Stairs Is Not Your Average Hero

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 14 -- The average written portrait of Matt Stairs, back before one swing crushed the average life to smithereens, began with a recitation of the everyman shortcomings. Stairs is goateed, bald and circular, a 210-pound Rice Krispies Treat. At times in his career, he has subsisted on a diet of beer and burritos. He's a Canadian who has chased baseball in Japan and Mexico, and only because he lacked the talent for his favorite sport -- hockey. By the way, during offseasons from baseball, Stairs is a high school hockey coach in Bangor, Maine. An (ahem) assistant high school coach.

The average story about Stairs includes, too, the requisite composite of his grinding, well-traveled career. Even calculating the length of his lifespan in baseball now causes disagreement. Stairs has played for 11 major league teams, one organization shy of the all-time record. Stairs quotes his career length at "16, 17 years," but entering 1997, at age 29, Stairs had just 263 big league at-bats. Just his luck: There he was in prime time, and his prime was half gone.

The average limitations that have defined Stairs's career were there even Monday night, when Philadelphia Manager Charlie Manuel called him from the bench to pinch-hit in the eighth inning. There he was, 40 years old, 5 feet 9, a few flecks of gray in the beard, digging in against Jonathan Broxton, one of baseball's hardest-throwing pitchers. Stairs had batted just 19 times since joining Philadelphia on Aug. 30 in a quiet waiver-clearing trade with Toronto. He had just 12 previous playoff at-bats, none beyond the divisional round. He was facing a pitcher who hadn't allowed a home run at Dodger Stadium since July 24, 2006.

Batting from the left side, Stairs dug in, watched four pitches, three of them balls, and then took a vicious swing at the fifth. As a big leaguer, Stairs had seen 23,057 previous pitches; he'd smashed 254 home runs. But no home run likely traveled farther, nor meant more, than this one. The ball left with a crack, a moonshot into the right field stands. A 5-5 game became a 7-5 Philadelphia lead. A rowdy Dodger Stadium fell quiet. The Phillies' dugout -- "I felt like I jumped about 20 feet high" when he hit it, teammate Geoff Jenkins said Tuesday -- erupted. Just like that, Stairs had his perfect moment. And it ran so counter to his previous life, he didn't know what to make of it.

When he arrived at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday for early afternoon batting practice, Stairs had already tried to distance himself from the home run. He'd taken enough swings that he didn't believe in one-swing heroes. That morning, he had refused to watch "SportsCenter." He stayed away from the newspaper. "Nothing," Stairs said. "It's over with. It's baseball. It happened yesterday, and it's over with."

Everything he'd learned in baseball, to this point, had taught him humility. He's learned enough, he feels, that he will one day make a good manager. He felt like the home run against Broxton was fortunate, nothing more. ("He can throw it 10 times like that and I might hit it once," Stairs said.) He conceded that his itinerant career wasn't just a sign of his survival skills. It was also a sign of his disposability. ("If everybody wants me, I wouldn't have been with 11 teams," he quipped.)

His sudden stardom made him uncomfortable, he said.

"I'm not one of those guys that sits in front of the mirror all day and combs my hair," he said.

Still, there is another way to process Stairs's departure from averageness -- that of a market correction long due. For all these years as a power-hitting role player, Stairs has been just a sliver shy of a different stratosphere. Since 1997, his first year as a full-timer, Stairs has 243 home runs -- 44th best in baseball during that span. He's hit one fewer than Garret Anderson, one more than Adrián Beltré. Stairs is a pure swing-for-the-fences specialist, and though a lack of defensive prowess and speed slowed his progression to the big leagues, his power-hitting success since makes some speculate about what might have been.

Recently, baseball statistician Bill James searched through baseball history to find players with numbers similar to Stairs, a lifetime .266 hitter with a .358 on-base percentage and a .483 slugging percentage. Almost all of Stairs's at-bats had come after age 30, but what might Stairs's career have looked like, James wondered, with the benefit of the missing part? What if baseball had been quicker to embrace the player with obvious shortcomings?

Here is what James discovered:

Stairs's career numbers are essentially the same as Reggie Jackson's (.262, .356, .490). All of his numbers trump those of Roger Maris. Other players with comparable numbers include Bobby Bonds, Frank Howard, Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy and Greg Luzinski. Nobody confuses those ballplayers with the ordinary.

"Well, I don't know that I want to get into being Matt Stairs's agent," James wrote in an e-mail, sharing his findings, "but he has had a remarkable career."

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