Early Feel-Good Stories of the 2013 MLB Season
Far too often, feel-good stories in baseball are limited to those players who overcome adversity.
Whether it be Josh Hamilton's daily battle with substance abuse or Buster Posey's MVP-winning season only a year after suffering a horrific leg injury, tales such as theirs are typically the norm for the genre.
Make no mistake about it, their tales fit the definition of a feel-good story, and those stories should be told and celebrated. Trying to diminish what they have accomplished, both on and off of the field, is not something I'm trying to do.
But there's more to a feel-good story than jumping over hurdles.
Sometimes, a simple act of kindness is all it takes to make us smile—to remind us that when you take away the bats, gloves, uniforms and multi-million dollar salaries, baseball players are people, just like you and me.
In a day-and-age when the nightly news is full of death, despair and the absolute worst that the human race has to offer, these stories reaffirm our faith in humanity—in the human spirit.
These are the stories that draw people who aren't fans of America's pastime to the game we love.
Darin Downs Defies the Odds in Detroit
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While Darin Downs accomplished his lifelong dream of pitching in the major leagues last year, breaking camp with the Detroit Tigers this year was even sweeter.
Four years ago, Downs was worried about the next day, much less Opening Day.
Towards the end of the 2009 season, Downs, pitching in Tampa Bay's system, was promoted to Double-A Montgomery after posting a 2.00 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 121 innings of work at Single-A Charlotte.
In the fifth inning of his second start for Montgomery, a line drive off the bat of Birimingham's Christian Marrero hit Downs in the head, directly over his left ear. While he never lost consciousness, he was unable to speak, and doctors at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham wondered if he'd survive the night:
Downs would spend 12 days in the hospital—including three in the intensive care ward—as he began to recover from a fractured skull, brain swelling and internal bleeding.
“Not being able to talk and not being able to do anything other than just making noises...I slowly progressed, like a baby would,” Downs told MLive's James Schmehl.
He'd battle post-concussion syndrome and, as he explained to Schmehl, found himself resigned to the fact that he was essentially retired at the age of 25. “I would tell me myself I’m not going to play again -- that I was scared to go back out there."
But fear is a great motivator, and it pushed him to get back on the mound.
He'd spend time in the minors for both of Florida's MLB teams before signing with the Tigers as a minor league free agent before the 2012 season. Finally, Downs has found a major league home.
Currently one of three left-handed relievers in the Tigers bullpen, Downs has quickly established himself as one of Jim Leyland's trusted go-to guys in the middle innings. In eight appearances, he's pitched to a 3.00 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, walking four and striking out 13 in nine innings.
It's ironic that Downs journey took him to the Tigers, for it brings his career full circle. While Downs attended high school in Florida, he was born in Southland, Michigan, which is less than 20 miles northeast of Detroit—about a half hour drive to Comerica Park.
Todd Frazier Becomes One of America's Favorite Players
It doesn't get better than this.
That's what pure, unadulterated joy looks like folks—something we should all be so lucky to experience at least once in our lives.
For Cincinnati third baseman Todd Frazier and occasional Reds' bat boy Teddy Kremer, they share a bond that will last long after Frazier's playing days have come to an end.
Except Kremer isn't your typical bat boy. He's a 30-year-old man who has down syndrome.
Last year, Kremer's parents won a silent auction to be the Reds' batboy for a game. In another feel-good moment in a story full of them, nobody bid against the Kremers, who bid the minimum, $300.
Teddy's mom told the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty that she believes no one else bid because the community knew how much the Reds meant to her son.
Awesome. Just awesome.
Anyway, Kremer did such a good job and got along so well with the players that the Reds asked him back again this season. Before the Reds got set to take on the Miami Marlins on April 18, he told everyone that he wanted three things to happen during the game:
11 runs for the Reds, 11 strikeouts for the Reds pitching staff (a local pizzeria, LaRosa's, gives out free pizza when the Reds whiff 11 batters) and for Todd Frazier to hit a home run.
As Frazier prepared for his at-bat in the sixth inning, Kremer approached him in the dugout. "Come on, hit me a home run, I love you." Frazier's response? "I love you too. I'll hit you one."
Frazier did just that, hitting a screaming line drive to center field that kept rising. When the ball finally landed, 420 feet from home plate, the Reds had an 11-1 lead over the Marlins.
An inning later, Kremer got his triple crown, when Reds reliever J.J. Hoover struck out Miami's Chris Valaika for the team's 11th strikeout.
After the game, Frazier tried to put the moment into words (via the Cincinnati Enquirer):
It was great how excited — that look...I started smiling even before I hit home plate because I knew it. They said he forgot to pick the bat up, so the umpire was yelling at him. It was such a great a great guy. You can’t get mad — even if you have a terrible day. How can you be mad when you’ve got a guy like that around?
You can't, Todd, you can't.
Evan Gattis Finds a Home in Atlanta
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What a long, strange trip it's been for Evan Gattis.
He signed to play at Texas A&M out of high school but never showed up, afraid of failure.
