Sunday, July 19, 2009

Still A Flicker Left In “Big Red’s” Flame

Baseball is magic.

Check that—baseball is a magic act. It likes to pluck unsuspecting people out of the crowd and shine the spotlight on them, to entertain the rest of us. Then, in a flash, the poor sap is back into the crowd, often never to be heard from again.

It’s one of the beauties of the sport, to me, that the Joe Blow player—sometimes the 25th man of a 25-man roster, can take his place on stage, performing feats that belie his abilities, and thus take a place in baseball history. Forever.

The list of pitchers who’ve thrown no-hitters or even perfect games, for example, doesn’t read like a Who’s Who of hurlers. It’s dotted with Hall of Famers, but also liberally sprinkled with guys whose ERAs look like the price of a Big Mac meal.

Don Larsen was not a great pitcher. If we’re going to talk among friends here, he wasn’t even very good. He was serviceable. Another noodle in a plate full of spaghetti.

So how to explain Larsen throwing the only perfect game in World Series history, for the Yankees in 1956? Especially since, three days earlier, Larsen pitched one-and-two-thirds innings and walked four batters.

Larsen even tempted fate, daring to spit into the face of baseball superstition.

Sometime along the sixth or seventh inning, despite his teammates doing the usual ritual of not so much as even looking at him, much less discussing his ongoing perfect game, Larsen, nonetheless, found Mickey Mantle in the dugout.

“Hey Mick,” Larsen recounted years later, “wouldn’t it be something if I threw a no-hitter?”

Larsen said that Mantle looked at him as if the pitcher was possessed, and quickly moved away.

A trip to the ballpark can, three hours later, be unforgettable. Could be a no-hitter. Could be someone hitting for the cycle. Maybe a spectacular catch in the outfield that lifts you out of your seat. Perhaps that 25th man knocks a couple balls out of the park, including a game-winner in the bottom of the ninth.

Stuff that keeps you talking to captive audiences for years.

Chris Shelton is back in the big leagues. Could be a sip of coffee, but he’s back. He’s with the Seattle Mariners now. They say he’s going back down when the M’s need a fifth starter again, but it’s only been a few days and Big Red has already driven in a game-winning run. So who knows?

Shelton owned Detroit for a few weeks. It was in 2006, and Shelton, a red-headed first baseman who looked like Raggedy Andy all grown up, came out of the gate in April like he was being chased by a pack of wolves.

Big Red, they called him. Some took to calling him Red Pop, in honor of Detroit’s Faygo soda company.

The dark skies descended upon Shelton in a hurry in '06

Nine home runs in the Tigers’ first 13 games, Chris Shelton hit in April 2006. That power display made him just the fourth player in MLB history—and the first ever in the American League—to hit at least that many homers in his team’s first 13 games, joining Mike Schmidt, Larry Walker, and Luis Gonzalez before him.

If there had been one of those special mayoral elections in Detroit back then, the kind the city has fallen in love with lately, Shelton would have won in a landslide.

He was another of baseball’s faces in the crowd pulled on stage by the fickle magician.

Shelton was a nobody, and I don’t mean that derisively. It’s fact. He was a 26-year-old who’d kicked around in the minor leagues for a few years, unable to even make the 40-man roster of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates, who left him exposed in baseball’s Rule V Draft in December 2003.

The Tigers snatched him up, and the only reason he stayed with them is because, according to Rule V, a selected player has to stay with the selecting team the entire season, or else he goes back to his previous team. No being sent to the minor leagues, in other words.

Shelton had a grand total of 46 at-bats in 2004, tethered to the Tigers.

The next season was a lot more active, and productive, for Big Red: 388 AB, 18 HR, a .299 BA.

Still, no one could have foreseen Shelton’s jackrabbit and history-making start in 2006. After 41 AB, Shelton was hitting a softball-like .512.

But the magician was eventually done with him, and Shelton got dumped back into the crowd, his participation in the act over.

By mid-June, people no longer stopped what they were doing to watch a Chris Shelton at-bat, as they had done back in April. The Tigers as a team thrived, but Shelton individually was in the 14th minute of his 15 minutes of fame.

He was no longer a .500 hitter, or a .400 hitter, or even a .300 hitter. As July began to wane, Shelton was at a very ho-hum .278, and sinking fast.

That’s when I found him in the Tigers clubhouse, in a sour mood.

I was making the usual rounds before game time, the first-place Tigers trying to fend off the visiting Chicago White Sox, who were just three-and-one-half games behind them in the Central Division race.

I saw Shelton, at his locker, head down, twirling a bat slowly. Perhaps he was silently asking the piece of lumber why it had forsaken him so quickly.

“Got a few minutes?”

Shelton looked up and slowly nodded. He wasn’t the jovial, smiling kid from a couple months ago.

I dared to ask him about his swing, wondering where it had gone.

My question shouldn’t have blindsided him, for everyone was beginning to wonder about Chris Shelton. Yet Shelton snorted and sneered, telling me that he had no intention of answering such a query, incredulous that I had the temerity to pose it.

About a week later, Shelton still slumping, the Tigers shipped him back to Toledo. To work on his swing.

Shelton didn’t make the Tigers in 2007, and was traded in December of that year to Texas. He batted .216 for the Rangers in 97 at-bats last season.

The Mariners signed him as a free agent over the winter. They called him up from the minors last week, and he delivered a game-winning single last Sunday. He’s still only 29 years old.

The 15 minutes are up, and Shelton is just another face in the crowd. But at least he’s in the crowd. For now. But better to be in the crowd in the big leagues, than on stage in the minors.

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