All sports, even baseball, have a clock. The ticking you only barely hear is the lifespan of a player.
Every one of them has an arc, and sometimes it’s quite pronounced with a great crown of excellence. Excellence that, still, only lasts awhile. Others march along, perhaps for a very long time, manifesting their median over and over.
Whoever they are, and however we might measure their skills, the shape of the arc is unknown until the last play of the career is made.
We like to get a drop on anointing the truly remarkable ones though, trying hard to sift through the stats and the early efforts to foresee the hall of fame voting. We want to know right away, long before the work is finished.
And we are usually too generous. In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela became the first pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young. He deserved it: he pitched eight shutouts that year, lead the league in strikeouts, and had a sweet 2.48 ERA.
His career had some other fine moments, most of them in just the next five years, but it’s fair to say his peak was brief, unrepeatable, glorious, and gone.
We don’t need any more instructive examples of how fleeting talent can be. Who wants to be reminded? But sportscasters and my fellow bloggers today devote great attention to picking the players who will rise the highest and the fastest.
The obsession with rookies shows up in many quarters. Topps and Upper Deck devote lavish attention to rookie baseball cards these days, minting up great batches of them.
Here are potential heroes, all glossy and bright, photographed with bats on their shoulders in uniforms they haven’t once gotten dirty.
A vast number of these baseball cards will be worthless in a year or two, but because one of them will be another Albert Pujols, we collect them and hope. I have an absurd number myself. Say, when is Ryan Garko going to get to the next level?
There are endless websites and magazine articles dissecting rookies. Steven Strasburg, the hellfire pitching prospect who will top the draft next month, appears more often in Sports Illustrated than Justin Morneau.
Have you seen Strasburg’s furious pitching glare? But other than seeing his vicious gameface, all I know about him is that he is the greatest pitcher of all time except he hasn’t pitched yet.
Baseball’s draft pales compare to football’s, where even the combine auditions are on TV, and the draft itself is sold as a competition with winners and losers.
It’s common for football rookies to earn more than many of the veterans on the team they are joining. These players who haven’t even survived a pro training camp are being paid entirely on the basis of speculation.
Speculators we are, even the fans. Where to place my affections this season, and my precious time? I don’t want to be late finding the next great rookie.
The rookies flow on in a constant stream. The veterans depart with less fanfare. Suddenly you realize: Hey, no Fred McGriff this year. No more Eric Karros. And whatever happened to Marquis Grissom?
But you can only notice the holes they left if you concentrate, because the rookies filling those spots redirect your attention. It’s the triumph of youth over age, potential over old news. I grow old, my sports team stays eternally young.
Tonight, against the Brewers, the Twins sent 23-year-old Anthony Swarzak to the mound. He was called up a few days ago to fill the hole Glen Perkins made while on the DL. Swarzak gets to pitch his first game in the majors on a home field, with Joe Mauer calling the game, and his mom and stepfather sitting behind home plate.
Nice touches, but he’s still gotta be nervous, right? The rookie must show that special balance of bravado and awestruck humility. We don’t want him steamrollering our existing heroes, but on the other hand we need that galactic-size confidence that signals success.
Swarzak appeared pretty cool up there, and he weight of the occasion didn’t affect him. He ended up with a solid starter’s line: seven innings pitched, 98 pitches, five hits allowed, 3 Ks, 2 walks. And no runs. No runs at all.
The shutout was squandered in the eighth, by Matt Guerrier, but the Twins won the game on both offense and defense. In addition to Swarzak’s fine debut, Joe Mauer started his next hitting streak by going 3-for-3 with two RBI and a homer, Joe Crede popped another solo shot, and the team scored a total of six runs.
Swarzak had his share of self-induced pitching jams. He had runners on base most innings and did not have the strike zone pegged at times, but wiggled out of trouble each time. Some of the Brewers’ hits were lucky liners; the three walks actually were the bigger blot on Swarzak’s first outing.
Swarzak was drafted high by the Twins in 2004, and has generally progressed well. He got himself a 50-game suspension in 2007 for a positive drug test, but CBS Sports reports that it wasn’t a performance enhancer. Does that mean it was recreational?
Who knows what they do and don’t test now. In any case, he appears ready to work at what Bert Blyleven loves to call “the major league level.”
When Perkins comes off the DL next week, the Twins will probably make room for Swarzak in the bullpen. Craig Breslow, a lefty, has been lost on the waiver wire, but he was replaced by recent callup Sean Henn as the southpaw companion to Jose Mijares. There is still plenty of room for someone like Swarzak to contribute.
Swarzak’s first game has a whole list of happy things for him to remember for the rest of his life. A win, scoreless innings, a happy crowd welcoming him to the bigs. No one knows how this game fits in with the rest of his career, but there’s no reason to dial down the hope yet.
I’m thinking about rookies tonight because the game began with a goodbye before this hello. Corey Koskie was honored after officially retiring this year. He left baseball far sooner than he wanted to, after a concussion kept him out for a season and his comeback finally sputtered.
Here’s Koskie, reminding me of the Twins of his era, and though it seems like it wasn’t long ago, none of his teammates remain. He played for the Twins from 1998 to 2004, and was part of the seismic shift that got the team back into contention.
I can recall the lineup around him from memory: AJ Pierzinski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Christian Guzman, Matt Lawton, David Oritz (you can look it up), and Shannon Stewart. I’m not sure I got the exact team from any given year, but the players are there in my memory. Nudged aside, one by one, by rookies.