One Less Dying Quail

Courtesy of Buster, two of the more unlikely guys in the game are about to break camp with their big clubs. First in Milwaukee:

After toiling 11 years in the minors before finally getting his chance to pitch in the big leagues, Mark DiFelice isn’t about to start taking things for granted. “I’ll believe I’ve made the team when I’m on the flight to San Francisco,” said DiFelice, referring to the Milwaukee Brewers’ opening series of the season. DiFelice’s reluctance is understandable. When you have 263 minor-league games on your résumé and only 15 appearances in the majors, this breaking-camp-with-the-team stuff is a bit difficult to grasp.

Then in Seattle:

Calming his nerves before the biggest start of his life wasn’t all that tough for Chris Jakubauskas. After all, he’d toiled 4 ½ years in the independent leagues before somebody gave him a shot at pitching professionally. So, another few days of putting off thoughts of a possible major-league career with the Mariners didn’t seem that long to a 30-year-old living out one of those storybook dreams.

It’s tempting to turn guys like these into Cinderella stories, but my guess is that there isn’t as big a difference as we often assume between guys like DiFelice and Jakubauskas on the one hand and any number of 11th or 12th guys on a staff on the other. Like St. Crash said, “one extra flare a week, a gork, a ground ball, you get a ground ball WITH EYES, you get a dying quail. Just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” Or in a pitcher’s case, out of Yankee Stadium.

Anyone who raises even as high as the mid-minors was once the best pitcher in his city and maybe even his state, and it’s no doubt the case that some bad luck and subtle biases prevented DiFelice and Jakubauskas from making it sooner than they have. Now that they’re up they have just as good a shot as anyone to stick and be effective. That part of me that pours a big tall scotch and watches “Bull Durham” once a year — this time of year — hopes that that’s the case.

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  1. lar said...

    That’s a great point, Craig, and one I try to remember on a regular basis with guys like these. When the Giants moved their AAA team to Fresno about 10 years ago, the fan favorite on the team quickly became Jeff Ball, a 29 year old career minor leaguer who was already in his 4th year at the Triple-A level. He was a good solid minor leaguer, but nothing special. Still, everyone rallied around him. He was actually called up to the Bigs that June. The first time in his career. Played two games for the Giants. He went 1 for 4 in those two games, with a single off Bobby Jones. (All that according to his Baseball-Reference page). Nothing special or especially unique, but you can only imagine the excitement that a guy like must’ve had that year.

    DiFelice seemed like a similar case. Called up last year as an 11-year minor league veteran, 31 years old. And a pitcher, no less. If I remember right, the papers at the time said he had to re-evaluate his life every year to see if another season was worth it, but he had finally decided on one last year. So he gets called up in May, pitches well enough, but gets sent back down when there’s no longer any room on the roster. Then, when the rosters expand, he gets that second chance and again pitches well. I can only imagine the thrill that last year must’ve been. And now, with a good spring and a management that clearly believes in him, he makes the Opening Day roster.

    Like you said, for guys like that, you can only hope that the luck (and especially the support) continue for him.

    (I also remember reading that any player whose on a major league roster for even one day gets free(?) medical insurance for the rest of their life. If I’m remembering that right, that’s a pretty powerful incentive to keep trying for that shot at the bigs.)

  2. Jeremy said...

    Nice post, I’m sure this is right. A particularly unusual (and sad) example of bad luck: I live in Calgary, where the best hitter on the local independent league team (Vipers) for the past few years has been Daryl Brinkley. He’s in his forties now. He played a number of years in the minors in the US, getting as high as AAA in the Orioles system. In 2001 he had a mediocre season and had pretty much given up hope of ever being called up to the big club. He went to Japan as soon as his season ended in early Sept., only to finally get the call-up he’d been waiting for. But Sept. 11 happened the next day, and he wasn’t able to get a flight back to the US for a while. In the meantime, the Orioles called up someone else instead. Brinkley never got another shot at the bigs.

  3. Chris said...

    It’s a valuable reminder this time of year, when teams are adding new players and releasing old ones (pace, Sheff).  As much as we like to deride the Juan Pierres of the world, it’s worth remembering that a weak-armed, 84-career-OPS+ guy like Pierre is nonetheless one of the most talented athletes in the world. 

    And who wouldn’t love to be Mark DiFelice?  He won’t end his career in the Hall of Fame, but he plays baseball for a living and can tell his grandchildren about pitching in the bigs.  Pretty good.

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