May 23, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
Life and Ed Whitson
Routine decisions are the easiest. I know which coffee I like best, which chair in my living room is most comfortable, and which jeans in my closet are flattering. Medium-hard decisions require more thought, but when pushed I can decide where to go for vacation and what color would look best should I decide to paint the kitchen. But the hardest decisions are the ones that have financial implications, because, let’s face it, a life without money would be incredibly difficult.
There is nothing wrong with being particular if you can afford it. Roy Oswalt can afford to be the Van Halen of baseball—with stipulations that he’ll play only for teams in a particular time zone, and that all the brown M&Ms be removed from the clubhouse bowls. Most of us, though, players and people alike, have to risk venturing into situations that might not be suitable to us so we can maintain mere subsistence, never mind repose in candy-coded splendor.
Eddie Lee Whitson was a player who changed teams often, seeking steady employment and opportunity. Whitson spent much of his career (1977-1991) bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen due to inconsistency. Whitson spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants, and Cleveland Indians, before rejoining the Padres in 1983. At first, it was more of the same: in his first season with the Padres, Whitson found himself in the bullpen again, with a 2-6 record and 4.73 ERA. Whitson found his way back into manager Dick Williams’ rotation by the end of the season, with a 3-0 record and 2.20 ERA to finish the season.
Whitson built on his strong finish in 1984, which would prove to be a turning point in his career—he finally had the breakout season that he thought might secure him employment with the Padres indefinitely. The Padres ran away with the National League West, finishing 12 games ahead of the Braves, and Whitson finished the season 14-8 with a 3.24 ERA, and added a masterful postseason outing against the Cubs in Game 3 of the NLCS, giving up just one run on five hits in eight innings. But when the Padres offered a four-year, $2.8-million contract to Rick Sutcliffe instead, it was evident Whitson wouldn’t be returning to their rotation.
Fortunately for Whitson, the New York Yankees were interested. In a period in which the Yankees had sacrificed almost all of their first-round draft choices to sign free agents, they were dependent on free agents to fill out their pitching staff. In a photo taken the day that Whitson signed his five-year, $4.4-million dollar deal with the Yankees, the 29-year-old right-hander was sandwiched between his wife Kathleen and new manager Yogi Berra. Standing heads taller than his company, he’s smiling from behind a spectacular mustache while holding his new pinstriped jersey and wearing a pristine Yankees cap. Whitson’s smile says it all: he was content in finding employment and security as one of the final remaining free agents of the offseason.
My breakout season came in Chicago in 2011, the year I finished graduate school. I hoped I had done enough academically to secure a position with the firm I wanted to work for, but like Whitson I found myself waiting, a free agent with two business degrees and five years experience in a crippled economy. In crunching the numbers, I realized it wasn’t possible to pay my student loans, the monthly payments of which were akin to leasing a Mercedes E63, on the wages I earned, so I spent months networking, applying, and downright begging for suitable employment, realizing my time in Chicago had an expiration date: I’d have to leave after graduation.
Whitson was a native of Tennessee, routinely described as being a country boy who was not at home in the big city. Still, if performance is any evidence, he felt at home in San Diego. What that city was to him, Chicago was to me. Chicago was just where I felt comfortable and had carved out the things in life I’d always needed—friends, security, and a social calendar—which was easy to do in a city whose acceptance and vibrancy are unrivaled.
Left to my own devices, I would never have left, but employers weren’t seeing the value in me—I felt like Johnny Damon, just waiting for someone to call and offer an opportunity, any opportunity. My inbox was full of rejection letters and my phone didn’t ring much—and when it did, it was my mother asking why I hadn’t found work yet. After months of searching, I found myself smiling like Whitson: I’d been offered a job at an organization in Washington, DC, and I was excited for the opportunity. I couldn’t sort the logistics of relocating fast enough—they wanted me there quickly—and before I knew it I had bags, boxes, and a flat-screen TV in the back of my Mini Cooper, strategically packed like Tetris blocks.
Unfortunately, the best-laid plans of Eds and Cees often go awry. In Whitson’s case, the smile that was on his face the day he signed with the Yankees was permanently removed in his first outing in pinstripes—a 14-5 loss against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Whitson went 0-3 with an 8.87 ERA in six starts, which served as gasoline on the fire for Yankees fans, who had expected the team to contend after posting the best second-half record in the AL the year before. Instead, they struggled through a 6-12 April, and Whitson became the fans’ favorite scapegoat. Not only was he underperforming, he was visibly shaken by the vitriol that was directed at him: fans exploited his weakness and the torture intensified.
