Ever hear of Sam Malone? Chances are the name means nothing to you unless you’re a fan of the once popular TV series Cheers and its star – a fictitious former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox played by Ted Danson. There’s a better chance that you recall the theme song from the show: “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”.
It was a twist of that tag line that John Feinstein took as the title for his new book on baseball, “Where Nobody Knows Your Name”. Feinstein has made his name in sportswriting principally through golf, and it would be safe to say that most fans in attendance at spring training games with me at Bright House don’t associate him with baseball writing. His latest book won’t make his name a household one among baseball fans.
My intent here is not to pan Feinstein’s writing style, with its excessive repetition of story lines and themes. It is to share a few insights about the drama of baseball that unfolds each spring training. Among the handful of player that Feinstein follows, two were spring training invitees to Clearwater in 2012. One was Scott Podsednik, and while we get a good glimpse at their psyche from the interviews that Feinstein conducted, there is some crucial information missing. Feinstein gives short shrift to the battle that Podsednik and Juan Pierre were having to make the ball club as a bench player.
Often injured, Podsednik did not play in the majors in 2011. The blog that David Murphy wrote at the time during the spring of 2012 was much more insightful as to the nature of why the Phillies took Juan Pierre over Podsednik for the final bench spot. The fact is that the Phillies made the right choice that year, as Pierre had the better statistical year for them as compared to Podsednik who would up playing sparingly for the Red Sox after they purchased his contract from the Phils.
Another former major leaguer invited by the Phillies to Clearwater that year was the at-one-time Houston Astros hot prospect Scott Elarton, a 6’7″ pitcher who much like anyone his age as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training has a history of injury, inconsistency, and failed expectations.
Once again, Feinstein doesn’t tell us much more about Elarton than we would have known by going back to the reports filed by beat reporters in March, 2012. Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer told the story at the time about how a chance meeting between Elarton and Phillies GM Ruben Amaro turned into Amaro inviting Elarton to pitch. What Feinstein could and should have elaborated on was how it came to be that Amaro made the contract offer to Elarton on relatively whimsical grounds. In writing a human interest story about Elarton, it would also be helpful to fill in the gaps, such as why he mysteriously left his last major league gig for personal reasons.
Part of the drama of Spring Training is the opportunity for players to have one last shot at making a major league club. To be sure, unanticipated injuries usually provide opportunity for players to make it back to the big leagues. Yet as happened with Podsednik, the probability is that they will likely injure themselves in the process, thereby providing the major league club with another level of uncertainty. The Phillies are repeating that scenario this Spring with a former major leaguer who sat out the preceding year. It is their former 2005 All-Star Home Run Derby winner, Bobby Abreu.
Because baseball has only a finite number of players in each organization, and many who will toil in obscurity without every making a name to lose such as Podsednik and Elarton, it is interesting to see how the descent of Bobby Abreu’s last chance to resurrect his career intersects with two other players currently in Spring Training with the Phillies. Wikipedia tells the tale on this one.
During the 2011–2012 offseason, the Yankees proposed a trade to the Angels that would have sent A.J. Burnett to Anaheim for Abreu. Abreu would have returned to the Yankees as their designated hitter, but Burnett vetoed the trade. As we learned this past offseason, being on the East Coast and within driving distance to his family in Baltimore means a great deal to Burnett. So on February 20, 2012, Burnett was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez to be their DH. Abreu was already annoyed that he wouldn’t be playing every day for the Angels, and when he learned what Burnett had done ordered Angels’ management to either play him every day as the designated hitter or trade him. Another proposed trade, which would have sent Abreu to the Indians for one-time Phils’ prospect Lou Marson fell through. Burnett, Marson, and Abreu are all in camp with the Phillies, Burnett guaranteed a prominent role on the team this year while Marson and Abreu desperately try to hold on to their careers.
Incidentally, as reported in the Los Angeles Times on April 27, 2o12, the Angels were disappointed with a walk-off loss to the Cleveland Indians the night before and decided to cut bait with Bobby Abreu and swallow his 9 million dollar contract. They were determined to inject some energy into the lineup and felt it was a good risk to call up a young kid by the name of Mike Trout to take Abreu’s roster spot. Pretty good decision, you might say.