Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Baseball Tragedy: Cause and Effect

Theory time boys and girls! Today's hypothesis: Glaucoma is still affecting the Twins.

With every day it seems to grow more and more likely that Torii Hunter will not be back with the Twins next season. This has many Twins fans quite upset, and if he leaves Hunter will certainly be missed; He's an excellent player, solid offensively and defensively (though he's probably no longer the best defensive outfielder in baseball). But it isn't just the thought of losing a great ball player that upsets most Twins fans. Instead they're afraid that they'll be losing something more.

With the resurgence of the Minnesota Twins in the early 2000's, several previously unheralded players became quite popular. Cristian Guzman was loved for his speed, Eddie Guardado was loved for his work ethic, and Corey Koskie was loved for being a Canuck. But of all the young exciting players, Torii Hunter was by far the most popular. Hunter was even called the "face of the franchise" (a label that has persisted, even though it's probably no longer accurate).

To understand why Hunter was the favorite you need to look a little further back in Twins history: to their World Series Championship teams of '87 and '91. That was a golden age in Twins baseball, with two championships in 5 years, the only team to win a Series in both the '80's and the '90's, and a team full of charismatic players. Among those players was the greatest baseball player I have ever seen: Kirby Puckett. Puckett was amazing on the field, but what made him the greatest was his absolute and pure love of the game. As I wrote when he died,

"When I was ten years old, my hero was a man named Kirby Puckett. He was my hero not because I wanted to play baseball as well as he did, but because he wanted to play baseball as much as I did."

Kirby Puckett was a living legend when he was playing ball. If you understand how Ripken was loved in Baltimore then you're part way to understanding how Puckett was loved in the Upper-Midwest. With very few exceptions, every person who cheered for the Minnesota Twins had the same favorite player: Puckett. I'm starting to tear up just thinking about him as I write this post. That's how deep our love for him ran. Even today it can move me to tears. If you had to pick a historical face of the franchise there is absolutely zero question who it would be.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. In the Spring of 1996 Puckett woke up blind in one eye. He'd been struck by glaucoma. He would never play again. Suddenly, without any warning, the Twins had lost their center-fielder. Even worse for the fans was that they had lost their hero. Not just their current favorite player. Not just a great athlete. Not just the star of the team. Twins fans lost their all-time favorite player. We lost our Ruth.

There was no chance for him to keep chasing records or milestones. No opportunity to serve as the day-in and day-out mentor to the next generation of Twins. No gradual descent into retirement like most stars. It was sudden and abrupt. The closest thing in baseball history was Lou Gehrig's diagnosis with ALS. It was a tragedy. And it left a piece of our hearts empty. For Twins fans there wasn't anyone to fill that hero spot, much less the favorite player spot.

Until we got Torii Hunter. Hunter was seen by many Twins fans as a torch-bearer. We pictured him as the new Kirby Puckett. Just like Puckett, Hunter was drafted and developed by the Twins. He was a defensive force. He was charismatic, and lovable, and he had fun playing the game. And we all still had a big hole in our hearts, so many of us filled it with Torii. Of course, Torii didn't immediately step in and take over for Kirby, at least not directly. Puckett was done after 1995. Hunter's first full year was 1999. That's three full seasons we suffered without a clear favorite player, and so when Hunter finally came along he was quickly anointed straight out. He was the new Kirby.

And because Hunter was the new Kirby, well, that meant he was the face of the franchise. The player who wouldn't be traded. Who'd always re-sign with the team. Who'd be there through it all, until he retired. Puckett was a life-long Twin, Hunter was the new Puckett, ergo... it was safe for us to get attached. Which only made it easier for fans to love him. It was our second chance with Puckett. Though he was a different player, in some ways Hunter was the exact same face of the franchise that we'd been missing.

In some ways, I think Hunter certainly got that treatment from the Twins. He's the only player who's still around from those teams of the early '90's. They've always taken the position that they were going to try to re-sign him. There might even have been times when the Twins turned down some tempting trades to keep Hunter. Nobody wants to lose Hunter, even if it turns out to be inevitable. I'm forced to wonder how things would have shaped up if Hunter hadn't been seen as the new Puckett. Would he still be a Twin? Would we even really care?

Which of course forces me to wonder: What if Puckett had never had glaucoma?

The obvious answer is that he would have kept playing. In 1996 Puckett was 35. It seems fair to speculate that Puckett could have had another 5 years of playing time. Especially on some of those bad '90's Twins teams, and with the DH position available, he easily could have played until he was 41 (and with milestones to chase, who knows how long he would have played). That would have brought Puckett into the 2000 season. Torii would have been in his second year, making them contemporaries, though only briefly.

