HELP WANTED: Substitute baseball player. Able to sit on bench for long stretches. Willing to shag flies, pitch BP, enter a game in late innings without promises of an at-bat. Should be congenial, supportive of teammates, never moan about lack of playing time. Salary negotiable. Outstanding benefits. Travel and meal equal to regulars. Experience preferred.
Sub. Scrub. Scrubbini. (From the Latin subare -- to sit and rust).
This is dedicated to Charlie Silvera. Nine full seasons on the New York Yankees caddying for Yogi Berra, warming up the pitchers between innings, warming the bench during them. Charlie Silvera's job was to wait on Yogi. The joke was, when Yogi caught a cold, Silvera bought the tissues. In nine years Silvera had 429 at-bats. Yogi usually had 429 at-bats. Yogi usually had 429 by September. When Silvera was finally traded away, he'd been on a bench so long he had to ask directions to home plate.
Bench. Wood. Pine. Splinters.
This is also dedicated to Chico Salmon. In the gathering shadows of a 20-watt career, four full seasons with the Baltimore Orioles averaging 90 at-bats per year, Chico never popped off. You never heard Chico say, "Play me or trade me." Not Chico The Orioles been bera, bera good to Chico. Chico Salmon was the first to actually say, "Bench me or keep me."
Utility. Extra. Fill-in. Backup. Depth. Deep depth.
This is about players you may never have heard of. Each is over 30, with at least eight and as many as 13 seasons in the major leagues. Together, they have done it all. They just haven't done it often.
Kurt Bevacqua (INF-OF, San Diego Padres, 33, 10th year, eighth team, 1,542 at-bats, .235 career average): "I could always play a lot of positions. In Kansas City, in 1973, Jack McKeon played me at six different positions and that kind of established me as a utility player. I was only 26 then. I've never had a manager tell me 'Kurt, you're my regular (shortstop/second baseman/third baseman) whatever.' There's always that wanting to know whether you could've done it. It's a feeling that you might have missed someting. Sometimes I think maybe McKeon hurt me by not playing me at one spot.But what if he had, and I didn't do the job? I still think I can do the job every day, but I've kind of gotten adjusted to being an extra man. The last three or four years I've become better at it."
The career sub.
Even as a late-inning replacement he rarely gets into as many as 80 games, rarely gets as many as 150 at-bats. On Sundays, when most newspapers run the complete batting average listings, he hasn't batted enough to qualift. The games he starts are mostly day games after night games or second games of doublheaders.
By the time he reaches his late 20s he has learned that, for him, Cooperstown is a meaningless address. He gets thrown into trades as an afterthought, traded away rather than traded for. His status is such that even when he fills in well, he cannot fill in well enough to win a startling job because the label is "career sub." Someone worth more out of a lineup than in it. Insurance. Something you hope you never have to cash.
"You can get a label real early," said Frank Robinson (21 seasons, 10,006 at-bats).
And how do you get rid of the label? Robinson smiled.
"You don't," he said.
As a former manager, Robinson is familiar with the old line a manager is supposed to use after being told that one of his utility players has popped off about wanting to pay more. The manager is supposed to smile and say, "That's fine. I want players who don't like to sit. I don't want anyone on my bench who's happy to be on my bench."
"It's bull," Frank Robinson said.
"Absolute, thorough bull," said Harry Dalton, general manager at Milwaukee. "It's a cliche, like saying, 'Have a nice day.' The last thing a mnager wants is a utility man bothering him about playing time. The stubborn-ego kind of me-first approach isn't an intelligent approach. These men have to know and accept their roles or they won't be around too long."
"The good utility man," said Joe Garagiola (nine seasons, 1,872 at-bats) "keeps his mouth shut, cheerleads without being aggravating, warms up people, tells the manager whenever a new situation comes up, 'I'll sure try it, skip.' He's a professional volunteer. It's probably the only job in baseball where you'll get the Good Conduct medal before getting the MVP."
Got to not make waves.
Over 30, if you ain't hitting .290 with 20 homers and 65 ribbies and you're making waves, you're gone.
Or, as Fran Healy (nine seasons, 1,326 at-bats) said, "If you're 22 and you're screaming about not playing, they'll listen to you. If you're 32, they'll tell you to take a walk."
