On Actually Getting Excited for Pitchers and Catchers

Winter is always tough for me. I feed on sports discourse the way a tree feeds on sunlight–I need lots of it, all the time, or else I shrivel up and die. This might why I have the ESPN app on my phone sending me score updates for 17 teams across five sports, plus a racing driver. During baseball season, the Phillies (and, in passing, the South Carolina Gamecocks) are enough to keep me going because baseball is the sport I know and care most about. I certainly give the Stanley Cup playoffs their due attention, and if  there’s an Olympics or a World Cup to fill the dull hours, so much the better. Once the World Series is over, there’s Hot Stove discussion, plus the best part of college football season and the part of the Premiership season before Arsenal drops out of the title race, to keep the sports juices going.

But after the New Year, things get grim. Particularly in a year when the soccer team you follow is suffering its worst season in more than a decade, and the mention of the club’s best player and the historic season he’s having elicits not joy but soul-crushing depression at the knowledge that he’ll leave for Manchester City or Barcelona in the summer. Just like all the best Arsenal players do. Sure, the Sixers are on a nice run, and I love hockey, but without baseball, it’s not enough. This is the time of year where I try to psych myself into caring about the effect of the near-ubiquitous duckbill nose in the coming Formula 1 season. Early February is a rough time for me.

Which brings me to my point: all winter long, people I follow on Twitter (mostly women, for whatever reason, though that might just be a product of who I follow and is not meant to convey any sort of commentary on gender politics in modern sports fanhood) have been counting down to the start of spring training. “93 days until pitchers and catchers!” they said, back when that distance was so great as to be depressing. Now we’re within two weeks of that blessed day: “pitchers and catchers.” And I cannot bring myself to get excited about it. At all.

It seems like we fetishize training camp in baseball more than in other sports. I love soccer and hockey, but I have no idea when Arsenal starts their summer workout regimen, or even when they start playing exhibition games. The same for the Flyers–I went to a preseason game this past fall, but I have no memory of what month that game took place, even though Tom Sestito’s brutal, if massively illegal, hit on Ranger center Andre “Bel Biv” Deveaux was one of the highlights of my sporting 2011. No sport except for football, which magnifies and fetishizes everything, places such stock in its preseason. I think the name “pitchers and catchers” is part of the problem. It sounds cool and somehow in-the-know to say “pitchers and catchers,” I think, so we do it.

There’s also something to spring training marking the beginning of, you know, spring. Baseball is, perhaps more tied to the seasons than any other popular American game. Football has been played professionally in the United States in spring, summer, and fall. Basketball, a largely indoor undertaking, is almost devoid of seasonal or meteorological context, and ice hockey, for all the nostalgia about skating on frozen lakes with your buddies, in 2004 crowned its champion in June, in Florida, and holds its world championships in the summer. As for soccer, most of the world’s leagues play roughly a basketball schedule, August to May, while in the United States, Russia, and Scandinavia, the game runs through the summer.

So much for seasonal context.

But in baseball, weather and history dictate that we have “spring training,” the “boys of summer,” and the “fall classic.” The start of baseball, more than the equinox or warm weather, marks the start of spring, a sentiment captured by the poet Donald Hall. It’s beautiful stuff, and I appreciate that. I get that the trip down to Clearwater makes a nice spring vacation, and an opportunity to see the stars in a closer and more relaxed environment than you might find during a regular season game. At least I’d hope so, because if it weren’t a great baseball trip there’d be no rational reason to get that close to Tampa. I just don’t get the hysteria over practice. Not a game. Practice.

“Pitchers and catchers” makes for a nice temporal landmark, but from a baseball perspective, doesn’t mean anything. The entire team doesn’t even work out together for a full week after pitchers and catchers report, and doesn’t play an exhibition game until a week after that. Everyone’s been counting down to wind sprints, long toss, and weightlifting. They’ve been doing this all winter, folks. The only difference is that they’ll have called each other before coming to work and decided to all dress alike. Even if they wanted to play a game, they’d be seven guys short.

Then spring training games start, and after a couple days of watching Matt Rizzotti mash meaningless taters, we start to get down to business. Then we get to see who might be on form for the coming season, who’s developed a new pitch or altered his swing, and which unknown is set to make the leap and contribute in a big way. To say nothing of the return of Jim Thome and the first look at Jonathan Papelbon. That time, around the second week of March, is when I start getting excited about baseball–when something worth talking about happens.

Of course, if you do get all worked up for pitchers and catchers, more power to you. I certainly don’t think getting excited for preseason workouts is stupid or anything, and I’ll certainly be paying attention when it happens. It’s just hard to work up the enthusiasm, even for a deranged sports addict like me.

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.