Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Love: Minor League Free Agent Signings

by Jason Wojciechowski

(Thanks to whichever of my fine fellows posted this for me, allowing me to contribute to "Why I Love" week despite my being 2200 miles from home and without Wifi due to my lack of desire to pay $13 for the privilege of connecting my computer to the internet.)

Minor-league free agent signings are the best. Put aside the question of how well your favorite team has deployed its resources in minor-league roster space in recent years, or how entertaining the local AAA squad has been. Consider the practice in general. A list of positive characteristics of minor-league signings reads like a small-town newspaper's Fourth of July ode to the greatness of America.

Freedom: it's right there in the phrase "free agency." Many players signing minor-league deals will have been free agents before, but some of them are choosing where they can play for the first time since, at best, college. They're toilers, strivers after the dream of just a single big-league plate-appearance, a story for the grandkids, a chance to be legendary, and they've been riding the buses for the team that drafted them ever since they were innocent babes, unsullied by the particular habits of mind and body of the small-time professional athlete. Suddenly, these players can choose. Outfielders can go to Oakland. Starting pitchers can ring up Brian Cashman. Backup catchers can visit the Twins. Offers can be collected and weighed in terms of pleasantness of weather (Tucson or Pawtucket in July?), chance to make the big-league roster, and orneriness of AAA hitting coach. They are free.

Hope: Oprah-like, a minor-league free-agent signing precipitates silent cries of "you get hope! You get hope! Everybody gets hope!" The player hopes to hit the big-time (regaining past glories or breaking through for the first time). The team simultaneously hopes the player provides solid depth and that he won't be needed at the major-league level. AAA fans hope that this will be that minor-league vet who bops 30 homers and spends the season chasing an MVP award. And major-league fans ... well, I guess their hopes are pretty well aligned with those of the team itself. There's plenty of hope to go around, though.

Nostalgia: think about how many times you see a list of minor-league signings and exclaim "that guy!" You then proceed to regale your six-year-old with stories of the time you saw That Guy turn a slick double play on a beautiful June afternoon eight years ago. You high-fived your seat-neighbor, a total stranger, and guess who that stranger turned out to be? Your spouse! Your child has heard this story a thousand times, and is either ignoring you or finishing the tale in your stead by the end, but it doesn't matter. A quick trip to reveals that this second baseman hasn't had more than 10 at-bats in the bigs in three years, but it doesn't matter. Fangraphs reports that his career wOBA is .268, but it doesn't matter. Things happen at baseball games, big things and little things, and players are playing their games while those things are happening. Players are our link to those things, and thirty-six-year-old fifth-string middle-infielders just barely hanging on to their meager paychecks before moving on to an inevitable career in coaching or insurance sales are our exclusive links. Two hundred fifty thousand people probably claim they saw Rickey Henderson swipe third base to take the career lead in steals. Only you saw that double-play.

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