Exxon

Wilson Valdez was, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.”

I’ve written before at Phillies Nation about the complex and emotional relationship I’ve enjoyed with another Phillies shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, and in a way, my Phillies fandom regarding Exxon, as I’ve come to call him, has been even more emotional and and complex. I’d like to talk to you briefly, now that Exxon is no longer with us, about that relationship, and about the tenure of one of the more intriguingly polarizing athletes to come through Philadelphia in recent years.

I was in the stands for the home opener in 2010, when Jimmy Rollins unexpectedly injured himself on the dugout steps before the game. He was replaced in that game by Juan Castro, but the Phillies needed a new utility infielder if Castro was to take over full-time for Rollins at shortstop. On April 14, 2010, the Phillies called up Wilson Valdez from AAA Lehigh Valley. Now, when this happened, I had never heard of Valdez before. I texted a couple friends to tell them the news, and made the first of what must have been dozens of Exxon Valdez oil spill puns (“I hear he’s a slick fielder”) and thought that Valdez would, like thousands of other career minor leaguers, be up for a couple weeks while J-Roll got better.

But he didn’t. He stuck. And over the course of the summer of 2010, I came to hate Wilson Valdez in a way I’d never anticipated. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t very good at baseball–after all, he was, like all pro ballplayers, the best player he was capable of becoming–it was the way, for some reason, fans took to him. People started voicing the opinion that Valdez was a preferable alternative to Jimmy Rollins going forward, that as a rookie he had more to offer than Rollins. Never mind that Valdez was actually six months older than Rollins and, at 32, hadn’t been anything resembling a prospect in nearly a decade. Hearing about how “clutch” he was, for the double he hit in the 11th inning to put the Phillies ahead against the Giants on April 28. For the single he hit to put the Phillies ahead against the Diamondbacks on July 29. They raved about his throwing arm (which we’ll get to later), and called him a great defensive player, even though no one had gathered any significant data on his range or ability to convert chances once he got to them. Soon enough, in my mind at least, Wilson Valdez was the poster child for confirmation bias and the shortsightedness of a fan base too stubborn or lazy (or whatever) to realize that Exxon not only had an OBP well below .300, but was grounding into double plays at a historic rate.

I called him Exxon not out of the same sense of fun, glee, and adoration with which I call Roy Halladay “Doc” or Antonio Bastardo “Tony No-Dad,” but with malice in my heart and the glint of hatred in my eye. I dreaded his trips to the plate. I once went to a bar and wound up screaming a string of obscenities and statistics at a friend of a friend who suggested that he’d rather have Exxon at the plate with the game on the line than Jayson Werth, who was at that time in the midst of both the best season of his career and a bizarre and fluky slump with runners in scoring position. Then there was that nonsense about Wilson Valdez being the team’s MVP. Give me a break. All the while I tried to keep calm and spread the gospel: Wilson Valdez Isn’t As Good As You Think He Is, culminating in this post, on Sept. 29, in which I wrote the following:

“And how about this–he’s come to the plate with a runner on first and less than two out only 82 times this season. In those plate appearances, he has 20 GIDP, and only 18 hits. I’ll repeat that for the cheap seats: with a runner on first and less than 2 outs, Wilson Valdez is more likely to ground into a double play than he is to get a hit. “Dreadful” hardly does that statistic justice.”

Complex and emotional indeed. The comments for that post, unfortunately, were deleted when Phillies Nation underwent its site redesign last year, but there were more than 100 of them before the furor died down. To Exxon’s credit, he came to the plate once more that season with the opportunity to ground into a double play, and he got a hit.

After 2010, however, order was restored. Jimmy Rollins was healthy and reasonably productive, and Wilson Valdez was returned to a role more suited to player of his talents: utility infielder. Of course, Chase Utley missed the first eight weeks of the season or so, but there was always a sense that he’d come back soon enough, and if he didn’t, the Phillies would be screwed no matter who replaced him.

Two days after Utley returned, on May 25, 2011, the complexity of my relationship with Exxon grew tremendously.

By this point, Wilson Valdez had gone from unknown quantity, to minor nuisance, to my personal Moby Dick, then back to nuisance and minor curiosity as his role with the team was reduced. I still feared the medium-speed ground ball to second that seemed to come every time he came up with a man on, but after a while, with Utley on the mend, Exxon was set to return to obscurity. Or so it seemed.

Paul Boye and I went to the 19-inning game together, and, well, in short, it was the best experience I’ve ever had at a live sporting event. That was, of course, due in large part to seeing an infielder pitch–and more than that, the infielder upon which I’d heaped so much attention and anger. I remember sitting in the stands, jumping up and down, clapping, screaming, and chittering like a schoolgirl at the sight of the man whose mere existence sent me into a homicidal rage. I had turned the corner. I had caught Valdez Fever.

After that night, after those of us who stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch the game had seen a below-average utility infielder retire not only the National League’s hottest hitter but the National League’s reigning MVP, shaking off Sardinha and recording 380-foot outs. It was remarkable theater, and one of the highlights of a season that would ultimately end in disappointment.

I loved Wilson Valdez.

It seems silly to speak of legacy for a player who played a marginal role for a little under two seasons, and wasn’t much more than passable in that marginal role, but for some reason Valdez took on a larger-than-life quality. It still baffles me why. He’s not the first light-hitting backup shortstop to get a key hit or two, or the first one to have a weird goatee. Maybe he was lovable for the same reason Bill James said Pedro Martinez was great–a multitude of small advantages that compound each other. I really couldn’t tell you. I never could stand him as a player.

But the fact of the matter is that we can’t judge Exxon as a player alone. It’s almost as if we have Wilson Valdez, Infielder, who’s a replacement-level player, but then we have Wilson Valdez, Literary Hero, who’s capable of bringing joy to the masses through legendary feats of sporting averageness.

In the end, I’m amazed that Ruben Amaro was able to ship off a 33-year-old utilityman who can’t really hit to a club on the verge of contention for a 26-year-old lefty who looks like he could be worth a damn. In July 2010, I would have open-mouth kissed anyone who told me that the Phillies would one day trade Exxon for someone like Jeremy Horst. This trade is an excellent baseball move. But seeing Wilson Valdez sent packing, now that I’ve embraced the joy and absurdity that comes with watching him play, fills me with sadness. I’m not even sure I’ll miss him because I’ll miss hating him. I think I may have genuinely caught some of that Exxon fever, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure watching the Phillies will ever be the same.