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January 26, 2012 3:00 am

Inside The Park: Why We Want Players to Remember the Past


Bradford Doolittle

We shouldn't be surprised when players don't show the same appreciation for baseball history we do, but sometimes the truth still hurts.

In sports, familiarity is more of the heart than the mind. As player valuation becomes uniformly sophisticated across baseball, familiarity has become a non-factor. The new wave of decision makers are as versed in Wall Street jargon as they are in scout speak and aren't too prone to sentiment. (Nor should they be.) The Theo Epsteins and Andrew Friedmans of the world are savvy enough to avoid communicating to fans in those terms, but the mindset is still there. Players are assets, and transactions are opportunities to add value to the franchise. The bond between a player and the team's fan base may be given lip service in the media, but in reality, it matters not at all, or very little. As for the players, the bottom line is almost always the ultimate deciding factor—he's going to go where the dollars flow.

Sometimes, the sentimental and the pragmatic line up nicely. That's what I was thinking when the first messages popped up in my Twitter stream this week bearing the news of Prince Fielder's new contract in Detroit. The kneejerk reaction of many was that the deal was absurdly bloated. (It was.) Others thought Detroit moved well ahead of the competition in the AL Central. (As a Royals fan, that was my second thought.) If you're a Tigers fan, you might have jumped up on your desk and started doing the Dougie. (Can't blame you.) Me, I just thought it was cool that Prince was going to play for the same team on which his father made a name for himself. It's not clear why I should care.

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How one man came to support a borderline statistical candidate for the Hall of Fame whose other contributions strengthen his case.

My first memory about Minnie Minoso stems from 1977, on one of those bright afternoons when I had talked my grandfather into stopping at the dime store on the town square in Red Oak, Iowa. It's just as Sinclair Lewis as it sounds. The store sold baseball cards, and I was working on my Topps collection that summer by picking up four or five 10-cent packs at a time. Not everything at the dime store actually cost a dime, but fifteen baseball cards and one rock-hard piece of bubble gum did, and they came bundled in colorful wax wrappers that I liked so much that I refused to throw them away. My parents didn't give a rip about sports, but my grandfather had played second base in Class-B ball in southwest Iowa in the 1920s and understood what baseball could mean to a young boy. He was glad to fork over change for the cards.

Red Oak had, and still has, the type of rustic town square that was once the primary business district of small midwestern towns. Some communities have courthouses stuck in the middle of their square, but Red Oak has trees, a fountain, and a park. That day, I sat in the grass opening my cards, stuffing the gum in my mouth one piece at a time, while my grandfather lounged on a bench under a tree talking to a fellow retired farmer, who wore a green John Deere hat. The names on the cards didn't mean much to me at the time—it hadn't been that long since I had learned to read—but I loved the team names, the pictures, and of course, the numbers on the back. Suddenly I came across card No. 232 from the 1977 Topps set:

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The Tony La Russa-Albert Pujols era in St. Louis is nearly unprecedented.

It’s the last day of the season at Wrigley Field and I’m determined to wait out Albert Pujols.

I’ve been assigned to cover the Cardinals for the weekend series, the last three games at the antique ballpark in the 2010 season. Before each game, I spend about three hours hanging around the Cardinals in the visiting team clubhouse at Wrigley—a dank, cramped space that isn’t as big as the locker room at the high school I attended in small-town Iowa. It’s an awkward setup, leaving you hovering around 30-35 big-league personnel with no place to stand. On the flip side, there really is no place for them to hide. If you need to interview someone, this is the place to do it. Only the most resolute can avoid the press in there.

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Marte is a former top prospect trying to hang on; Brantley has a much brighter future.

Andy Marte is a forgotten man at 26. Just a few years ago, Marte was a darling of the prospect hounds, including Baseball Prospectus. He was compared favorably to players like Adrian Beltre (at his best) and Miguel Cabrera. He posted mouth-watering power numbers at precocious ages in his respective leagues. He even displayed improving strike-zone command, with gradually rising walk rates and gradually decreasing strikeout totals. There was nothing not to like.

In 2005, BP declared Marte the top prospect in the game, after ranking him third in 2004. The praise wasn't the lone voice in the prospect-rating wilderness. Baseball America rated him as the Braves' top prospect in 2004 and as Boston's great minor-league hope in 2006. (The rankings were put together before Marte was flipped to Cleveland.) He was BA's ninth-ranked overall prospect in 2005. Even after Marte was traded twice in a 45-day span in late 2005 and early 2006, he seemed like as sure of a bet to become a big-league fixture as a young player possibly can be.

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