Call Me Up Maybe, Part II

Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.

(Part I.)

So, had Wil Myers been called up or not?

Mike Birling said nothing. He and Scott Strickland just stood there for a moment, watching the ballgame. I got up to say hello, not having seen him yet during the home stand. Birling shook my hand warmly and asked: “Would you say that it poured here for five minutes last night?”

The question took me by surprise. I had no idea, for one thing, and I told him so. For another, were we really talking about the weather with Wil Myers’ fate hanging in the balance? I realized that I myself was one of the ants scurrying around in the hill I had kicked earlier.

It turned out that Birling and Strickland were already in the middle of a joshing back-and-forth debate about whether the previous night’s rain was hard enough to have been declared a storm, in which case lightning could have been involved, and lightning might explain why the scoreboard display lights—balls, strikes, outs, hit/error—weren’t working. (They were fixed shortly afterwards.) Birling seemed to be jokingly implying that the precocious, meticulous Strickland might have somehow prevented this electrical damage had he prepared, semantically and psychologically, for a storm rather than just hard rain.

Everyone else in earshot was of course waiting for the word on Myers, and I found myself wondering if the Birling & Strickland Rain or Storm? routine was really just some well-rehearsed comic buddy-act to distract us from big news that we were definitely not going to be told—or perhaps they were going to tell us, with great fanfare, when the act was over; but first we had to wait out their “Who’s On First”-style warm-up teaser.

Finally, someone else asked aloud for news of Myers. Strickland often hangs around the dugout during games and he might have heard something down there. But he answered that he knew only what we knew, and that he knew Myers was out of the game solely because he had seen my tweet. Birling, chipper, chipped in: “I dunno. I’m supposed to go find out.” Then he shrugged and left. He never returned. That, of course, was because the little there was to report was so inconsequential that it wasn’t worth it. Mountains out of anthills…

Myers to the dugout railing; Myers gone from the dugout.

Meanwhile, Rich Thompson, who replaced Myers in right field (and the third spot in the Durham lineup), was busy getting two hits in three at-bats and using his great speed to help runs score. In the fifth inning, he hit what for most players would have been a single to right field, but Thompson—the active minor-league career leader in stolen bases—used his wheels to turn the hit into a double. The hit moved Mike Fontenot, who had singled, to third base, from where he scored on a sacrifice fly by Leslie Anderson. Thompson then manufactured an eighth-inning insurance run (the Bulls would go on to win, 4-2) pretty much all by himself: using his speed again, he beat out an infield single, moved to second on a groundout, stole third base, and scored on a wild pitch.

But Thompson wasn’t done shining in the limelight Myers had vacated. In the top of the ninth inning, Bulls closer Josh Lueke was in his second inning of work, trying for a long-form, six-out save. That has has already become common for him this year: manager Charlie Montoyo keeps sending him out in the eighth inning with a lead, and riding him to the end of the game. Montoyo says that this is because Lueke will be required to pitch multiple innings if he is called up to the major leagues. In fact, Montoyo often says this of his late-inning, closer-type relievers; last year his workhorse was Dane De La Rosa, who saved twenty games for the Bulls in 2012 and went more than one inning in about a quarter of his fifty-four appearances. That’s nothing compared to Lueke, who has thrown more than one inning in nearly half of his Triple-A appearances (six out of fourteen). By the time this game is over, Lueke will lead all International League relievers in innings pitched.

Lueke had an easy, one-two-three eighth inning, and here in the ninth he starts out with a strikeout, his third, of Chris Rahl. But then Eury Perez singles to right field. The tying run will be coming to the plate in the form of Syracuse’s Jeff Kobernus, one of the league’s best and hottest hitters.

Except, no, not so fast. Perez tries to stretch the single to a double. Thompson gazelles over to the right field line, fields the ball quickly, and throws out Perez at second base.

Two outs, and that pretty much takes care of it. All hail Rich Thompson! Hail him not only for making everyone not miss Wil Myers, wherever he is and whatever is happening to him, but also hail him retrospectively. Thompson first made it to the majors in 2004, with the Kansas City Royals—the team that traded Wil Myers to Tampa Bay almost a decade later. Thompson was twenty-five, on his way up, probably confident that he would be drawing a permanent major-league salary pretty soon, at the time a cool $300,000 per year (it’s now $490,000). But he got into just six games with the Royals that season, mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive substitute, and had only one at-bat. Irony: in that at-bat, the speedy Thompson grounded into a double play.

He didn’t make it back to the majors again for eight years.

When he did, it was with Tampa Bay. Last season, Thompson was called up around this time, mid-May, because of injuries on the big-league squad. He got into a May 16, 2012 game as a late-inning outfield replacement but did not come up to bat. The next night, though, May 17, he started in left field. He struck out looking in his first plate appearance. In the second, he singled to left, not only getting his first hit but also driving in his first major-league run. It took him two presidential administrations between opportunities. Life is not easy for some of us.

