Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Last Samurai

Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.
Every now and then, I'll do a quick search through the archives and re-watch John McDonald's Father's Day home run in 2010.  If you're not familiar with the story behind it, you can do it now.  I'll wait here.

I love that moment.  In the middle of June, a Sunday afternoon that saw Jays pitching give up homers to Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez and Pat Burrell in a 9-6 loss, many fans were given a poignant reminder of why for so long, they were so attached to a good-field-no-hit utility infielder.  Even knowing his bat was more likely to be knocked out of his hands than to produce runs, many of us still swooned over the surprising range and lightning-quick hands he displayed in a Jays uniform.  It was the unlikeliness and unexpectedness of that homer, the fact it came from John McDonald, that made it so special.

If you understood his limitations, you might be willing to look past them.  If you didn't, you might be easily persuaded he was a better player than he was.  When pressed into something close to full-time duty, he was frequently adequate, occasionally dazzling, and usually made us happy even in failure.  When he left because he wasn't needed anymore, as players like John McDonald inevitably do, all it did was raise questions about if he would come back.

But Toronto was shopping for something better in the middle infield, and particularly at shortstop, which had been a bit of black hole for a decade or so until Yunel Escobar landed in their laps and seemed to have put things in a more stable state.  When it was discovered last year that the words "Yunel Escobar" and "stable state" should never appear in the same sentence together, they traded up to the dynamic Jose Reyes, who promptly maimed himself.

All of which brings us to the inimitable Munenori Kawasaki.  I'm not sure Kawasaki has quite earned the "journeyman" tag the way McDonald had, given his long prior career in Japan and only one full MLB season under his belt.  Yet here he is, 31 years old and pressed into something close to full-time major league shortstop duty for the first time, in the absence of any better options.  John Gibbons, who was around during part of John McDonald's Toronto tenure, has run him out there regularly, I'm sure knowing full well that this is a player who, albeit in only 226 plate appearances entering today's game, has posted an OPS 46 points lower than our offensively-challenged Johnny Mac.

And yet, he continues to fascinate.  That's the right word, I think.  I can't say "amaze", because his actual performance falls well short of that.  I can't say "surprise", because while his numbers are a little better than what he showed last year in Seattle, we're still not within a large enough sample to determine what the mean is, and whether he needs to get better or worse to regress to it.

I'd resisted writing a post about Kawasaki, despite my enthusiasm for him.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but my enjoyment of his presence was mostly because he was a .gif-able novelty.  But as time has progressed, I didn't want to fall into a trap of thinking he's something he isn't, or make a case for him to stick around much longer than it takes for Jose Reyes' ankle ligaments to heal.

Non-baseball fan the Org Wife, on the other hand, is going to be crestfallen when, as players like Munenori Kawasaki inevitably do, he leaves because he isn't needed anymore.  She loves the guy.  Today, after he cracked a slicing double to cap a dramatic walk-off win, and then went viral with the goofiest, most charming, most incredible post-game interview you could imagine, it's hard not to find myself inching closer into the Org Wife's camp, and I suspect I'm not alone.  Something tells me in three years, I'll be searching through the archives for video of that inside-out drive into the left-centerfield gap, and that celebration.  His teammates loved it.  The fans loved it.  I loved it.  How could you not?

He's probably going to be gone soon.  It would be easier to not miss our replacement/utility middle infielders if we picked them more like the way we should pick out our neckties:  noticeable, but not memorable.  But what fun would that be?

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