Do I look happy to be here? How I accepted a job that I never wanted
I had played several times at Wrigley Field, mainly as a local Chicago Cubs player, but also as a Philadelphia Phillie. In 2003, however, I returned to Chicago as a hired employee, treated July 30 by the Texas Rangers for cash and a minor league catcher – just before the MLB trade deadline.
And I wasn’t really thrilled about it.
When I was told I was traded, it was over the phone. When I went to say goodbye to the Texas clubhouse the next day, my locker was already packed. I was gone before I left. It was hard. I would miss the humor of manager Buck Showalter. I would miss teammates like Michael Young, Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez. I would miss our crazy team meetings. I would miss my fan club program – the Good Grades Club, where students mailed me their report cards for an autographed photo or other awards, a brilliant idea from the Rangers marketing team. Now the mail would stop.
Worst of all, I was 32, recovering from a hamstring tendon tear, and after hobbling for a month in minor league rehab, I was finally back on track. No one was able to get me out of the AHL in July: I posted an OPS of .925 that month, and despite a dismal season for Texas (we were in last place when I was traded) , I prepared to become a viable stand-alone candidate and a new starter again. I didn’t want this race to end on someone else’s conditions. But he did.
This week, many players will have these kinds of feelings and more. Lost, revitalized, the new kid, the old vet, kicked out of work, last to first, newbie to bench guy, all in one simple transaction – with no guarantees as to the end of the story.
One of the first things I did after returning to Chicago was a photoshoot with other swapped Cubs. Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez joined me on the cover of the Cubs’ monthly Vine Line Magazine. This picture is worth a thousand words, my feelings of disillusionment in full screen. I hadn’t cut my hair since the year before and couldn’t stop thinking about how I got traded from where I played everyday to where I would be best a platoon player. Sure, the playoffs are the goal – especially after a career, at this point, offseason without champagne – but I also needed a job to think about October. Getting 50 at-bat in two months might not be enough to build a roster.
At least they or they seemed happy to have me. On my first day as a new Cub, Manager Dusty Baker greeted me and expressed his enthusiasm for joining the team. The man matched the legend, barrel-chested and towering, but looked you in the eye with warmth and understanding. I immediately heard about the chew sticks and green tea he kept nearby in the canoe, the health drink he relied on to recover from prostate cancer. He didn’t promise me a titular role, but he knew what I could do – after all, I had played his Giants many times.
I had only heard that Baker was this amazing player manager, but I had an emotional iron wall around me, and it was hard for me to figure it out. He didn’t know about my long journey with the Cubs. ‘minor leagues to get to Chicago. My war with my Triple-A manager, watching outfielder fight me to reach the big leagues or how I lost my dad on the last day of the 2002 season. Even though I had been away from Chicago a long time ago. when this trade declined, I had the baggage of having been traded before. That hard lesson about not having control over my future, feeling like I was property even though the other party thought they were getting a gift.
I learned that Lofton was our center fielder and that I would play against lefties and come in to pinch a hit or pinch to run, maybe play defense late in the game. After starting my whole career, it was an ego test, and because I never felt I was lucky enough to be the starting center fielder in Chicago, it was worse. First, the Cubs didn’t bet on me to be a starting center fielder and traded me, then when I became a starter elsewhere they traded to get me back just to get me back on. the bench. It was like a cruel joke. But then I looked around the clubhouse and saw a lot of players in the same boat. Tony Womack, Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Tom Goodwin. We had all been newbies, and Baker had his hands full to convince all of us that we shouldn’t be starting now. To his credit, Baker was a magician with people.
Real life also had to be managed. I had to close an apartment in Texas, full lease. I had to ship my car to Chicago, full of everything I couldn’t carry in my suitcase, then fly to Dallas to meet the shipping company on a day off when the Cubs were playing against the Astros in Houston. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if I had had a family back then.
Joining Chicago also meant coming home after graduating from college. So much had changed. I didn’t know a lot of players; the staff were different. It was a new culture – I arrived in 1996 with the Cubs with Jim Riggleman as my manager, someone I respected and got along with. Positive, balanced, principled. We haven’t had much success over the past year and a half, but he took the time to always tell me where I was, pulling me aside to let me know, “Someday you’ll be a player.” from center field starting – somewhere. Baker brought a smashmouth style, dripping with confidence, a master of psychological warfare. For these two relays, I played at the same address, but it was far from being at the same place.
I finally found my advantage working with all the veteran Cubs players in a pennant race. Even though the Cubs were at .500 when I arrived, we weren’t far: two weeks later we were in first place. It was my first real understanding that a big part of a manager’s job is to filter out the negativity that can come from a whole bunch of players who think they should have a different role. I was surprised to find myself one of these guys.
It became essential to watch how Dusty ran his ship. Baker was truly the “Godfather of Baseball” and he spoke to you frankly. Months later I would get the winning shot in NLCS Game 3 and publicly remind people that I could hit a right handed pitcher as a right handed hitter – I pinch against a right handed in this game. Dusty ushered me into his office after hearing that post-game interview and insisted, “I to know you can hit the righties. I understood the message, but he spoke the truth and it allowed me to speak mine. I enjoyed this.
The days and weeks after my trade have been a crash course on integration, something that can be more difficult for a determined veteran. I had to give up the guarantees that put me in line every day and assured me of having a job the following year and entering the realm of the unknown. Not knowing when I would go into the game or if we would make the playoffs. I’ve seen the worst-case scenario: not making the playoffs and not finding a job in free agency. Was it worth it?
In my case, it was because I would get the only playoff experience of my MLB career. Looking back, despite the fact that it probably hurt me to be considered a starter, I gained something that turned out to be worth my status change. A division title and a taste of a series of championships.
This week, many players are facing the change. Even the biggest names – be it a trio of champions in Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, all now ex-Cubs, unsigned and uncertain in a new environment as they continue the playoffs playoffs, or Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, in greener pastures than possible three-month rentals. As good as they are, they are still one injury away from altering their contract opportunities during the offseason. They have been installed in their respective cities and fan bases. Families, kids, school enrollment in September, loss of stability – these are no small things, even for players at the top of the baseball food chain.
Then imagine the young hopefuls or the mate vying for playing time, fired for those familiar names. Little power, little choice, except to seize the opportunity and make a new home elsewhere. But a new house can be built and championships can be won.
As I once learned, sometimes you have to accept the risk. For players traded last week, it starts now.