Duffy Dyer (C, Detroit Tigers, 34, 13th season, fourth team, 1,944 at-bats, 223 career average): "I've played behind a lot of all-stars. Jerry Grote at the Mets, Manny Sanguillen at Pittsburgh, Gary Carter at Montreal. Now, Lance Parrish. I've had a couple of shots at starting -- once in New York and once in Pittsburgh -- and I didn't tear the league apart, so I can't really argue with the manager. What am I going to say? I know what they want from me here. They traded for me to help develop their young star; I feel more like a coach here than a player. Two years ago I was a free agent and I was drafted by California, San Francisco and Montreal. I thought I'd have a chance at starting with the Angels or the Giants, but I signed with Montreal -- knowing I'd back up Carter -- because of the security of the contract. That night I told my wife, 'I'll just be second-string now.' I'd like to play more. I even think I could start on some teams, especially in the American League, but I don't bitch about it. You have to be concerned with the effect on the team. When you're second-string you've got to accept it. I never thought I'd be Johnny Bench. I knew my capabilities. The piece of advice I'd give: Don't complain to the team or to the papers. If you have something to say, go straight to the manager, but don't make it a public issue."
Rust never sleeps.
You just can't stay sharp on the bench because you never get the chance to play yourself into shape like the regulars do. After a while, you lower your expectations. You're happy to fill in and not mess up. You sit on the bench and study the game. You make yourself into one of those people of whom it is said "He's a great guy to have on this ballclub." You're very convincing when you say you're just happy to be there.
"Not playing every day helps some guys stay in the big leagues," Healy said. "You can disguise the blemishes of a player by keeping him on the bench. No one wants to admit it but after a while as a backup, you get afraid that playing regularly will expose the weaknesses that put you on the bench to begin with. So, at 30 or 31, instead of being in your prime, you're struggling to convince management of your utility value any way you can."
Because the money is good.
"The only people making more money than shortstops," said Garagiola, "are plumbers and electricians."
A good, veteran utility man is a valuable piece of property, as much for his personality as his skills. It isn't easy performing under critical pressure once every two or three weeks, but it may be harder to do it without griping. The career sub can easily make over $100,000 and earn most of just sitting there. And, as Garagiola said, "Each day you're here is another day in the pension fund."
Johnny Oates (C, New York Yankees, 34, 10th season, fifth team, 1,576 at-bats, .254 career average): "Ever since Little League I came to the park each day knowing I'd play so when I started backing up it was hard. But gradually I've learned to accept it. I finish games when the score is 13-2, and sometimes I start against real tough righties because the kid gets a rest. I've convinced myself I'm like a relief pitcher. I'm second-string, and I know it. A team that needs an everyday catcher won't take me because I'm rusty for sitting so much lately. The Yankees got me to back up Rick Cerone. Look, in the farm teams the Yankees have at least two catchers who can do the job -- if we're only talking physically -- better than me. But if they were up here, they'd be moaning about not playing, because they're only 21 and 22. I'm here because I can play once every two weeks and accept it. Not a whole lot of players can. We all have egos. It's tough to accept being second-string, especially with athletes, because they're pampered all their lives. You got to be realistic. God forbid Cerone gets hurt, the Yankees would probably call up one of the kids for everyday, and I'd still back up. I don't worry about it. I feel fortunate to be one of 650 people with a major-league uniform. And if we win the Series when the checks come I'll get the same money as Rick Cerone or Reggie Jackson or anybody. You see, I never dreamed I'd be in the majors this long. My goal was four years. The pension."
You don't see any career subs over 30 playing in the outfield.Outfielders tend to be young men with potential or old men with power. Defensive caddies are a dime a dozen. An outfielder won't have a long career on the bench.
You see a few infielders.
You see a lot of catchers.
There are "up-the-middle" positions, and "up the middle" is a sanctified term in baseball. As in "You gotta be strong up the middle." Your best bet in sticking around is sticking around up the middle. Catchers have an edge over infielders because most teams like to keep three catchers, including a bullpen catcher. When you're over 30, if you're mainly the bullpen catcher, it is automatically assumed that you a) are an intelligent student of the game and b) you can handle a pitching staff. These things, both much valued, are really only functions of time and service. If a penguin were to catch in the bullpin for nine years they'd say he was a keen student of the game and that he could handle a pitching staff.
