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September 15, 2011
Ghosts of MVPs Past
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Adam Sobsey has been the Durham Bulls beat writer for the Independent Weekly since 2009. He has also won numerous awards as a playwright, and his work has been staged in New York, California, Austin and North Carolina. His most recent play, WESTERN MEN, or OPPOSITE TO HUMANITY, was a comparative intertextual weaving of Shakespeare's TIMON OF ATHENS with the lifelong friendship between the poet Ezra Pound and the painter/author Wyndham Lewis, commissioned and premiered by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern at the Nasher Museum of Art in October 2010. As a journalist, he has won the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Award for Arts Criticism, and two North Carolina Press Association Awards. In 2012, Adam will collaborate with writer Sam Stephenson, creator of the Jazz Loft Project, on a season-long documentary project about the Durham Bulls.
The last home date of the regular season was the biggest one of the year for the Durham Bulls. That morning, August 30, Bulls outfielder Russ Canzler was named MVP of the International League, and league President Randy Mobley flew into town for a rare suit-and-tie lunchtime press conference to announce that Durham Bulls Athletic Park would host the 2012 Triple-A National Championship game.
After the fourth inning of that night’s game, Mobley took the field and repeated that announcement to the 9,000 fans in attendance. They roared with glee, and they roared again in the bottom of the eighth inning when Canzler’s two-out, tie-breaking single drove in the winning run against division rival Gwinnett. The 4-3 triumph virtually assured that the Bulls would capture their fifth straight South Division title under manager Charlie Montoyo. (They clinched three days later.)
After the game, Randy Mobley came back out onto the field, this second appearance impromptu. Canzler, still sweating from the effort of making a fine running catch of a long foul to left in the top of the ninth inning, was summoned to the area behind home plate. Mobley presented him with his MVP trophy and then further bestowed upon him the symbolic bat that goes to the MVP of the Triple-A All-Star game (Canzler had won that in July after his three-run homer was the game-decider) and also the 2011 Media Good Guy plaque that we sportswriters had voted, unanimously, to give Canzler several days earlier.
Canzler stood near home plate laden with his unexpected armload of goodies, beaming but rather dazed and also a bit sheepish, like a guy who has gone to the store just to grab a a six-pack but wound up also splurging on a few bags of snacks, a couple of microwave dinners, half a gallon of OJ, and come to think of it some toilet paper—and now he stands, big guns awkwardly loaded with these things, grinning at the cute cashier in the Express Lane, thinking to himself (rather innocently, somehow) that he might like to walk her home, too. And why not? He had all of the other prizes. He could be forgiven for thinking he might be able to land a few more.
The big windfall for Canzler, of course, would be a major-league career. The Tampa Bay Rays just added him to their 40-man roster and promoted him on Sunday, right after Durham was eliminated from the International League playoffs. It was Canzler’s first taste of the major leagues, one he earned with his MVP season.
Canzler, who happens to hail from Rays manager Joe Maddon’s hometown of Hazelton, Pennsylvnia (he played his high school home games at Joe Maddon Field), had been in the Chicago Cubs organization from 2004-2010. He had a breakout season in 2010 for the Cubs’ Class Double-A affiliate in Tennessee, putting up a 938 OPS. The Cubs, however, didn’t do much to try to resign him when he became a six-year free agent.
The Rays snatched him up, but in truth Canzler rated only around fifth among former Cubs prospects coming to the Tampa Bay farm system in 2011. The Matt Garza trade had netted Andrew Friedman & Co. pitcher Chris Archer, outfielders Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer (who finished third in the International League in OPS this season), catcher Robinson Chirinos, and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee. Canzler was about to turn 25 and had played only one season of his six in the minors above Class A.
The Press Box at the DBAP is up the first base line, so I usually sit in the row of seats right behind home plate where industry folk park themselves. In mid-August, in the eighth inning of the last of a four-game series in which Canzler walloped baseballs around the ballpark (he has good opposite-field power), he crushed a ball to left field that would have been a home run anywhere in America except the DBAP and Fenway: the DBAP has a 30-foot wall called “The Blue Monster,” and Canzler’s drive hit way up high with a resounding boom before caroming directly to the left fielder. He had to settle for a Blue-Monstrous single.
A departing scout spat his plug of tobacco into a cup, turned to me, and asked—almost complained—“Can he play defense at all?”
Not really, I told him, adding that Canzler had begun the year at the infield corners, but by late May the Rays had moved his kryptonite glove to the outfield, farther from the heavy firing. The scout, who had been at the ballpark for three straight games, shook his head slowly and replied, “Some loud sounds coming off his bat this week.”
