I like the journeymen. Most fans, and understandably so, gravitate toward the stars. They like the Derek Jeters, the Mark Teixeiras, and the Mariano Riveras. I like those guys, too. You don’t win world championships without star players who can carry the load for long stretches during the regular season and at critical moments in the postseason.
But I’ve always taken greater interest in the lesser players on a team, those who fill a specific role, either in a platoon or coming off the bench. That’s because those guys have to struggle, in some cases just to stay in the big leagues. Because of that, some of those players work harder than your average player. I identify with those players–whether it’s an Oscar Gamble in the 1970s and eighties, a Luis Sojo in the 1990s, or a Glenallen Hill in 2000. Just like those players, I feel I have to work hard just to keep up, whether it’s teaching, making a speech in front of strangers, or writing one of these columns. It’s a struggle for me, too. I’m no Roger Angell, but I believe I can be a solid contributor by working harder (and perhaps learning more) than the next writer.
Marcus Thames is also one of those guys. I like Marcus Thames, and not just because he sent the Red Sox home with a crushing home run in the bottom of the ninth inning on Monday night. Thames is a journeyman. He started out in the Yankee system, having to overcome the label of being a non-prospect. Somehow, he climbed to the Bronx. He hit a home run in his first major league at-bat against a tall left-hander named Randy Johnson. Still, there were people who didn’t believe in him. Still, he had to prove himself. The Yankees didn’t believe. They traded him to the Rangers for an aging Ruben Sierra. The Rangers didn’t believe either. They granted him free agency, which paved the way for Thames to travel north and sign with the Tigers.
Well, Thames made a career for himself in Detroit. He became a valuable role player, mostly in left field and as a DH, while playing primarily against left-handed pitching. He learned to play first base to make himself more valuable. Along the way, he became known as a terrorizer of left-handed pitching. He hit 26 home runs one season, and 25 in another. Never a star, and almost never an everyday player, but a solid contributor.
When the Tigers decided that age had caught up to his 33-year-old swing, the Yankees came calling again. Still, there were no guarantees. They only offered Thames a minor league contract, with no assurance that he would make the Opening Day roster. After a slow start in the spring, Thames’ hitting picked up, enough to make a successful return to the Bronx.
As of this writing, Marcus Thames is hitting .357 with a slugging percentage of .536. Oh, I know he can’t field worth a lick in the outfield, that his fielding misadventure led directly to a loss against the Red Sox. By all rights, his nickname on defense should be “The Bumbler.” But put a bat in his hand and he can do some damage, particularly when the opposition pitcher hurls from the portside.
So I’ll be rooting for Marcus Thames. Just like my favorite journeymen, he’ll have a place on my team, right next to Oscar Gamble, Luis Sojo, and Glenallen Hill…
While it’s clear that I like Thames, I don’t like what the Yankees have been doing with their roster in recent weeks. The 13-man pitching staff is a bad joke, one being repeated over and over by a sad comedian. Joe Girardi keeps insisting that he needs 13 pitchers because of the condition of his bullpen. Well, Brian Cashman needs to tell Girardi to either push his starters further into games, or start using his relievers more often on back-to-back days. Simply put, the 12 main pitchers on the staff have to start carrying a larger load. Perhaps they will, now that Mark Melancon has been sent back to Scranton/Wilkes Barre and replaced by infielder Kevin Russo.
The eight-man bullpen has become like a bad drug addiction in baseball. Managers keep asking for more and more pitchers, the general managers continue to feed the addiction, and the addiction only gets stronger. It’s as if managers have become deathly afraid of the next 18-inning game, which brings with it the possibility that a backup infielder or outfielder will need to pitch an inning or two. The horrors! Well, here’s the reality. Eighteen-inning games rarely happen. And if they do, how about asking one of your relief pitchers to throw more than inning or two? That’s a novel idea. Yes, relief pitchers are actually capable of pitching three or four or five innings at a time without their limbs falling off.
To quote Susan Powter from those awful infomercials of the 1990s, the Yankees (along with other teams) need to STOP THE INSANITY of piling more and more pitchers onto the 25-man roster. If you need more than 11 or 12 pitchers at a time, then you’re not managing the roster properly. So let’s stop the insanity and get back to real baseball, the kind where you actually have a backup catcher, and a couple of reserve outfielders, and some capable pinch-hitters.
Otherwise, we’ll soon be hearing about the necessities of the 14-man pitching staff.
[Photo Credit: NJ.com]
Bruce Markusen will be presenting a paper on baseball cards and popular culture June 2-4 at the annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture.