Friction & Discipline: An Epilogue, Part Three

Brandon Guyer (foreground) and Kevin Kiermaier in the Governor’s Cup series in Pawtucket. Photo by Revill Photographic.

(Part Two. Part One.)

If the Tampa Bay Rays had been at all on the fence about promoting Jeff Beliveau following the Triple-A season, he might have pushed them off of it, to the wrong side, by coughing up the Bulls’ 1-0 lead in the eighth inning of game one of the International League Championship series (he took the loss). Rays officials were in attendance in Durham that night, watching from seats in the stands behind home plate. They were loudly displeased by the left-handed Beliveau’s inability to retire a pair of left-handed hitters in a tight spot — exactly the sort of call he could expect to get in the major-league bullpen.

Beliveau wound up having a curious year. The Rays acquired him off waivers from the Texas Rangers just two weeks into the Triple-A season and assigned him to Durham. Three different times, they recalled him to the majors, only to option him back to the Bulls again without using him in a game. The third time, due to an apparent roster crunch, he was sent all the way down to Double-A Montgomery.

In the press box, we speculated that this was a paper move only. It was late August, and we figured he was probably still with the Rays, waiting for rosters to expand on September 1, whereupon he would be officially reinstated and finally used in major-league games. But no, he actually did join the Montgomery Biscuits in Birmingham, Alabama. He pitched in two games there, striking out five of the seven batters he faced, and then was reassigned to Durham, yet again, in time for the Triple-A playoffs.

Beliveau performed much better in his two subsequent appearances against Pawtucket, but he may already have flunked his audition for a big-league spot in September with his blown save in game one. By the time the Triple-A playoffs ended, Beliveau had reached the rubberiest limits of limbo. He could conceivably have still been called up; or he could have had to wait until next spring for another shot to pitch in a Rays uniform; or he could have become yet another of the countless relievers designated for assignment every year and claimed by yet another team. If the latter were to happen, the claiming team would be Beliveau’s fourth paymaster in the span of a year.

That really isn’t all that unusual. Relievers are the most disposal, yet most in-demand, asset of all on a Triple-A roster. Many of them spend their careers in a sort of vagabondage, both free and enslaved at once: somewhere between hired guns and migrant workers. Beliveau, who went from Allentown right back to Providence, where he is from and lives in the off-season, would be called on again anyway, despite himself, within two days. Sometimes it’s not what you do; it’s that there’s a hole that has to be filled, and you’re the closest peg they’ve got.

As for Guyer, who has played for the Bulls for parts of the last three seasons, the news was gloomier. Guyer almost surely would have been called up to Tampa Bay in early August, when Rays (and former Bulls) center fielder Desmond Jennings got hurt, but Guyer was hurt himself at the time. On July 25, he was hit by a pitch while attempting to bunt, fracturing his finger. He missed about a month. (Oddly, it was the same injury on the same play — a fractured finger on a bunt attempt — that delayed Jennings’s promotion to the majors two years earlier.)

While Guyer was out with his finger injury, the Rays quietly added him to the 25-man major-league roster and put him on the big-league disabled list. This maneuver gave them a bit more roster flexibility, which ultimately allowed them to bring up Jason Bourgeois, who had not been on the 40-man roster. Bourgeois got into a few games in the majors, even hitting a game-winning, ninth-inning single for the Rays on August 14 and a home run against Baltimore on August 21, before he was designated for assignment. He cleared waivers and returned to the Bulls.

When Guyer was ready to return to action, he was “sent back” to Durham (he never actually left, was with the Triple-A club all through his recovery time), but technically on a major-league rehab assignment. Shortly after his reactivation, he lost still more time to an apparent back injury. Perhaps he really was hurt, but there was ex post facto speculation that the circumstances of the injury (and perhaps the injury itself) were “sketchy”: a way of juggling time and space so that Guyer’s rehab assignment could be restarted at later date. That would allow him to continue playing for the Bulls all the way through the National Championship game, while simultaneously keeping his roster spot fluid in case the Rays wanted to play with it some more.

