Years later, a brief encounter with a utility infielder provokes existential questions.
On Sunday, Michael Claire of Old Time Family Baseball held a blogathon for Doctors Without Frontiers. The drive's goal was to reach $3000 in donations. I am pleased to say that he has thus far exceeded that by (at this writing) $446. Anyone want to help get him to an even $3500 or even more? My contribution to the blogathon follows. If you enjoy it, I hope you'll consider donating, and if you don't enjoy it, I hope you'll give twice as much.
I have thought about the following story so often over the years that I felt sure I had written about it at some point in the past. I've searched my files and the archives of the various web sites that have been willing to publish my prematurely-senescent ramblings and I don't see it, so perhaps I've just lived with it for so long that I have become convinced that I've told it many times over. If, subsequent to its posting here, you happen to come across it in the dusty pages of some ancient Baseball Prospectus annual, be aware that it was not my intent to give short shrift to Michael Clair's very worthy blogathon by palming off what the old animation studios used to call a "cheater" full of recycled footage.
Then again, I might have told this story even if I had found it. It's just that I can't get it out of my mind today. As you will see, the story is of no great moment. It lacks a beginning, end, plot, or meaningful moral. All the same, this seems like the right place to tell it.
The Yankees spent almost all of the time between Phil Rizzuto's decline in the 1950s and the arrival of Derek Jeter looking for a steady shortstop. Gil McDougald's career was irrevocably diminished by the Herb Score incident almost as soon as he was moved to the position. The reign of Tony Kubek was brief. Tom Tresh lacked the glove to stick. Bucky Dent, an excellent fielder with a weak bat, held the position for five-and-a-half seasons. When the Yankees pushed him out to make room for the harder-hitting Roy Smalley, they didn't realize that back injuries would leave their new infielder unable to field the position to their satisfaction. The oversight led to over ten years of desperate improvisation in trying to find a double-play partner for Willie Randolph; the stoic second baseman played -- don't quote me on this -- with 389 double-play partners during his 13 years in pinstripes. That works out to a new shortstop approximately once every four innings.
In 1986, the team opened the season with Bobby Meacham at short. It was his third try at the starting job, and as he could neither hit nor field, his sole value to the team was his ability to cajole Don Mattingly out of slumps by doing the Tricky Dick Nixon imitation he learned from watching old episodes of "Laugh-In" on syndicated television. It just wasn't enough, so through the auspices of George Steinbrenner's close personal friendship with the owners of the White Sox and the madness of their GM-for-a-day Hawk Harrelson, on the day before the deadline the Yankees acquired designated hitter Ron Kittle, young catcher Joel Skinner, and utility infielder Wayne Tolleson. Tolleson would take over as the regular shortstop.
Tolleson was (officially) 5-foot-9, bespectacled, and couldn't hit much. He could switch-hit the odd single, steal a base sometimes, and every once in a while he would produce a nigh-miraculous home run. In 1985 he had hit .313 in 355 plate appearances, but that was a fluke -- his career rates of .241/.307/.293 tell the real story. He had excellent bat control, though: A fond memory from around this time is Tolleson single-handedly trying to provoke the rainout of a lopsided game against the Blue Jays by fouling off ball after ball as rain came down in buckets. It didn't work, but you had to like Wayne for trying.
Flash forward a couple of years and the Yankees had figured out that Tolleson was not going to hit or field or be tall enough to play every day. By the end of the 1987 season, injuries and a dead bat had forced him to make way for Meacham again, and in 1988 a shoulder injury kept him out for all but 21 games as Rafael Santana took over as the regular shortstop. At that point Tolleson's contract ended and that should have been that. He was 32, had missed all but a handful of games to injury, and had amply demonstrated that he sure was scrappy, but he was no regular. The Yankees had other reserve infield possibilities on hand, among them Randy Velarde, who was already 26. In typical Yankees fashion, they re-signed Tolleson to a two-year contract.
Tolleson appeared in about half the games in 1989, hitting .164/.255/.250 (44 OPS+) in 160 PAs. By now buyer's remorse had surely set in, but despite having no role for Tolleson in 1990, the team refused to eat his $425,000 contract and move on. Tolleson became a pure defensive replacement, on hand to replace the offensively hopeless starter Alvaro Espinoza (.224/.258/.274, 50 OPS+ in 150 games) whenever the latter was pinch-hit for late in the game, or pinch-run for him since Espinoza was deadly slow for a middle infielder. You rarely saw him before the eighth inning, and often you didn't see him at all. He was on the bench every day, but sometimes he didn't get in a game for three or four days, and on occasion he'd be a spectator for most of a week.
Late that season, my best friend and I attended a game, probably a doubleheader -- being high school students, we didn't have very much money so we tried to get two games for the price of one whenever we could. We got to the ballpark early enough for batting practice and were walking around down near the field -- the Pinstriped Gestapo didn't prevent you from going down to field level without a ticket in those days -- and there was Tolleson awaiting his turn. For some reason he was standing closer to the grandstand than to the cage. "Hey, look," I said. "It's Wayne Tolleson, the invisible man." I was a sensitive kid.
Only a few feet away, Tolleson had heard me and looked up. One of us, I think it was my friend, but it also could have been me (I would like to think it was me), leaned over and shouted down to the field. "Hey, Wayne! What are you doing here?"
He didn't take half a second to think over his response. "I don't know," he said, and walked away.
Tolleson was granted free agency at the end of the season, didn't get a job, retired. We went on with our lives, went to college, got jobs ourselves, got married, had children, became neurotic and old (at least I did; I cannot speak for my friend, who remains ever-youthful). I now have nearly 27 years of experience over the kid that laughed -- I would like to think good-naturedly, I know it was good-naturedly -- at Wayne Tolleson, and have endured many changes of role and responsibility. My life's goals are no longer clear to me in the way they were when I was 16 or 18 or 20 and the endgame was this lambent trophy that was the woman, the job, the money, the book on the shelf at the bookstore, the standing ovation at the end of the great performance, or any number of other, smaller things that would signify arrival and validation. Some of them I got; many of them I didn't. The trophy receded, guttered, went out. So? "Hey, Wayne! What are you doing here?"
First, my name isn't Wayne, but that's not important. Second, I don't think that shining flashlight of a goal is gone; you've just changed your perspective. Its light may seem to have diminished, but that's because your attention is no longer concentrated on the kid's dream of a single Hollywood-style spectacular achievement that will launch you toward the stratosphere -- witness: the screenwriter-novelist-astronaut. You don't need that anymore. That's not to say you shouldn't still chase it, shouldn't still want to see your name up in lights or hear it said by the man giving away the big award, but it's less important now than the satisfaction inherent in having instead of needing, of enjoying what you can do and have done rather than always looking down the road to the next thing, or what your neighbor is building on the next hill. This hill, it's a pretty nice hill.
In my youth, I would have called that complacency; now I would like to think that it represents some small amount of wisdom. "Hey, Wayne! What are you doing here?" "What I can do, man; just hanging on, not letting anybody take what's mine." In the end, that's a better, nobler goal to strive for, whether it comes with great honors or not: Every day, you just try your best to achieve what you want to achieve and not let anyone deflect you. Doing what you love is the greatest liberation.
That's my answer -- for now, anyway. I'm not giving up; in fact, it's the opposite. "Hey, Wayne! What are you doing here?"
"I'm doing what I want to do. What about you?"