's hard to keep a healthy rivalry going under those conditions. No wonder Bud Selig came up with the "home-field advantage" carrot for the All-Star winners. (Not that it's necessarily a bad thing, mind you; we seem to remember it worked out just fine for a certain team of which we're fond, last October.)
And so, as the NL works to hold its 4-1 lead for two more innings (c'mon Boch, get Wilson up!) we will leave you with one last Vogelsong-related anecdote: in this, the same year Ryan Vogelsong has found his redemption, the sad-sack Pittsburgh Pirates, the team to which he was exiled, the team we regarded as the butt of the joke, the team that has finished with a losing record for 19 straight seasons-- yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a winning record at the All-Star break and are only a few games out of first place.