Friday, August 25, 2006

Along Baseball's Scenic Route--Part I

Editor's Note: In honor of Russell Branyan's recent trade from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the San Diego Padres, and the Padres touting of Branyan's versatility as they prepare for their final stretch run, the author has decided to republish this short story, "Along Baseball's Scenic Route", written shortly after Branyan left the Indians--for the first time.

This is not a true story, but it could be.

I got the chance to strike out Russell Branyan, former part time infielder, part time outfielder, full time strike out king of the Cleveland Indians. There was a lot of pressure on me, by the way, to accomplish this task. I would have lost my house (and, perhaps, my family) had I failed. But more on that in a moment.

This story really starts well before Branyan joined the Indians as a regular. It actually started two seasons ago and with Richie Sexon, Branyan’s apparently twin brother of a different mother.

During the 1999 season, Sexon made a relatively decent splash with the Tribe. He had something like 31 home runs and 116 rbi, but he struck out a bunch, too. And he didn’t just strike out. He did so in a big way. This was great. Baseball needed a new Dave “King Kong” Kingman (1816 strikeouts in 6677 career at bats). We all were growing weary of sluggers who could also hit for average, as if that’s a bad thing. I’m not sure, though, that others paid much attention to the strike outs and I heard not one comparison between Sexon and King Kong. More’s the pity.  The Tribe was playing well, Sexon was hitting home runs and all was well on the corner of Ontario and Carnegie. But another playoff failure and 1999 soon became 2000 and the Tribe was struggling—playing with the kind of mediocre indifference previously only heard on a Goo Goo Dolls album. Like his teammates Sexon stopped hitting home runs and his strikeouts became more obvious. My 8-year-old began to notice. Unknown to me at the time, my journey had officially begun.

I still remember the night. I was over a buddy’s house watching the Tribe. Sexon was up and before I could even lick the foam off a newly poured Bud Light, the count was 0-2. Disgusted, I made the boast for the first time—“This guy is awful. Hell, even I could strike him out.” As idle guy-talk goes, this wasn’t that unusual of a statement. Later, following Sexon’s third strike out of the game I even added: “I guarantee if you gave me 10 chances, I could strike him out. I’d even bet my house on it.” Again, being guys and being half-drunk, no one got more than a little chuckle out of this.

But this stuck with me. Pretty soon, I was saying it every time Sexon breezed through another at bat without advancing a runner. Regrettably, though, Sexon was traded and I lost a foil. Interestingly, it was to Milwaukee, whose dubious past includes the Sexon historical precedent—Gorman Thomas (1339 strikeouts in 4677 career at bats, 268 home runs, a .225 lifetime batting average). He was now Milwaukee’s problem. At last check, he was leading the National League in strikeouts and was near the leaders in home runs, too. Gorman Thomas lives! (Interesting side note: Gorman Thomas played for the Indians, too, striking out 98 times in 371 at bats, but with 17 home runs.)

And then along came Branyan. Now Branyan is no Sexon Not by a long shot. Whereas you could only run, say, two or three Chrysler Town and Country Mini Vans through Sexon’s swing, you can squeeze an extra three or four of them suckers through Branyan’s. But I will give Branyan his due on two counts though—first, when he does connect (which, at this pace, is once every 17 or so at bats) the ball goes a long way, a real long way. Second, he’s creative. When he’s completely frustrated (which, surprinsgly to me was not as often as one would think) he’d try to lay down a bunt. It worked once so of course, being nearly completely out of his element, he’s tried it six or seven times since without even a hint of success. Oh, well. But what he lacks as a polished hitter, he more then makes up for in his lack of fielding skills. He is equally inept in the outfield as the infield. I once saw him play 3rd base at the beginning of the game and left field later in that same game. Made an error at each position. One more pratfall and it could have been a bad Adam Sandler movie, which itself is redundant anyway. In General Manager speak, he’s what they call a 4-tool guy. He can’t hit, he can’t catch, he can’t throw, and he can’t run. It takes a real eye for talent to scout out someone so complete.

Branyan’s big break came at the expense of a real pro, Travis Fryman. Fryman is everything Branyan is not—a gold glove infielder with a decent batting eye. Fryman hurt his elbow in spring training and had to go on the DL.  Branyan would thus start the season as the third baseman for a World Series hopeful—Good God! I was at opening day. I remember leaning over to a buddy of mine from out of town and telling him about the fire and ice that is Branyan. True to his roots his line for the day looked like this: 1-4, with 1 rbi. Looking back, that would be a season highlight. In his next game, he struck out twice and the floodgates opened.

One game turned into 10 and Fryman wasn’t coming back anytime soon. My impatience with Branyan grew by the second. It became especially intense each time Charlie Manuel trotted Branyan back out there. They say that the surest sign of insanity is continuing to do the same thing in the same way but hoping for a different result. I now understand much better why Manuel does the things he does. I also understand why he eventually got fired by the Indians.

Branyan was on a Sexon-like pace—25 home runs, 100+ rbi, a robust .230 average, and the league lead in strikeouts. By the 20th game, I was telling anyone who would listen, which included the 3-year old next door, that I could strike out Branyan. At first, I used the 10-chance barometer I developed with the Sexon. But Branyan had a worse batting eye than Sexon (!) and I lowered it to 5 chances.  After all, Branyan had yet to have an at bat this season in which he did not swing at the first pitch. Every pitcher in the league knew it. He might as well have walked to the plate with an 0-1 count. All you had to be was within the same zip code as home plate with your first pitch and you automatically had Branyan down in the count. Truth be told, in my heart I felt I could strike Branyan out with 1 chance. But owing to the fact that I had never actually pitched before and Branyan was a major leaguer, I kept that thought, thankfully, to myself.

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