That sort of line is what I have come to recognize as scout-talk. Loud sounds. Or: The Good Face, as Michael Lewis’s just-back-in-the-news Moneyball puts it. Canzler seems like a ballplayer. He is big, strong, and fit—a healthy eater who kept a big box of nutrition bars in his DBAP locker all season—and he has that classically chiseled jaw and handsome face that traditional scouts love. His swing is handsome, too, and it makes loud sounds. Not only that, Canzler made those swings when it counted in 2011: with runners on base and two outs, he hit .368 with an absurd 1128 OPS.
So, Tampa Bay… or… bust? Canzler’s glove aside, there are other doubts about his big-league prospects. A quick glance, for example, at the list of previous IL MVP winners is not exactly encouraging; the award is no more a stepping stone to major-league stardom than the Vice Presidency is to the Oval Office. Over the last 30-plus years, only about a quarter of IL MVPs have gone on to have what you’d call very good major-league careers, and many were plain failures (oddly, two winners, Gary Allenson and Tim Teufel, are now International League managers—Allenson provided the comedy for what was certainly the game of the year in Durham). For every Jim Thome (1993) and former Durham Bull Brett Butler (1981), there are huge helpings of Dan Pasquas (1985), Raul Gonzalezes (2002), and Roberto Petagines (1997 and 1998). A fair number of the washouts were, like Canzler, power-hitting corner infielders or immobile outfielders who couldn’t field much.
And there are questions about Canzler’s plate discipline. His 2011 strikeout rate was rather high (23.5%), although to be fair so was his walk rate (12.2%), and in any case the strikeouts are acceptable when served alongside a .530 SLG and .215 ISO (Canzler did have the league’s second-highest BABIP, .396).
But it isn’t the raw data that is worrisome—at least, not to a beat reporter who develops a kind of anecdotal closeness to the players over the course of a season. I can’t count the number of times I watched Canzler mismanage his at-bats: he would guess wrong early in the count, fall into a hole, never get the pitch he was looking for, and strike out. Indeed, just two nights before his MVP selection and his game-winning hit led to his award-shopping spree at home plate next to Randy Mobley, Canzler had a representative sort of night against Charlotte: he struck out in his last two at-bats, but in totally different ways.
In the first of them, he swung at three straight pitches—a fastball, cutter, and change, in order, if memory serves—from journeyman left-hander Doug Davis. In the second, against reliever Gregory Infante, he saw five pitches, didn't swing at a single one of them, and was called out looking. So it’s not the number of strikeouts; it’s the inconsistency in how they happen, as if Canzler hasn’t been able to master walking the walk on what he called, earlier this year, the "fine line between aggressiveness and selectiveness.”
In fact, before his game-winning single beat Gwinnett on August 30, Canzler had whiffed in all three of his at-bats, and he had the modesty and good humor to crack a joke about it afterward in the locker room. In addition to his loud sounds and his Good Face, Canzler also has the public polish of a practiced professional athlete when it comes to his interactions with fans, the community, and the media—it’s a bit of a surprise, given that Canzler is a former 30th-round draft pick who probably didn’t spend much time in the limelight before 2011.
Yet he stepped into it with great aplomb this year, another reason he seems destined to be a big-leaguer. Canzler was the lone Bull to attend the dress-up Triple-A Championship game announcement at noon, an hour when many ballplayers are still sound asleep; it was Canzler who did outreach events with the City of Durham’s Police Department this season and starred comfortably in videos of those events; and it was Canzler to whom a reporter could always go for a quote, especially the kind of quote reporters tend to like—near-clichés that aren’t quite clichés, calm and positive-minded and articulate thoughts: soft sounds to balance his bat’s loud ones. Canzler was, from day one, cordial and accessible. He projected not only the Good Face but also the Good Heart.
And I confess I have an affinity for him. For one thing, we share a birthday. More substantially, Canzler and I both came to Triple-A baseball in Durham more or less out of nowhere, as virtual afterthoughts: he from the forgettable Cubs, I from the outback of playwriting. On arrival here, we both began to produce extravagantly as late bloomers. My game stories routinely run over 3,000 words and take in everything from UZR to Aristotle, Gary Allenson’s tantrums to Hurricane Irene. Yet for as hard as Canzler and I worked at our respective jobs, and as good-natured as we try to be in a cutthroat milieu that is full of bad dudes and attitudes, I’m still not sure if our skill-sets are transferable to the majors.
