Bull City Winter: Christmas Shopping, or The Law of the Instrument

Shelley Duncan

Shelley Duncan. Photo by Kate Joyce.

Why put anything on this website at this late date? Bull City Summer is long over. All that remains is the book and the exhibition: the memorial.

As George Mallory said of another mostly unvisited site, “because it’s there.”

Also, some days you feel bereft of all your tools but the most basic, which calls to mind another old maxim: When your only tool is  a hammer… (everything looks like an essay about Triple-A). It’s called the Law of the Instrument.

They’ve laid down the instruments for now. No one’s playing baseball these days, at least not in this country, which is just as well. Some people are reading Camus instead, because that’s how exiled and estranged they feel when the country of baseball is closed to them. During the season when you can’t throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball, you can just keep pushing it up the mountain and have it roll back down again. For what it’s worth, Camus concludes that we should think of Sisyphus as happy. It’s not only that the work is its own reward, as Camus intimates. It’s also that the moments during which the boulder is plummeting back down the hill (which is rather thrilling in its own way, although Camus doesn’t say that) are followed by Sisyphus’s long descent to its resting place, which he calls “the lair of the gods”—that is, a holy kind of place. In that descent is “a breathing-space”: the hour of consciousness” in which Sisyphus is “superior to his fate.” And “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It’s that scorn that you leave at the top of the mountain. You and your rock did get there, after all, although you didn’t stay. I think every Triple-A player who has been to the majors and then tumbled back down understands what Camus is talking about here. So do I at Christmastime. I’ve always found it a season of reflection, which leads to self-reflection and then to resolutions—which is to say, an annual inspection of one’s flaws. Best to think of them as gifts under the tree of awareness. One day you won’t need to ask for them anymore.

While we all rush to lay in Christmas presents, ball clubs are doing their own shopping. The mega-deals for superstars like Robinson Cano get the headlines, but for me this season is all about Replacement Level. I refer not just to WAR/WARP and the whole sabermetric armature that essentially rests on the theoretical shoulders of Triple-A ballplayers, but to the larger issue of what and who is being replaced. The thrill of Triple-A may be the prospects—e.g. Wil Myers—but its heart, soul, guts and head are the players perhaps best described as six-year free agents. After a  player has been in the minors for six years, if he hasn’t made it to the big leagues he becomes a free agent. At that point, he is usually in his mid- to late twenties. He crosses the Rubicon, or maybe it’s really the River Styx of prospecthood and is cast out into the itinerant underworld of career minor leaguers, until he someday finally retires at the grizzled yet still tender age of thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-six.

That doesn’t mean he won’t make it to the majors again. He probably will. He might even stay there. But most of them, if they have some talent, will settle into honorable but basically unobserved careers as Triple-A lifers. They will become versions of Crash Davis. The most poignant thing about Crash is not that he made to The Show for a few weeks and didn’t stick. It’s not that Nuke has a million-dollar arm while Crash isn’t worth seven cents a pound, as Crash himself puts it. It’s not that he’s so scared and so tender that he avoids Annie, his destiny, until the end of the movie. It’s that Crash wants very badly to set the career minor-league record for home runs and that the only thing he wants as badly is for no one to know about it. “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air,” Annie says, quoting Thomas Gray, in voiceover, as Crash rounds the bases following his record-breaking dinger—an opposite-field shot, it might be appreciated. But it isn’t. Crash’s feat goes unreported in The Sporting News (to my younger readers: The Sporting News used to be a big deal for fans and followers, only you read it instead of watching it).

All during the fall and winter, I keep up with major-league trades and signings, but I’m actually more interested in the movements of the Triple-A players I’ve long known. There are a lot of them, and they stay active and present for much longer than you might think. These replacement-level talents spend the off-season not replacing major-league players but the uniforms on their bodies—replacing themselves, really. Maybe a fresh start, with a new organization, in a new town… Is this fantasy not embedded deep in the American psyche? Self-reinvention, forging ahead into new frontiers. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives, or rather he was right by calling our attention in stark negative: American lives are almost entirely about new and next acts. The unimaginative take their acts to reality television, offering simulacra of themselves. A Triple-A ballplayer takes his bat and glove to a new team, a new league. So perhaps he’ll be “born back ceaselessly into the past,” that is, back into the waters of his essential shortcomings, whatever they are, that keep him out of the majors. (Christmas: the season of our flaws). But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop beating against the current. Maybe he just needs a new boat, even if ultimately he’s in the same one with all those other replacement-level guys, all of them vying with fate for the same summit where there’s room for very, very few rocks: only the ones with extraordinary shape and balance can perch up there, kings of the major-league mountain. Everyone else just rolls back down.

