After nine years, 1,100 innings, and three trips to the Mexican Winter League, 31-year-old knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa heard the magic words: “You’re going to the big leagues.” The Rays were prescient enough to film the big moment, and if his shocked expression, tears, and heartfelt hugs for the coaching staff didn’t reveal just how much the call meant to him, his words took care of the rest. “It's something you dream of,” Gamboa said. “When it becomes a reality, it kind of blows your mind.”
Look at any box score lately, and you’ll spot more than a few unfamiliar names. It’s September, which means big rosters and an ever-growing chorus of writers and fans who want to modify the month’s roster expansion rule. To be sure, the rule is an odd-fit for modern baseball, an injection of Wild West into what is otherwise an increasingly staid operation. Once intended as a way to blood young prospects before the offseason, teams now largely use their call-ups to ease the load on their pitching staff. It’s not unusual for teams to use six or seven pitchers in a night—Bruce Bochy seemingly aims for double digits—and the frequency of mid-inning pitching changes naturally swells alongside.
While the additional mound visits are an annoying aesthetic, September’s rules don’t exactly turn baseball into jacks. Russell Carleton recently took a hammer to the usual list of grievances, tidily dismissing complaints about game time (just four minutes longer in September) and the prevalence of sub-replacement players in high-leverage moments. September baseball isn’t worse; it’s just different.
Plenty of fans and people within the game like this brand of different. Chiefly among them are the players like Gamboa who owe their major-league career to roster expansion. Just ask former third baseman Matt Mangini. Mangini is a cigar salesman now, but a generation of plugged-in Mariners fans know him as a big-league ballplayer thanks to September call-up season. Mangini was a first-rounder in 2007, and while he didn’t have the impact bat the Mariners envisioned on draft day, he steadily rose through the system. After a big year in 2010, when he set career highs with a .313 batting average and 18 homers, the Mariners brought him to Seattle for the final two weeks of the season. Not surprisingly, he hates the idea of getting rid of the roster expansion rule.
“I think that would be a real bad idea. There’s a lot of guys who go into the season, especially at Triple-A, who eyeball that opportunity all year,” he says. For Mangini, the chance to get to the big leagues, to play under the brightest lights, to stay in the finest hotels, and to face the best competition on the biggest stage was a carrot in the midst of the relentless Triple-A season. “I know, if I do my job, there’s a long shot I can get called up. Even if you’re not a high prospect guy, you can show up on everybody’s radar.”
The larger rosters allow teams to acknowledge when one of their players has a good season, a reward that many undoubtedly would miss out on otherwise. Take Graham Koonce, who was a 10-year minor-league veteran when Oakland brought him up in 2003. Koonce has been out of baseball entirely for nearly a decade, working as a firefighter and raising a family completely away from the game. Like Mangini, though, he has a big-league Baseball Reference page and the memories of a lifetime as a September call-up. The A’s didn’t strictly need him on the roster—he batted eight times and had one start as Oakland won the AL West relatively comfortably—but Koonce was thrilled with the promotion: “Just to hear those words, ‘you’re going up,’ that was a special moment. I cherished getting to share that with my family.”
When he describes his time in the big leagues, Koonce sounds more like the kind of seamhead who reads BP than the cliche machines who speak to the media after games. “My first at-bat was against Armando Benitez and I hadn’t faced him at all. More than anything, I was trying to be comfortable with the thought that there’s nothing different about this, that just the stage is different. But I have to admit, I was buzzing.” Benitez might have struck him out, but it’s clear that he has positive memories: “My wife said it was the most beautiful strikeout she had ever seen!”
There’s also a significant financial angle. Minor leaguers as a whole make peanuts, and while some Triple-A players earn a living wage, many of the September call-ups reaching the big leagues for the first time haven’t made much money. A big-league salary for an entire month is worth approximately $80,000, dramatically more money than what all but a handful of minor leaguers make in their entire career. As a veteran of the high minors, Koonce wasn’t living on a few hundred a month, but even for him, a weeks of big league salary amounted to more than 30 percent of his income for the year.
Perhaps it’s the money that will eventually put the kibosh on September’s rules. Blessed with an opportunity to tinker, and given a chance to save money, baseball will inevitably alter their current rules. Whether they eliminate the practice entirely or settle on a hybrid system that allows teams to ferry different players onto a 25-man roster each day—which probably wouldn’t reduce the number of pitching changes much—the rules appear destined to join the dodo.
That’s a shame. When the Koonces and the Manginis are gone, there will be very few mortals left on big-league rosters. As it is, seventh-inning relievers routinely hit the upper-90s, utility infielders slug homers to deep center, and even some of the least-athletic looking players are relatively chiseled in comparison to your average, 30-year-old American. Major-league baseball today is played by freaks: the workout warriors, the genetically gifted, the absurdly talented. More than ever, there’s little room for the amazing, if unspectacular, baseball player. September is our chance to watch a few more of the mortals work. It’s their opportunity to test a lifetime of dedication and hard work against the best that their craft has to offer, and it’s our opportunity to watch.
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