I just remembered why I prefaced my last BP piece, a look at the best of this season’s Triple-A retreads, by talking about Dan Johnson. It wasn’t just because he’s Dan Johnson—even though that is almost reason enough—but more specifically because of something I learned about him from this offseason article about him in the Star Tribune (Minn.) by Joe Christensen:
With an eye beyond his playing days, Johnson began dabbling in a side hobby last winter. He started flipping houses, buying foreclosed homes, overseeing the renovations, and selling them for profit.
"We strip them down to the studs, get rid of the mold, re-do the insulation — everything," Johnson said. "Basically, people are getting a brand new house. It's such a great feeling because you take something that was gone, that people want out of the neighborhood, and then the neighbors come over and they're thanking you."
Of course it’s a little saddening, especially for Rays fans, that the Great Pumpkin has already descried the approaching end of his career and is moving into an occupation much less sexy, much less shot-heard-round-the-world heroic (even if the neighbors are thanking him) than periodically rescuing the Tampa Bay Rays’ playoff hopes with gaspingly dramatic home runs.
Still, it’s apparent why Johnson would be attracted to his new line of work. Flipping “something that was gone, that people want out of the neighborhood”—i.e. players like Dan Johnson—is an offseason pastime for major-league teams. In his second career, Johnson is now on the foreman’s end of an industry somewhat similar to the one in which he himself has long occupied the ranks of those abandoned, moldering properties. Every year, a fair number of them get a fresh coat of paint—the new franchise’s minor-league jersey—and perhaps some offseason rot or termite treatment—minor surgery for a chronic nagging injury, sessions with a swing doctor, etc.
It’s too late, of course, to strip these former studs down to the studs and rebuild them as up-to-date commodities. Most front offices see players like Johnson as nothing more than Triple-A pink slime: probably harmless and provably nutritive, but not something you’d put on a big-league plate unless you really had to. To return to the organizing metaphor, you can make a convincing case that these players aren’t really houses in the full sense; they’re actually just mobile homes, moving from one Triple-A trailer park to another.
But: location, location, location. Baseball GMs know in their heads that the Joe Mathers of the world are probably not major leaguers; but their hearts beat with muted hope that a new address can make a difference (if those hearts are Cubs’ hearts, they can even carry the day). With every signing of a minor-league free agent, with every waiver claim, and with every farm-system trade, comes a fond and powerful longshot longing: this year, in this uniform, Kevin Barker or Tagg Bozied or Nick Bierbrodt will make good on his curb appeal as a major leaguer.
That is to say that up-from-Triple-A success stories are quite common, and it does not matter that they tend to be fleeting. A player like Daniel Nava, when he springs to mind, can make you happy for no other reason than his having hit a grand slam on the very first pitch he saw in the major leagues. He was 27 years old, a spare part salvaged from an indy-league team and originally screwed into the squeaky machinery of the low minors. Prior to his first-pitch granny off Joe Blanton on June 12, 2010, Nava was best known for having left tickets at his minor-league will call window for Erin Andrews. Every day. For three years.
And that wistful, wishful little sidebar, too, like Dan Johnson’s house-flipping, provides a useful analog. Front offices keep on leaving that ticket there for these guys, for years on end, hoping they’ll finally figure out how to claim it and turn that cup of coffee with the majors into a long-term relationship. Still, even if it’s just for a few weeks or even days—or perhaps nothing more than a single, magical swing—the thrill of watching that non-prospect redeem his years of minor-league dues-paying far surpasses flipping on the tube to see Roy Halladay’s 200th strikeout or Mariano Rivera’s 30th save of the year. Major-league veterans and hot farm prospects alike create expectations; minor-league strivers create hope. And hope, ultimately, is what sports builds and rebuilds each day and each year.
I would love to tell you how excited I am about Opening Day: about Pujols with the Halos, Prince among Tigers, Papelbon in Philly. Maybe someday, removed to some major-league city, I will stop caring about Jason Botts, Jason Lane, and Jason Rice. But as a Triple-A toiler myself, what I’m excited about is to see how these old houses look with new paint, sistered joists, and new appliances.
There is, of course, a far deeper sadness in this annual project of minor-league house-flipping. Plenty of players move from one team to another, of course, but there are also many who, having been foreclosed, are never rehabbed. They’ve spent years furnished with major-league dreams, and this year, suddenly, find themselves unoccupied when home-buying season comes around. The hardest thing to watch is the end of a minor-league lifespan whose value has never quite appreciated. They are still out there, of course, and remain on the market, but there are no buyers. With sufficient time comes demolition by neglect.