There was no escape from the misery of being in the Bronx for Whitson. He’d signed a five-year contract and was resigned to his new life of torment. He had some successful outings, but the once-confident and composed pitcher was reduced to a shell of his former self. He was booed on and off the field. After games he was chased by mobs of angry fans to the parking lot and sometimes they’d follow him, leaving him no choice but to run red lights to ditch them before arriving home to his family. Mountains of hate mail and death threats poured in, and one morning he woke to find carpenter nails around the tires of his car on his suburban New Jersey driveway. From that point, he felt it was no longer safe for his family to remain in New Jersey while he was on the road, so they went to stay in Ohio.
It’s difficult to be identified as an outsider. The fans in the Bronx knew that Whitson didn’t belong there, and the residents of Washington likewise identified me as an intruder, marked by the permanent scent of bratwurst and cheddar that seeps through a Midwesterner’s pores. DC is built on connections, politics, power, and competition. Everyday was a grueling battle to make trains, meetings, and happy hours on time, always wearing a veneer of kindness, knowing others are doing the same, and that they, better versed in the local art of assassination, may at any moment attempt to destroy you because you possess something they need, be it your job, your apartment, or your mate.
There were days when I felt the only solution was to hop on the Beltway, sit in traffic for three hours, then drive west as fast as I possibly could until I reached corn. Instead, I’d sit in the park near my office before getting on the train, waiting until I was sure I could ride the five stops to my neighborhood without crying on a crowded train.
It’s a sinking feeling knowing that you’ve created your own misery, and Whitson knew it too. We’d both made decisions to go to a new place, take on a new challenge, and secure futures for ourselves and our families. We’d also realized that we’d made a terrible mistake and wanted off the ride immediately. Most devastating of all, escape seemed impossible.
The 1986 season seemed like an opportunity for Whitson to start with a clean slate: a new season, a new manager in Lou Piniella, and an opportunity to win over the fans that had taunted him the season before. But in his first start of the season, Whitson was booed before, during, and after a two-inning outing in which he allowed four runs on six hits. Whitson was flustered on the mound, talking to himself, and appearing maniacal at times. During a meeting on the mound with Piniella and catcher Butch Wynegar, Whitson told them, “I can’t pitch here, I can’t pitch under these circumstances, I’ve got to get out of here.”
Whitson begged for a trade, but it didn’t happen immediately. He pitched well on the road for his second start of the season and told Piniella that he’d be ready to pitch at home against the Cleveland Indians five days later. On the day of the start, the trainer alerted Piniella that Whitson was hyperventilating in the clubhouse. Sitting on a table, gasping for air, Whitson seemed to have been consumed by the pressure of pitching in the Bronx. He calmed himself for a moment, told Piniella he wanted to make the start, but the panic soon returned, leaving him gasping again. Left with few options, the Yankees decided that Whitson shouldn’t start at home anymore, though he’d be available from the bullpen, with Bob Shirley replacing him in the rotation at home.
You’re a failure if you want to go home. In summer camp, the kids who cry and call their parents to come pick them up are relentlessly mocked, but in 1986 Whitson was kicking and screaming to anyone who would listen, a man possessed by insecurity. During warm-ups he’d wear his jacket so fans couldn’t see his number to taunt him. He’d take his death march to the bullpen in the tunnels beneath the Stadium just to avoid contact with the fans above.
Unlike Whitson, in my first three months in Washington, I could convince people I wasn’t homesick, but something changed in me and I didn’t care who knew—I didn’t like where I was and I desperately wanted out. I didn’t like the people, my job, or men in khaki pants with navy blazers. I didn’t like Old Bay, the fact that cabs won’t cross state lines, or the public library system. I just wanted to go home and if that meant admitting to the world that I’d made a terrible mistake leaving in the first place, I was willing to do it.
On July 9, 1986, Eddie Lee Whitson’s wish came true: he’d been traded back to the Padres for reliever Tim Stoddard. His five-year sentence was cut short and he had been exonerated. Whitson was in Texas with the Yankees when he received the news at 2 p.m., and he promptly checked himself out of the hotel to catch a 4 p.m. flight back to San Diego. While waiting to check out from the hotel, Whitson was singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
In San Diego, Whitson’s life returned to normal. He was happy and he was an effective pitcher again, posting a career best 2.60 ERA with a 14-9 record in 1990. However, his legacy in baseball remains his inability to function in the pressure cooker of New York City. Whenever a player begins to falter, Whitson’s name inevitably comes up, and probably always will.
My sentence from Washington, DC has also been lifted. After months of uncertainty, it’s finally clear that I will be leaving Washington and returning to Chicago to explore a new opportunity, eat at Hot Doug’s, and stroll Montrose Harbor on summer evenings. And if for the rest of eternity, when someone drops everything because they’ve realized they’ve found a home, it is said that they’re “Pulling a Cee,” well I’m perfectly okay with that.