January 11, 2012
The Love Song of T.S. Elliot Johnson (A Utilityman Ballad)
… The key play was Elliot Johnson's failed bunt attempt in the second inning. With two on and one out, the Rays gave Johnson - who had two hits and 13 strikeouts in his previous 28 at-bats - a sign to bunt for a hit.
But Johnson, who later said he was somewhat uncomfortable with the assignment, popped it up, and the inning died soon after when Jennings struck out.
"I really believe had Elliot been able to just put that on the ground he had a pretty good chance of beating it out," Maddon said. "That was a pretty big play, popping that up. Otherwise we didn't have a whole lot of chances.”
–Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times, August 17, 2011
Sometimes… what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself.
-- Roger Angell, “Gone for Good,” The New Yorker, June 23, 1975
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like Kyle Farnsworth lying upon the trainer’s table
(well, actually, there is no sky at the Trop:
The dome’s sprawled like a housepainter’s soiled drop-
Cloth over the floor of the Floridian night—
But here’s no great matter);
Let us go, past certain half-deserted seats,
Where the only sound is Tweets
From restless fans about another Rays defeat,
And cleats crunching the shells of sunflower seeds:
Seeds spat in the dugout like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “Who is that?”
Let us go and take our at-bat.
In the Winter Meetings, GMs come and go
Talking of F. P. Santangelo.
The Papelbon that glowers and mutters on the pitcher’s mound,
The Papelbon that rubs its hands over the baseball
Spat his wad into the corners of the infield,
Lingered over the rubber stained with dirt,
Let fall upon his nose a bead of sweat that falls from his forehead,
Leaned in for the sign, made a sudden scowl,
And seeing that it was what he aimed to throw,
Nodded once, unblinking as an owl.
And indeed there will be time
For the Papelbon that stares down from the mound,
Scowling and muttering, gripping the baseball;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare to square and bunt the fastball that you meet;
There will be time to sacrifice and advance,
And time for the ball to shoot from the Papelbon’s hand
And to lift and drop my bat down over the plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a pitch or three.
In the Trop, a few fans shout “Let’s go!”
(Do they think I’m Ryan Theriot?)
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I square?”
Time to turn back toward the dugout, stare
At Longo, Price and Zobrist sitting there,
And Maddon (what’s he done now to his hair?
My, how his patience is wearing thin!),
My value rich but modest, asserted by sheer utility
(They will say, “But how we need a guy like he!”).
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and derisions which a good bunt will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my baseball life with iTunes
That, earbuds in, in buses, motel rooms,
Have kept me company in Triple-A
(My family, and the majors, far away).
I know the snoring: rising, then a dying fall,
At four A.M., my roommate sawing away—
And me, trying to rest so I can play!
So how should I presume?
(There once was a game in Pawtucket…
Well, never mind…)
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase:
“But isn’t he the King of Dirty Plays?
Spring Training, 2008, fire in his belly,
The day before his twenty-fourth birthday,
He barreled into Francisco Cervelli
And fractured the Yankee catching prospect’s wrist?”
I remember Shelley Duncan, loudly yelling,
And thinking, “You, too, Shelley, would do this.”
Fringe prospects must do something to separate us
From the bodies in the Spring Training procession:
That was my way of making an impression—
I’m sorry it was on Cervelli’s radius!
That is not what I meant, at all;
That was not it, at all.
And I have known the years already, known them all—
Four seasons toiling down in Durham, where
I played so long, I bought a house down there.
Was it my 2010 OPS
(.851) that finally impressed—
Till finally, in ‘11, I got the call?
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow clubhouses
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of power hitters in shirt-sleeves, chugging all those beers?
I should have been a pair of batting gloves
Swaddling the wrists of David Eckstein.
And the fans at Tropicana Field sleep so peacefully!
I recall the time in Durham I broke my thumb:
A freak play in ’09; I missed two months,
Marring my season disgracefully.
In ’10, I strained my quadriceps (again!);
My teammates say my leg lifts are excessive,
But without them my physique’s not as impressive
As the muscle-bound and blue-chip specimens
Stretching on the field like well-fed lions
Showing off in zoos for their admirers.
So should I, after workouts, wraps and ices
Have the strength to face this late, ninth-inning crisis?
(We’re down by two, but the tying runs are on;
No outs against the shaky Papelbon.)
