When I heard last week that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were shutting the circus down once and for all, after having been around three times longer than me, it registered with me that the news didn’t really register with me. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it, maybe ever, but on reflection these last couple weeks it occurred to me that I didn’t like the circus as a kid nearly as much I was probably supposed to.
Same with hot dogs.
Or “The Waltons.”
(Give me “The Six Million Dollar Man” instead, six million times over, or “Shazam.”)
Or roller skating.
Or the Steve Miller Band.
Or long-sleeve shirts.
On the other end of the spectrum, on the list of things I was really into (my “jam,” I think the kids say today) on what in retrospect was sort of a super-insane level, there was “The Electric Company.” The sports section of the Sears Catalog. “Schoolhouse Rock.” Richard Scarry books and Dr. Haledjian stories.
My family was sports-centric. Our weekends were planned around the Cowboys game. My after-school afternoons were spent outside, playing whatever was in season, and my summer days were the same thing, times 10. When I was seven, those Saturday trips with Dad to Schepps or 7-Eleven were no longer for Fudgsicles or Good Humor bars, but instead for a pack of Topps.
I remember the name of every team I played for as a kid, and every coach.
How it was that baseball emerged from the rest, I can only guess. I was too skinny (and too related to Mom) to have any sort of future playing football, though I loved it and wished forever that I could have. Basketball was there but the Mavs weren’t yet, and so it didn’t grab me as much. Soccer was OK.
But, man, baseball.
Couldn’t get enough. Playing and watching and listening and reading and dreaming.
On those pre-teen summer nights when I wasn’t playing ball, I was still at Northaven or Churchill Park anyway, getting paid what felt like a (sub-minimum-wage) fortune to keep a scorebook for the Chamber. When the Rangers were untelevised (which was about 80 percent of the time, at least), I happily fired up the radio call — and kept a scorebook (in which I’d draw a mug shot of my Star of the Game). I read everything I could if it had the name Peter Gammons or Joe Falls or Bill Madden on top.
There were trips to the baseball card shop that counted fewer weeks off than Harold Carmichael.
Dot matrix letters carefully crafted and typed out, edges de-perforated, folded and enveloped and stamped, and mailed to Joe Klein, and then Tom Grieve, with my woefully bullish Rule 5 and Hot Stove ideas.
The one reason to not miss the State Fair? Winning those plastic, unpadded, horribly uncomfortable yet purely awesome MLB batting helmets at the radar gun booth.
Slurpee coins and Kellogg’s 3-D (that would curl up within hours) and Revco cello packs and 1976 Topps Traded and Longball with dice.
Mispronouncing Mark Lemongello . . . all those years.
Playing Little League and BBI and American Legion and high school ball and, not satisfied with the idea of always wondering “What if?,” trying to walk on at UT and going through a Cincinnati Reds tryout at Southwestern University in Georgetown, with the same adrenaline and want as those tens of thousands of games of streetball as a kid, the same feeling as opening a wax pack or checking the mailbox to see if Joe or Tom had written back with a comment or two about my trade idea to get Paul Molitor.
In a couple weeks there will be a procedurally allotted 40 big league players reporting to the southernmost side of the Surprise Recreation Campus on North Bullard, and it won’t stop there. Another 15 to 20 will have at least temporary privileges in the big league clubhouse, on non-roster invitations to make impressions, and possibly make good.
I wanted to know who those 45th and 50th and 55th players were when I was nine years old, and that hasn’t changed. Those unrecognizable players with offensive lineman jersey numbers that made them no less unrecognizable, borderline-anonymous baseball players toting around multiple gloves, a day-to-day lease on a clubhouse stall, and longshot hopes, at best.
Each was still the best kid in town when he was playing at his own Northaven or Churchill Park, and I knew that. Was that part of the draw? I had a better shot at being Wayne Pinkerton or LaRue Washington or Nick Capra than I did Toby Harrah or Billy Sample, even if the dreams starred the ones who’d earned their own baseball cards.
Sometimes non-roster invites are the young players who don’t yet need to be on a 40-man roster under the rules but who’ve precociously earned a shot at getting in front of the big league coaching staff. CD in 2008. Elvis and Neftali and Derek in 2009. Rougie in 2014, Joey in 2015.