To return to the beginning of this story, and to tell it true: most callups are temporary, and short, which is why it isn’t generally necessary to get all that excited about them—even when they result in a guy finally getting his first career base hit at age thirty-three. But most minor-league endings are not happy ones. Tell it true. Thompson got seventeen more plate appearances with the Rays after his first hit, adding a second hit in one of them, and then did not get another. About a month after his callup, he was sent back down to Triple-A. That, unfortunately, is pretty much how baseball works.

Thompson had a good 2012 season for the Bulls, and the Rays re-signed him for 2013, sending him back to Durham as Triple-A insurance for Sam Fuld, who holds down the reserve outfielder job in Tampa Bay. Thompson is a similar player to Fuld—a fast, left-handed-hitting outfielder—and Fuld is coming back from a serious injury he suffered last season. So Thompson is now doing what many, many veteran Triple-A players do: He’s waiting for someone ahead of him to get hurt and hoping that, if that happens and the Rays need a replacement for Fuld, they’ll call on Thompson instead of making a trade or hitting the waiver wire seeking external reinforcements.

The possibility that the Rays will disregard their own Triple-A depth in Thompson’s case is, sadly, strong. Thompson was batting just .202 on May 9, and he had not been hitting the ball hard: a lot of weak groundouts and harmless flies to the infield and the opposite field. He had already hit into three double plays. That may not sound like a lot, but three is how many double plays he hit into all of last year. Thompson is grounding into double plays at the highest rate of his fourteen-year career.

Are Thompson’s bat and legs slowing down on him, now that he is thirty-four? How long before our velocities and our drives necessarily, irrevocably decline? There is twenty-two-year-old Wil Myers, who doesn’t need to run fast because he couldn’t swing a slow bat if he tried and hits long balls that result in unhurried home-run trots. Yet Myers so far looks like a disappointment, with a slash line of .250/.350/.382. Those numbers are roughly equal to those of Steve Tolleson, a twenty-nine-year-old journeyman who has been trying and failing to hit his way out Triple-A with five different teams since 2009. Yet Rich Thompson would be thrilled if he had Myers’ and Tolleson’s numbers. He went on a hot streak after May 9, but even that left him at just .221/.291/.265. Only six regular players in the International League have worse numbers than those.

On this night, the night Thompson replaces Myers in the lineup, he is supposed to be getting his second night off in a row, by Charlie Montoyo’s design. The skipper is trying to give the struggling, pressing Thompson a healthy breather from his own slump. That Montoyo had planned to give Thompson consecutive nights off, which he seldom does unless a player is injured (Thompson isn’t), tells you about the depth and distress of Thompson’s season-opening slump.

Instead, he is called into emergency action after Myers’ departure, then goes two-for-three, steals a base, creates a couple of runs, throws out a runner trying to stretch a single for extra bases, and looks generally like the very valuable player Durham had last year (.311/.369/.426). That is cause for a different kind of excitement. It’s not the kind that bubbles up when you think a hot-to-trot, twenty-two-year-old thoroughbred like Wil Myers has perhaps been called up to the major leagues for the first time. Instead, it’s the excitement you feel when you discover that the old plant you worried might have died has a new, unexpected green shoot. It’s quieter and more qualified excitement, it has a ways to go to be validated, but it’s there.

Here is a little baseball lesson, though—a devilish one from this unsentimental, unmerciful sport. After Thompson shoots down Eury Perez’s bid for a double, the next batter is the dangerous Kobernus. But Josh Lueke gets Kobernus to hit an easy fly ball to… right field, of course. Thompson ranges over, camps under it, and—loses the ball in the lights. It falls behind him, and the speedy Kobernus—another Thompson-type player; the player Thompson was when he was called up to Kansas City in 2004—has a triple.

It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened at the DBAP. I can recall two other instances in which Durham Bulls outfielders have lost the ball in the right-field lights at this ballpark. It’s not Thompson’s fault, and it might not be entirely a matter of losing the ball in the lights but losing it without them: after the game, Lueke tells Thompson that several of the lamps in the tower that illuminates right field (or is supposed to, anyway) are out. Maybe because of that lightning strike in the Birling & Strickland show? (“I tell ya it wuz a storm!” “Nahh, it was only a hard rain, Birling!”) Or was there a lightning strike? Has Myers been called up or not?

“This… is a simple game,” declares Skip, the virtually eponymous manager in Bull Durham. But baseball can also be—in fact, usually is—vexingly, riddlingly complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure of anything at all.

One thing is sure, though: Jeff Kobernus is on third base, there are two outs in the ninth inning, and the Syracuse batter is Will Rhymes.

Of course the Syracuse batter is Will Rhymes. Rhymes is the lone Syracuse Chief who played last year for… the Durham Bulls.

The third and final act of this drama appears tomorrow.

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