That is precisely what they did. Guyer started against Omaha in Allentown last week, making a fine running catch in right field but otherwise doing nothing much; he went 0-3. The same day, Tampa Bay signed a speedster named Freddy Guzman, who had stolen seventy-three bases with a Mexican League team this season, and assigned Guzman very, very briefly to the Bulls, although he never joined the team, of course: the Bulls’ season was over.

The last time Guzman had played in the major leagues — indeed, in the United States of America — was 2009. That year, the New York Yankees did something very similar to what the Rays did on Tuesday: they picked up Guzman after rosters expanded solely to have him sit around and wait to be called on to pinch run and steal a base. (Wouldn’t you know it, that move by the Yankees, five Septembers ago, also affected the Bulls in the post-season on my watch.) Guzman actually made the Yankees’ post-season roster in 2009 and got into a game in the American League Championship Series. There is no record of his having played anywhere in the world in 2010. Until last Tuesday, he had been in the Mexican Leagues from 2011 on.

In order to add Guzman to the big-league roster, the Rays had to take someone off of it. Brandon Guyer, right after playing a game of baseball with a perfectly healthy back, was called into manager Charlie Montoyo’s office and informed not only that he was not being called up, but also that the Rays were transferring him to the 60-day disabled list.

This was, in effect, adding (false)  injury to insult to (real) injury. Guyer is a pretty good base stealer himself. He stole twenty-two bases this year in just twenty-five attempts. Yet he was not only not the guy Tampa Bay wanted, even though they had him on their major-league roster; he was the guy shelved, long-term and sketchily, so that the Rays could replace him with a thirty-two-year-old nobody who hadn’t played in this country since Obama’s first year in office. (An additional irony: in the alphabetical list of players active in affiliated professional baseball, the name that immediately follows “Guyer” is “Guzman.”)

Guyer belongs to that category of player who has a knack for getting hurt at precisely the wrong time. Last year, he was called up to the majors in May and promptly tore the labrum in his shoulder, ending his season. The year before that, on May 6, 2011, Guyer hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat. He was optioned back to Durham shortly afterward, had a good year, and might have had an outside chance to supplant Justin Ruggiano as the Rays’ bench outfielder when Ruggiano got hurt. But Guyer got hurt at the same time, straining his oblique.

Guyer has always seemed to have a target on him, or a way of putting himself in bright lights that are not always welcome. There was the debut home run in 2011, of course, but there have also been all those injuries, which seem to come at the worst moments, as if pain is seeking him out. He does not crowd the plate when at bat, but he has finished near the league’s leaders in getting hit by pitches in both of his last two full seasons in Triple-A. When he returned from his “back spasms” injury for game one of the Governor’s Cup series, he was hit in by a pitch his very first at-bat — and then again, later in the same game. In spring training of 2012, he loaned his SUV to his troubled, substance-abusing Rays minor-league teammate Matt Bush, and an intoxicated Bush hit and nearly killed a motorcyclist. Guyer was named a defendant in the subsequent civil suit, which took many months to resolve.

Guyer has often struck me as a uniquely, perhaps unfairly burdened player, carrying around more than just his own career, his own fate. Some people seem to have that weight always on them. I’m not sure I can really explain, although the strange final night of the Bulls season, which saw Guyer transferred somewhere out of sight and mind for quite a while, at least offers a suggestion. He isn’t eligible to come off the disabled list until mid-November, and frankly the Rays probably don’t really care. He is at this point only a pawn in the Rays’ game. Guyer will be twenty-eight years old next spring training, the clock will be ticking very loudly on his big-league biology, and he is on the verge of being passed on the depth chart by Kevin Kiermaier, who is faster, cheaper, and five years younger.