It wasn't only failing on the field that scared the 18-year-old, as he told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“I was terrified – I didn’t want to fail a drug test. I didn’t want to be a mess-up, you know? I didn’t want to fail at that stage and have people say, ‘Here’s this kid with all this talent and he wasted it; what a shame’ and all that.”.
At the urging of his mother, he entered a rehab facility instead to help kick a habit of self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol. After rehab, he'd play a season for Seminole State in Oklahoma but got hurt and wound up quitting baseball.
“I was so overwhelmed with everything that I ended up quitting, At that time I planned on going back to college and finishing my degree in psychology or something.”
He'd never step foot on campus again.
A trip to visit his sister in Boulder, Colorado results in Gattis moving there and finding work at a pizza parlor and as a lift operator at Eldora Mountain, hitch-hiking to work (he sold his truck when he moved).
Less than a year after moving, the urge to relocate got under his skin once again, so he and his brother, who was working at a ski resort in Utah, move back to Texas.
They worked as janitors. Actually that's not quite accurate: his official title was "Facilities Service Technician", printed on his work ID card that now serves as his avatar on Twitter. They worked as cart-boys at a local golf course.
“Right about this time I started finding these spiritual teachers or whatever on YouTube,” Gattis tells O'Brien, “and I thought, these mother******s know what I’m talking about. They’re speaking my language, whatever they’re saying.”
So back west he went, in search of spiritual enlightenment. First to New Mexico, then to California, where after meeting with one guru who essentially told him to "chill out," Gattis had another itch.
He wanted to play ball again, and promptly made two phone calls.
The first was to his father, telling him that he was coming home. The second was to his stepbrother, Drew Kendrick, a pitcher at the University of Texas-Permian Basin who's coach remembered Gattis from high school and offered him a spot on the team.
Eight years after graduating high school, Evan Gattis was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves.
Three years later, he's the starting catcher in Atlanta (at least until Brian McCann returns from offseason shoulder surgery). Whether he has a long-term future in Atlanta remains to be seen, but his story is one of the more remarkable tales that you'll hear.
"I think [my past] has made me appreciate [being in the big leagues] more," Gattis told MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince. "It's hard not to."
Mike Napoli Turns Frowns Upside Down
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Mike Napoli is Cade Johnson's favorite baseball player.
Cade, a die-hard fan of the Texas Rangers, is five years old.
“Napoli made Cade want to be a catcher,” his mom, Lesley, told Sports Reel Boston's Jen Royle.
“He’s a tough little boy who loves the game and he’s been a Napoli fan since the first time he saw him play. Not to mention, he dressed up as him for halloween."
When Napoli left the Rangers for the Boston Red Sox as a free agent this past offseason, it was up to Cade's dad, Daniel, to deliver the news to his son, a moment that he caught on video and sent in to the "Justin and Charla Morning Show" on 95.9 The Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas.
Justin Frazell, one of the co-hosts, posted the video on You Tube, where it went viral and eventually landed on Mike Napoli's Twitter feed. Cade's reaction to the news prompted Napoli to take action:
Frazell and Napoli eventually connected, Napoli spoke to the family and after giving it much thought, decided on what he was going to do for his number one fan.
“Nobody likes to see a child cry,” Napoli told Royle. “Especially over me. I wanted Cade to know how much players really do appreciate fans. We were all fans at his age so I sort of understood why he was upset."
Napoli sent Cade two autographed jerseys, one from the Rangers, the other from the Red Sox, and a hand-written note. Said Napoli:
“Signing and sending the shirts was the least I could do. It makes me happy just knowing he’s smiling somewhere in Texas.”
Mariano Rivera Going out on His Own Terms
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The greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball, and, in my humble opinion, one of the 10 most dominant pitchers that the game has ever seen, Mariano Rivera's farewell tour is underway.
“It’s official now. After this year I’ll be retired,” Rivera told reporters at a press conference before the regular season got underway (h/t CBS New York).
Rivera revealed that he would have retired after the 2012 season were it not for the torn ACL that he suffered while shagging fly balls before a game in Kansas City last May. If his Hall-of-Fame career was going to end, it was going to end on his terms.
“I didn’t want to leave like that,” Rivera said. “I felt like I wanted to give everything, and I still have something left.”
The oldest active player in baseball at 43, Rivera has picked up where he left off in the ninth inning for the New York Yankees, using his iconic cutter to make batters look foolish while converting all seven of his save opportunities, pitching to a 2.25 ERA and 0.88 WHIP over eight innings of relief.
As humble a superstar as you'll ever encounter, Rivera is trying to meet as many people on his last lap around the majors as he possibly can.
In Cleveland, for example, Rivera met with members of Cleveland's front office and long-time Indians fan John Adams, who has banged a drum in the outfield at Indians games for the better part of four decades.
Via MLB.com's Bryan Hoch:
Mariano Rivera meets John Adams, the man behind the drum at Indians games twitter.com/BryanHoch/stat…— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) April 10, 2013
I can't recall another professional athlete doing something like this, much less a legendary figure such as Rivera, can you?
From the way he's going out to the fact that a 43-year-old man was able to come back from a torn ACL only serves as further testament to just how special a player—how special a person—Rivera truly is.
Enjoy him while you can, for we will never see another player like Mo.