"Show me a guy who can handle a pitching staff," said Garagiola, "and I'll show you a guy hitting .210."
"I think this so-called intelligence factor is being a bit overrated," said Healy. "Let's face it, this isn't brain surgery."
You see mostly white faces.
Another old baseball truism is, "Too many minorities can make a majority."
"It's the old thing about blacks and Latins, that if they can't do it on a daily basis, a ballclub would rather not have them around," said Frank Robinson, baseball's first black manager. "Plus, the temperament of blacks and Latins won't allow them to sit. It's getting more acceptable for blacks now, but you won't find too many of them sitting on the bench a whole career."
Ron Hodges (C, New York Mets, 31, eighth season, only team, 799 at-bats, .232 career average): "A backup is very important to a team; I don't know why they call it second-string. I look at myself like a high-priced insurance policy, standing ready if the regular man gets hurt. A long time ago I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be playing 130 games.I've said I'll be glad to be a part of this team, or any team I'm contracted to. You know, I've been here since 1973 -- nobody's been here longer. Barely scratching out 100 at-bats a year, but I'm still here. Thing is, not everyone who plays this game needs to be a star. A lot of guys play it because they love it. There's a lot to be said for that. We're not like those superstars you find in every clubhouse who need the press to come up to them and tell them how good they are. Digging down deep, sometimes I wonder what I'd be like to play every day, but since I never got the opportunity I don't have anything to compare it to. I sweep aside that stuff. I'm proud to be here, and I'm proud to come off the bench well enough to stay here. The only tough thing is losing. That's disgusting. No fun at all. When you don't play and you lose it's worse than disgusting."
The career sub says "we" a lot more often than "I."
In this most individualistic of team sports, the shift in attitude must go away from the ego toward the collective. Public jealousies are taboo. Even after a career sub like Fred Stanley makes only six errors in 110 games in 1976 as the Yankees in the pennant, he cannot publicly grouse about the Yankees acquiring Bucky Dent to become their regular shortstop. A career sub must know when to swallow. "Whatever feelings I had about being replaced," Stanley said, "it certainly wasn't Bucky's fault. It really strengthened the ballclub." Now, Dent is an all-star while Stanley has 39 at-bats in mid-July. So it goes.
"They're probably the backbone of sports," said Thomas Tutko, sports psychologist at San Jose State. "At first they feel like they're under-valued, that if they only got a chance to play they'd be stars. But after a while they reevaluate who they are and where they're going. And they adjust. It's a long, gradual adjustment, but the mature ones make it. And they continue to adjust to where they fit in. They alter their perception of their own reality until they become comfortable with their status. They see themselves as valuable specialists in a game they love. They take pride in being one of only 650 people in the majors, and they are exceedingly proud if they're on a winning team."
Stanley has been in three World Series, Oates in two, Dyer and Hodges in one each. Winning means so much to these people that it cannot be over-estimated.
Winning almost eliminates the pain of sitting.
So, Johnny Oates will not let his pitcher throw anything other than his best pitch in the late innings when the game is on the line. "If he wants to throw his second, third or fourth pitch in a one-run game, I'll go out to the mound and talk to him," Oates said. "I'll say, 'Look, I only get to play once every two weeks, and I don't want to blow it. I don't get that many chances.' That way he knows how much I want to win." Oates takes pride in telling people that in his years with the Dodgers, L.A. won 60 percent of the games he started. Or that this year the Yankees have won all five of his starts.
So, Fred Stanley will say that his one rule -- that one thing he tries so hard to do -- is not to make an error in the eighth or ninth inning of a game and cost the Yankees a victory. "Guys like us don't often get the chance to win the game," said Stanley. "But we're often in there with a chance to lose it. I just won't let myself lose a game."
For starters, there is always tomorrow.
For career subs, tomorrow is regularly two weeks to one month away. Winning one game may be the difference between selling cars and another day in the pension plan. And who knows what it comes down to when the manager makes his last cut, taking one 25th man over another?