But though I have dwelled in Durham, played and prayed,
Though I have seen my stats (grown very stout) earn me a big-league contract,
I am no slugger: pinch-hit, square, make contact;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And the infernal Maddon drop me into a soup that couldn’t possibly be thicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the Kotchman double, the Upton infield hit,
Among the sleepy fans, to savor the moment a bit,
Would it have been worth while
To take a pitch or two, extend the trial,
To have waited for an easy-to-bunt ball
And roll it down the line, just not quite foul?
And do I dare? And do I dare
To dream, with my good speed, of beating out the throw,
Loading the bases for Ruggiano?
(He, too, was mired in Durham four long years:
We watched our “prospect status” disappear,
Together separated from the cream.)
But it’s impossible to say just how I dream!
Last year in Durham, I tried a steal of home,
The most daring feat of any player’s career!
But I wasn’t rash with it; I’d spied a tipoff
In the pitcher’s motion: his move to pick off,
Despite his efforts to hide it, plainly shown,
As if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.
But in overzealousness about my scheme,
I broke a hair too soon, impetuous,
And as I broke for home, I heard the screams
Of Zach Britton’s teammates: He, now wise to us,
Broke from his set, fired home, to which I ran
(Relieved the catcher wasn’t Cervelli again!).
I laid down pipe; I sprinted; off to the races
(On my way that year to stealing 30 bases).
The length by which they got me was picayune;
You could measure out my out in coffee spoons.
(But I did dare, and I did dare!)
In the Trop, fans come, but mostly go.
Looking up, I see Marco Scutaro.
(How come, when the Boston shortstop goes aggro,
Ortiz and the reporters just make light,
But when I hit Cervelli, it “isn’t right”?
Is it Marco’s .781 OPS
That makes me so obsess?
And is it this ninth-inning stress
That makes me so digress?)
No, I am not Cal Ripken, nor even Billy;
Am a utility infielder, one that will do
To get a bunt down, steal a base or two,
Shag flies with King David, no doubt a 25th man,
A switch-hitter, glad to be of use
(Or not, like in that 16-inning game
When Maddon used every guy but me—the shame!),
Versatile, hard-nosed, ready to play,
The roster equivalent of a caboose;
At times, indeed, a potential DFA,
Just like that other Tampa Johnson: Dan.
(And if you, settling on the pillowed couch, your wife in a shawl,
Turning away from the TV screen, should say:
“That is not me at all,
That is not what I want, at all”—
Well, are you in your life’s lineup every day?
Or do you ride the bench while others star
And quietly toil and look on from afar,
Hoping to be called on to pinch-run
Or play late infield in the setting sun?
(Yes, I know: no sun at the Trop. Okay!)
Do you have aspirations unfulfilled?
Is Time something you have mostly killed?
After the Sundays and your mowed yards and the sprinkled streets,
Do you mutter and retreat,
And think, “Though I have labored, wept and prayed,
I’ve nothing left after the bills are paid”?
And after all your works and days of hands,
Are you yourself just a utilityman,
Hanging on to big-league life by mere ability
To do every little thing to a slight degree?
But do you dare, and do you dare to take small pride
That though your ceiling isn’t high, your range is wide?
Indeed there will be a time
When you, after the marmalade and tea
(Or perhaps a bag of chips and an MGD),
Will sit and watch the Rays play on TV,
The children upstairs sleeping (so peacefully!),
You grown slightly bald, with gout, or a bad knee,
And feeling quite the opposite of free;
Yet in a flash you see, because of me,
The inestimable value in utility—
Even when it goes unused: thus we agree,
And say in unison, as Papelbon comes set
And you watch me square up on your TV set,
“That useful Elliot Johnson: I am he.”
I dig in… I dig in…
I hope Pap doesn’t throw it at my chin!
Shall I go ahead and square? Do I dare to swing away?
I shall hit a three-run homer and give the win to Tampa Bay,
And be the unlikely hero of the day!
I have heard the Trop fans cheer their favorite Ray.
I do not think that they will cheer for me.
I have lingered in the left-hand batter’s box
In my uniform unsoiled, blue and white,
When the Papelbon finally kicks and then rears back,
Till he delivers and I offer at his very first pitch and my bunt goes in the air right to Youkilis for the first out and then Ruggiano and Rodriguez both strike out and we lose by two runs and two months later in another game against the Red Sox I come up in exactly the same situation two on and none out and even though this time it’s the second inning and I was given a sign to bunt for a base hit instead of just a sacrifice I pop the damn thing up to Youkilis again and we lose by two runs again and now we’re 9 ½ games back with 41 left to play and we have no shot at the playoffs.
Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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