What effect would this have had? Perhaps one would think that this would make us fans even more likely to see Torii as Kirby's torch-carrier, with the connection between the two a little more definite. Though that seems initially reasonable, on closer inspection, I just don't think it holds up.

Here's why: in 1995 Matt Lawton starting playing for the Twins. He was very briefly a teammate of Puckett's, and they were set to play together again in 1996. This is pretty much the scenario pictured above with Puckett and Hunter. Lawton was with the Twins until 2001 when he was traded to the Mets. Despite the fact that Lawton was a young, athletic outfielder, much like Puckett, he was never viewed by Twins fans in the favorite-player light that Puckett was seen in. Lawton was the direct replacement for Puckett on the field, yet never took over Puckett's spot in our hearts.

My thought is that this is precisely because they were contemporaries. When Lawton was traded fans saw this as simply a baseball decision. They didn't have the emotional attachment because Lawton never filled that favorite-player spot in our hearts. And the reason he never filled it was because it was already occupied when he came around. When Lawton came to the Twins he was blocked in our hearts by Puckett.

If Puckett's glaucoma had never happened, there wouldn't have been an opening for Torii Hunter to become our favorite player. He too would have been blocked in our hearts. If Hunter hadn't taken over the favorite player designation, then he would never have gotten the "face of the franchise" treatment. And who knows where that would put the Twins at today. Maybe they'd have an easier time letting Hunter go? Maybe they'd have an easier time signing him? Maybe he would have been traded long ago? It's impossible to say. But what I think is clear is that the premature end of Puckett's career is still affecting the Twins - and their fans - more than a decade later.

Whatever happens with Hunter, when the time comes, it will be hard for us fans to say goodbye. Because saying goodbye to Torii Hunter is almost the same as saying goodbye to Kirby Puckett. And that's a pain we don't want to feel again.

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years


Jeff said...

A team like Minnesota can't afford to hold on to a single perennial All-Star for his entire career anymore, not with free agency anyway. Modern baseball players simply don't think about playing their entire careers for one team unless they're truly remarkable. Only the Yanks and Sawx - and to a lesser extent St. Louis - have the financial ability to hold a superstar for his entire career. Eventually, small-market teams like the Twins are going to have to part with their stars and grow new ones. Mauer will leave, Morneau will leave, Santana's already on his way out, Liriano won't be around forever either. The only guy who could stick with a team for his entire career now is the work-a-day type that never really puts up remarkable numbers but always contributes something. (Which means you should probably start getting attached to Michael Cuddyer or something.)

Puckett (and Ripken, and Gwynn, etc.) was a holdover from the pre-1994 days when you stuck with the team that drafted you and moved only under extreme circumstances. Now, if someone puts up Puckett-like numbers on a small-market team, some team with deeper pockets is going to throw money at them and they'll be gone. Pedroia could stick with Boston for his whole career, but the Twins holding on to someone like Hunter or Mauer? Not happening.

Which really sucks, if you ask me. If baseball continues down this path, it'll cease to become engaging to anyone outside Boston or New York.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Though I certainly understand that it is an increasingly rare thing for a player to stay with a single team, I disagree that it is simply a foregone conclusion. I would not be surprised to see many of the next generation of players actually end up staying with a single team. I don't think Mauer will leave Minnesota (because he'll be too much a priority for them to hang on to, especially given the homegrown talent angle). I wouldn't be surprised to see Ryan Howard as a Philly his entire life or Sizemore as an Indian, or Fielder as a Brewer. I'm not saying it will necesarily happen, but I think that it certainly can. All it takes is for both the club and player to decide it's something they want. If Hunter wanted to stay in Minnesota, they'd probably work it out. And I think you'll see that with Mauer. He'll decide he wants to stay in Minnesota, and the team will decide they want him to stay.

And I'd also point out that I think it was a rare thing even before 1994. We're hard pressed to name many more one-team stars beyond the obvious.

So what it really comes down to, I think, isn't whether a team can afford to hold onto a single player: it's all about whether or not the two sides agree that they want it bad enough.

Of course, when it comes to multiple all-stars, yeah, you're probably right that they couldn't afford that. They could keep Hunter, but they'd have to give up Santana and Morneau. And that's where it really comes into an issue of affording: which players do you most want to afford.

Right, well, that was kind of rambling... deal.