Compare Canzler to Desmond Jennings, for example. Jennings was healthy this year for the first time since 2009, showed the full range of his potential, but often appeared to be giving less effort on the field than Canzler did. His OPS was 100 points lower than Canzler’s when Jennings was called up to the majors in mid-July—whereupon he took the American League by storm, an instant impact player. I realized belatedly that Jennings had merely been bored in Durham. You couldn’t have said that of the hard-working Canzler (or me) this season.
After Canzler won the crucial Gwinnett game with his eighth-inning single and collected his trio of awards from Randy Mobley, the media went to the clubhouse, dispensed quickly with our customary leadoff interview with Bulls manager Montoyo, and then made a beeline for Canzler. No wonder: the newly-crowned MVP had just had the game-winning clutch hit, and we reporters had just given him our own award for being so good at what we were now going to ask him to do, again, which was talk to us.
Yet I found myself hanging back, standing apart from the gathering around Campfire Canzler, watching the scene. For one thing, I had already spoken with Canzler at the Triple-A Championship Game luncheon earlier that day; for another, I already had a lot I needed to write about that night, plus a rare road trip awaiting me the following day, to Charlotte, where I would watch the Bulls try to clinch the division. And I could have predicted the sorts of things Canzler would say anyhow, fulfilling the unwritten contract between athletes and sportswriters.
What I saw from my post near the showers turned out to yield the season’s most memorable image. There was Canzler, the man of the hour, surrounded by reporters and their voice recorders, affably and generously giving the media his time.
About a dozen feet away from Canzler, sitting at his locker, was Dan Johnson, gazing levelly at the same scene. Johnson was the International League MVP of 2010, producing numbers far better than Canzler’s. He earned an early-August call-up last season and then a $1 million major-league contract with the Rays in 2011. The first base job was his to win this spring, but he got off to a catastrophically bad start (thanks partially, he believed, to a wrist injury he sustained when he was hit by a pitch in April) and lost the job to surprise success Casey Kotchman. In May, Johnson was designated for assignment and then sent to Durham.
Johnson has been, for two seasons, much the opposite of Canzler in many ways. He isn’t so big and brawny, he doesn’t have the Good Face; in direct contrast to Canzler’s optimistic yet controlled equability, Johnson was at times overly voluble, especially when he was hitting well, and at others taciturn and moody. Asked in July 2010 whether he was frustrated that he hadn’t been called up to Tampa Bay despite his gaudy numbers and a $500,000 major-league deal, Johnson did not give the party-line answer you’d expect (just trying to keep my head down… ready to help the team whenever they need me… etc.). Instead, Johnson shot back: "Of course I'm frustrated. I didn't sign a big-league contract to spend a year in the minor leagues." Earlier that year, I had asked him questions about his 2009 season in Japan, where he was paid a career-high $1.2 million by the Yokohama Bay Stars. Why did he go there? "Money." What did he think of it? "It was terrible. I didn't like it at all." Why? "I felt completely cheated” by what he deemed a wide, biased, anti-American strike zone. “They made it as unfair as possible," Johnson said. (Johnson’s teammate Justin Ruggiano once half-jestingly called him, on the record, a “Negative Nancy.”)
Johnson was thus a great guy to interview, but in a wholly different way from Canzler: he told you the truth, unvarnished and emotional, and essentially dared you to handle it. Had the environment in the locker room not been so potentially sensitive—last year’s MVP, demoted back down to Durham, watching this year’s MVP get showered with attention—I would have loved to ask Johnson for his thoughts. I can’t help but imagine that, circumstantial jealousy aside, he was thinking that for most ballplayers the promise of the major leagues is so much better than its reality, and that Russ Canzler’s life would never get better, his star never brighter, than it was at precisely that moment.
Johnson might also have added, if he was going to tell the whole truth, that he, too, deserved an interview: he’d lined two singles that night and would have gotten credit for driving in three of the Bulls’ four runs had it not been for an error. He just missed a home run in the sixth inning, and he drew an important intentional walk to help set up Canzler’s game-winning hit in the eighth. Johnson finished the season with an 842 OPS, 12 points higher than Desmond Jennings’s in virtually the same number of Triple-A plate appearances. He had earned a chance to square up on a voice recorder and take it deep.
Instead, he sat there, staring at his teammate who would, a fortnight later, be called up to the major leagues.
And then, the day before yesterday, the Rays called up Dan Johnson, too.