Some of them land in Durham again, but most of the six-year free agents move on. Hearts in Durham were just recently broken when Craig Albernaz, long a fixture in these parts (he suited up for the Bulls for six straight seasons, some of them as a returning free agent), signed with Detroit. He’ll probably be in Durham again briefly in 2014 as a visiting Toledo Mud Hen. It was, in a way, an unthinkable departure. It often seemed like Albernaz would just keep coming back until one day he moved seamlessly into a coaching or managing role in the Rays organization. But Albernaz, like all ballplayers, has bigger dreams than that, and he’ll be chasing in different colors next year.

Albernaz was one of a few Bulls from this past summer to move on. Jason Bourgeois got a taste of the majors again last year, as he has every year since 2008, and he’ll look for another one in the Cincinnati Reds organization, probably as insurance for young  star speedster Billy Hamilton. We’re likely to see Bourgeois in Durham as a Louisville Bat in 2014. Bulls pitcher Matt Buschmann had the best year of his life and moved onto the Oakland A’s organization. He’ll probably be a Sacramento River Cat in 2014.

The International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher, J. D. Martin, will also be a feline, but much farther away: he signed with the Samsung Lions in Korea. He’ll join another recent defector from the International League, Rick Vandenhurk, who often pitched against Durham for the Norfolk Tides for a couple of years. Vandenhurk did what Martin just did, only a year earlier: he parlayed an excellent season in the International League (pitching superbly for Indianapolis in 2012) into a quarter-million-dollar contract with the Lions. These boulders can roll very far away. In some cases, what they roll far away from is their previous potential. Ryan Roberts, who started the year on a three-million-dollar deal with Tampa Bay, ended it on the Bulls’ disabled list, and signed a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs last week. He’s thirty-three years old.

The Bulls had only two players older than Roberts in 2013: Shelley Duncan and Mike Fontenot. They were widely praised in the clubhouse as the Bulls’ team leaders. Neither have signed with any clubs yet for 2014. There’s still time, of course. Chris Gimenez, who became something of a fixture in Durham, was inked in February 2012. Duncan himself didn’t sign with the Rays last year until January. But in the calculus that measures age, wear, desire to play, desire to be at home with family, fear of the unknown after baseball, all of it, at some point the fear will cede to the wear, and one of these winter will have to be the last one. As Michael Croley wrote of Duncan for us in August, “the playfulness of making a living at a child’s game has faded out of him.” Duncan’s mother died in June. He has young twin sons. He expressed a desire to manage someday. When is that day?

This past season, I interviewed Dan Johnson, as I have every year, repeatedly, since 2010. Johnson is pretty much the protagonist, insofar as there is one, of the Triple-A story I’ve been telling since 2009. His story is complex and rich and colorful—colorful in the literal sense of all the colors he has worn, even though he can be gray and gloomy. In 2010, Johnson was a Durham Bull (he won the International League MVP Award) and then a Tampa Bay Ray; in 2011, a Ray and then a Bull again, unhappily, and then a Ray, dramatically, at the very end. In 2012, he was a Charlotte Knight and a Chicago White Sock. In 2013, he was a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRider and then a Norfolk Tide and then a Baltimore Oriole.

When I talked to Johnson this past season, he was having a bad year (although it would eventually get better). I expected him to assume his customary countenance of disaffection and dourness (Camus’s scorn, perhaps) when things aren’t going his way, or even when he merely perceives things aren’t going his way. Instead, I found Johnson surprisingly relaxed. Not content, to be sure, but not quite resigned either, and still harboring the fire that bursts out of Meursault at the end of The Stranger, as it tends to burst out of Johnson at the ends of seasons. When I spoke with him, it seemed he had perhaps found the “breathing-space” Camus describes, the hour of consciousness while the rock rolls down the hill and Sisyphus, demoralized yet spent and somehow purified for it, is if nothing else relieved of his toil for a while.

I thought—honestly, selfishly, I worried—that perhaps Johnson, who is six weeks older than Shelley Duncan, might finally have reached the end of his replacement-level career. Was he going to retire and take with him the annual gem of hope he has long possessed? Hope is in fact the enemy, Camus argues. We must free ourselves of it, and simply go on. Maybe it was time for Johnson to go on from baseball, and time for me to let him.

Not so fast—or rather, very fast. Barely two weeks after the 2013 World Series ended, Johnson signed a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. I happen to be the writer of the Blue Jays’ player comments for the 2014 Baseball Prospectus Annual, and the lone road trip I happened to take with the Bulls this past season started in Buffalo, which is home to the Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, the Bisons. I can now picture Dan Johnson there all next season in that lovely, weathered, deeply replacement-level city, both honorable and unobserved. In Bull Durham, Crash Davis hit 227 minor-league home runs. Dan Johnson has 221.

Because it’s there. The law of the instrument.

Next season, the Buffalo Bisons come to Durham for their annual four-game series August 7-10. The day of the last of those four games, the tenth, is Dan Johnson’s thirty-fifth birthday.




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