Other times they’re veterans past the stage of their careers when they could command guaranteed money, but not ready to hang ’em up. Occasionally it works out OK (Sammy Sosa, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones). Other times, well, it was worth a shot (Ryan Ludwick, Jeremy Guthrie).
But sometimes, Neal Cotts emerges. Or Chris Gimenez. Or A.J. Griffin.
Or Endy Chavez, or Yangervis Solarte, each of whom makes me a little bit sports-sad.
Or, ever so briefly, Kevin Kouzmanoff or Kyle Blanks. Different brand of sad.
But what I wanted to say today is that there’s another category of players packing up for Arizona soon, not holding down a 40-man roster spot or one of those 15 to 20 temp assignments that include a nameplate. Nine-year-old me wanted to know who those guys were, and at 47 I’m still fascinated.
Jon Edwards didn’t get a non-roster invite in 2014, and neither did Jake Smolinski or Guilder Rodriguez, but all three, with Texas on minor league deals after running the string out with a different organization, and despite back fields assignments in camp, beat crazy odds and became big leaguers later that year, for the first time, with the Rangers.
Same with Matt Bush in 2016. With his fourth organization.
Josh Hamilton and James Loney don’t fit into the same category this spring as Will Middlebrooks or Dillon Gee or Travis Snider, and Cesar Puello is probably more like Solarte than anyone else here. They all have non-roster invites, though, along with a few other veterans and a handful of pre-roster prospects like righthander Ariel Jurado and catcher Jose Trevino.
But then there’s lefthander Jeff Malm, who like Bush is a position player converted to the mound and like Bush is now with his fourth franchise and like Bush is going to be a lot easier for Scott to write about (or at least to type) than Luis Yander La O.
And who, like Bush a year ago, will be in minor league camp along with dozens of other pitchers dreaming of the other side of the parking lot, many not old enough to rent a car.
Malm, a senior at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas when Joey Gallo was a freshman there, was the Rays’ fifth-round pick in 2009, and spent six seasons as a first baseman-outfielder in their system before the Angels (2015) and then the Dodgers (2016) put him on the mound instead.
In 2015 (Rookie League), Malm struck out 7.1 batters per nine innings and walked only 2.9, fairly impressive for a first-time pitcher, even one three years too old for his level.
In 2016 (High A/AA), against more age-appropriate competition, the big southpaw punched out 10.7 per nine, walking 2.4 per nine. The insane 4.4 K/BB rate was among the best in minor league baseball. And he allowed only three home runs in 48 innings.
Malm signed a minor league deal with Texas a week ago, but it didn’t include a non-roster invite to the clubhouse where fellow lefties Alex Claudio, Andrew Faulkner, and Dario Alvarez (and I suppose Yohander Mendez) will vie for bullpen roles in Jake Diekman’s early-season absence.
If and when Malm shows enough on the back fields to get a Just In Case call to the stadium, they’ll scramble to get his last name and an unclaimed number on the back of a jersey for the day.
That was Matt Bush, a year ago.
The circus is circling the drain, which doesn’t really move the needle for me, but the baseball fire in me still burns, no less steadily. It’s my jam.
Football, at least around here, is done for the year. Another Rangers Awards Dinner is in the books, and the Winter Caravan is circulating. It’s that time of year.
It’s almost time to put those long-sleeve shirts away, and now I think I might’ve just had a moment of self-awareness.
The phrase “Pitchers & Catchers” resonates with me with all the force of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” or “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” but more with stamina than with nostalgia, a thing I may not have imagined in my pre-teens while tearing open a new issue of The Sporting News in search of the Gammons piece, or listening to radio baseball — less then by choice than by necessity.
The idea of Jeff Malm throwing a late February side, a hidden 200 yards west of Yu Darvish and Matt Bush and Ariel Jurado and Doug Brocail and Brad Holman, shouldn’t have me this fired up. He may contribute no more to the Texas Rangers than Jeremy Guthrie did.
But he might, just like Bush has and just like Neal Cotts did, and you never know what you’re gonna get when you peel open that pack of mid-70s Topps, or what might have happened if Endy had simply been put in, late, for defense, and, even if you know exactly what Eric’s first words will be after the lead riff to “Born to Run,” you have no idea how the two or three hours after that will unfold, day after day, and I still believe, with all the impervious optimism of a nine-year-old that would eventually no longer be invited to play the game, that that’s just the absolute best.