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redsmetz
04-27-2009, 04:57 AM
I continue to enjoy these occasional columns from Doug Glanville in the NY Times.


Expiration Date
By DOUG GLANVILLE

Next weekend, I plan to meet my former teammate and good friend Marlon Anderson here in Chicago. His family will be in town for a wedding, and it is one of those rare occasions since I stopped playing baseball when he and I will be in the same city.

But isn’t he supposed to be in uniform? Just recently, he was playing for the New York Mets.

A little more than a week ago, the potential Hall of Famer (and newly arrived New York Met) Gary Sheffield hit his 500th home run. A great feat, no doubt. One that puts him 25th all-time in home runs.

It was exciting. The Mets fans went crazy after he hit that signature missile-launched home run in their new ballpark. And it was a pinch-hit home run, tying the game and causing his teammates to spill onto the field to recognize his milestone. Splashed across the Mets Website was Sheffield’s picture with the number 500 all over the place. It was nothing but good news.

But part of what brought Sheffield to New York was a need that the Mets wanted to fill. Sheffield had, surprisingly, been released by his spring training employer, the Detroit Tigers, and within minutes a couple of teams were vying for his attention. The Phillies made a hard push, but New York earned his trust. Being just one home run shy of 500, he could imagine no better place to lock it up than in the Big Apple.

When a team makes this kind of move early in the season, it always means they have to let someone go. (The sum of players must equal 25 until September, when teams can expand their rosters to 40.) So that’s the other side of the coin: the same move that brings someone to a team usually empties the heart of another player — someone who had made the team out of spring training only to suffer an early and unexpected bump into uncertainty.

Marlon Anderson has been the quintessential utility man. He started as a second baseman and, within a few years, he’d quietly changed opinions of his defensive style from “unorthodox” to “revolutionary.” While he was my teammate on the Phillies, I watched him play the equivalent of “short right field,” robbing power-hitting lefties from hit after hit because he could rely on the ball getting to him quickly on the Veterans Stadium Astro Turf. Opposing hitters like Chipper Jones looked on in disgust many a day as Marlon jumped up to snare a line drive the right fielder was expecting to catch. What was he doing so far from the natural position of a second baseman?

Marlon’s style was different; he flicked his wrist as he threw the ball, using physics and aerodynamics to emphasize accuracy, not power. He didn’t have a rocket arm, but the ball got there just before the runner did, and that still constitutes an out.

But this style was too offbeat for some: he was sent down in 2000 after a full season in the major leagues, even after a 72-game errorless streak from 1999. Eventually, he got called back up, and all he did was hit and steal hits away from left-handed hitters as the Phillies’ second baseman.

But Marlon is home now, a 35-year-old family man — and still a cold-blooded hitter. But with the arrival of pitcher Livan Hernandez and the Mets’ aggressive desire to get Sheffield, he became expendable. It’s a story that all players will come to know, sooner or later. If you never got released from a team, you didn’t play long enough.

So Marlon got that call. The one that echoes Bull Durham’s coach saying, “This is the hardest job a manager’s got to do.” Then the manager goes into how the organization has decided to make a change. And you are that change.

Sometimes there might be a backstory that stems from the business side of the game. Marlon was months away from qualifying for a full pension. It is not unusual that the home stretch to vesting is littered with obstacles and detours. Especially when you aren’t an everyday star player.

So suddenly you’re home — or going to wedding in May, instead of getting on the plane to play the Padres. You didn’t see it coming. Or, more likely, you knew it was coming one day, just not today. But when a star like Gary Sheffield walks into the locker room, someone has to leave.

There was no front-page story on Marlon Anderson’s change in contract status (or, in his case, “designation for assignment,” a.k.a. back to the minors). There is no blown-up Internet splash page outlining his career. He’s been known as “The Iceman” coming off the bench. He could sit on the pine for days, then walk into the batter’s box against the game’s best closers and get a hit. He beat the unbeatable Padres closer Trevor Hoffman in one game in 2007 and helped get the Dodgers into the playoffs.

Most players in this game just fade away. There is no fanfare. You probably didn’t hit a game-winning home run in the World Series and announce your retirement at a press conference. One day you are employed, the next day you aren’t. Maybe the phone rings a week later offering you a Triple-A job, or a gig in Korea, but it is quite possible that you may never put on a major league uniform again. Wow.

Then you join the “Whatever Happened To” list that fans bring up at parties during the playoffs. Little do they know that you are asking yourself the same question. It was the fastest change you ever experienced in the game. The Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins said it well: “While you are playing, you are young, when you stop, you are old.”

By the time I meet Marlon for lunch this week, he may have signed a contract with a new team. I would say, even, that it is likely, given that he has become one of the game’s premier pinch hitters over the last few years. But that is his gift and his curse. Teams want him for a boost into the playoffs, but they also label him as a guy who can’t help in other areas of the game.

I am hopeful that he will have to cancel lunch.

For now, he has to wait. The phone will ring. He will have to weigh what may be an offer he can’t refuse if he wants to stay in rhythm. Maybe it’s back to the minors for the first time in almost a decade. Or maybe there’s only a dial tone, signaling the forced retirement that dawns upon unsuspecting major leaguers in denial. When your dream of “making it” in the big leagues became a reality, you enter this dreamland in full uniform, but when the alarm goes off, you wake up in street clothes.

Sheffield will probably play long enough to pass a few more names on that all-time home run list, and he’ll be recognized for everyone he leapfrogs — as he should be. But I would venture to say that during the time it takes for him to pass each legend, 10 more players are unknowingly heading home for good — or, maybe, to a wedding.

RedEye
04-27-2009, 12:46 PM
I like Glanville's column, too. Actually makes me a bit jealous that a guy who played professional baseball is also such a talented writer.

Hap
04-27-2009, 04:52 PM
Couldn't the Reds use a veteran LHPH whom could fill in at 2B and LF?

redsmetz
04-27-2009, 08:21 PM
Couldn't the Reds use a veteran LHPH whom could fill in at 2B and LF?

He's even played a little first base. Who is our back up at 1st?

Hap
04-28-2009, 05:13 PM
Who is our back up at 1st?

If can't remember if it's Rich Aurilia or Jeff Conine or Javy Valentin this year.

Big Klu
04-28-2009, 06:33 PM
Who is our back up at 1st?

I would guess that Ramon Hernandez is the backup 1B.