To some degree, all of this injustice and misfortune is probably softened by the money Guyer has been making, and will continue to make, while he is on the major-league disabled list. As a member of the big-league roster, he’s earning the pro-rated major-league minimum salary, which at $490,000 is somewhere around six times what he made in Triple-A. But it would be wrong to suppose that he doesn’t otherwise care about the transaction.

How do I know that? To start with what I didn’t know, I was not aware, immediately after the Triple-A National Championship game, about the Guzman signing or how it affected Guyer. I only knew that Guyer hadn’t been called up to the majors. I passed him on my way out of the clubhouse, wished him a good off-season, and thanked him for his time this year. I wanted to make a point of thanking the players who had been most amenable to speaking with me; I’ve always considered it a professional courtesy, not a requirement of their job. Guyer bade me goodbye in return. There was nothing notable about this (other than that Guyer has always been one of the most pleasant and amicable guys on the team), except this surprisingly affecting detail: he used my name.

This was quite discomfiting. Thinking about it later, I realized that Guyer had never called be my name. Not only that, he was one of only three or four players ever to use my name in addressing me in the five years I’ve been covering the team. There has always been some wall of anonymity there, and not one of my own making; if anything, I’d like to have been closer to the players. No, it’s a wall built by the players as a form of self-protection and, I’ve always thought, as an allowance to us, the media, to write about them without feeling compromised, conflicted or tugged at by the demands of any sort of “relationship.” If they go about their business as though they don’t know who we are, and feign unawareness of what we might be saying about them (which for many of them is in fact genuine unawareness), it detaches them from having to worry too much about what they say to us, on the record or off. It’s best if they treat us as nothing more than some guys who come into their sanctum for a few minutes a night, ask them a few (usually inane) questions, and leave to repeat their answers to some unseen audience. Their words, delivered to a nameless figure holding a voice recorder, disappear on release. The athlete’s short memory follows him off the field. This is healthy.

So when Guyer called me by name, it added retrospective tenderness, and weight, to what I later discovered about his postgame fate. He had just absorbed two pieces of bad news about his future: no callup; two months on the disabled list. The news hit him as a person, not as a pawn or even as a ballplayer; it put him on a first-name basis with life, and so with me. The strange, surprising intimacy of this single word, Adam, the most familiar word in my life, was totally disarming. It was as if I had never heard my name before. Brandon knew who I was all along, these last two and a half seasons? Had we both been people here, not just functionaries conducting pro forma interviews from opposite sides of the wall?

Guyer was the last person I spoke with in the clubhouse. I left the clubhouse and walked out into the night — the first chilly one of the season — feeling doubly braced, and as though a boundary I had always thought uncrossable had in fact been an open border all this time.

The very next night, a week ago today, Freddy Guzman made his Tampa Bay Rays debut in the eleventh inning of a game against the Texas Rangers. The Rangers had taken a one-run lead in the top of the inning, but with two outs in the bottom half, Matt Joyce walked. Guzman pinch ran for Joyce and did precisely what he was hired to do: he stole second base. David DeJesus singled him home to tie the game, and the Rays won it in the next inning.

“I want to believe this game has to give us some kind of impetus moving forward,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said afterward, and it did. Tampa Bay lost to Rangers ace Yu Darvish the next night, but they haven’t lost since. Their five-game winning streak has given them a one-game lead in the American League wild card race with five left to play.

If Freddy Guzman never plays another game for the Rays, and they make it to the playoffs, will he have been worth it? Yes, unquestionably. He saved a game for them, and it may be that that one game makes the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs, or between hosting the wild card game and having to travel for it. In a strange way, Brandon Guyer shares responsibility for last Wednesday’s win, too. But that’s all he shares: the burden, the oiling of gears. He’s excluded from the thrill of it, from the glory, from the “impetus.” All he feels is the friction.

Tomorrow, Leslie Anderson and J. D. Martin take center stage as this epilogue continues.

 

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