Fred Stanley (INF, New York Yankees, 32, 12th season, fourth team, 1,230 at-bats, .223 career average): "I keep loose by running in the clubhouse during the game so I'm ready to go in anytime, even if it's only to grub for someone in a 6-0 game. I take the role seriously, and the way I look at it, right now I'm the best utility man in baseball. Don't get me wrong, I still want to play more, but I don't mind being a utility man anymore. It won't work for people like Jim Spencer or Lou Piniella or Bobby Murcer -- these guys have played fulltime for too long. Temperament is a big key to it . . . You know, I always thought I could play 10 to 15 years. Really. The years are right, but the statistics are wrong. But utility with the Yankees, with a winner, that's important. Alfredo Griffin plays every day with Toronto, but he won't be getting $32, 000 from the World Series. If I didn't want to do this I could demand to the traded, I could make a fuss and maybe go to a team where I could start. But probably not to a contender. Contenders have their starters -- that's why they're contenders. Where I'd go as a starter, would I get to the World Series?"
They speak of temperament, of adjustment.
What kind of adjustment?
Does a career sub have to be, as suggested by baseball writer and fan extraordinaire, Jonathan Schwartz, "a docile man with no designs on celebritise -- just a solid workman, a man who is not necessarily substantial, but professional?" Does a career sub have to be predisposed, almost from childhood, to a secondary, supportive role? Does it demand, as Frank Robinson said, "a happy man, not a moody man"? What is the adjustment to the reality of sitting, to knowing that no matter for whom the bell tolls, it doesn't toll for you?
"It's a form of resignation," said John Lowenstein (10 seasons, 2,056 at-bats). "It develops in your own mind; you have to convince yourself to accept it."
But how? Exactly how?
Lowenstein smiled the Zen smile. "It's unexplainable," he said.
It is, however, identifiable. It's the alteration of ego, the going with the flow of lesser expectations, the changing of the guard of pride. The key is the belief that the role of the career sub is special, that starters don't have the right stuff to do it, that it takes more than just natural ability, that it takes personality and selflessness and 25 men to make a team win. It becomes a position, perhaps the only position integrating the discipline of the body and the mind. Remember, not everyone can do it. The career sub can live off that.
What the career sub learns between 27 and 30 is that it doesn't come easy anymore, that he has to work for it, that he has to carve it out of stone and then protect it from the vandals. The superstar doesn't learn that until much later, and then for many it is too late to make things called "The Adjustment," that is an inexplicable as it is necessary.
Terry Crowley (1B-DH, Baltimore Orioles, 33, 11th season, fifth team, 1,114 at-bats, .246 career average): "The first few years I was here I played behind great ballplayers like Boog, Frank, Blair, Rettenmund. I complained a lot and got sold to Texas. I was Dhing in the spring, and I really thought I'd be playing regular, but just before spring training ended I got sent to Cincinnati. And I was right back in the same position, behind guys like Perez, Foster, Geronimo and Griffey. They were just loaded. I pretty much realized I wasn't gonna get the chance to play every day. What happened to me was that I pinch-hit around .300 in my rookie year, so instantly I got a label. Every time a team felt like it was real close to a pennant and needed a left-handed hitter on the bench, I'd make the move. I'm a little different than the other guys in that I stick around for my ability to get hits, and I think most of them stick around for their defense. I'd love to play every day. I still get disappointed when my name's not in the lineup, but I know I'll never be an all-star. I was hitting .330 this year and it came and went without me. And if I play out my option after a good year and Reggie Jackson plays out his option after a bad year, I don't have to tell you who the owners will be more interested in."
The thing they all understand is, it's done on merit.
You start off thinking, Deny, deny, deny. The manager doesn't like me. The organization can't play me because they traded their best reliever for the guy ahead of me.
But it changes for the career sub 27, 28, 29, when, after a few years as backup -- maybe on two or three different teams -- he starts seeing younger players playing ahead of him. Maybe he has a family to support. Maybe he starts thinking, what am I gonna do if I can't do this anymore? Maybe he truly loves the game. Or, maybe he's capable of making everyone around him believe it. What it comes down to is that he wants to stick around. He got the reputation for having the good attitude, the good knowlege of the game, the good head. (Every noun in sports can be preceded by, 'the good." The good wheels. The good hands. The good fast ball.) Organizations begin looking at him as a prospective coach and manager. The last few years of his active career is spent in passage from player to management. Work-study, actually.
The coaching boxes and managerial offices are filled with the likes of career subs like Pat Corrales and Jeff Torborg and Ralph Houk. Someday soon, they may be filled with the likes of Ron Hodges, Duffy Dyer, Johnny Oates and Fred Stanley. Each is interested in coaching or managing when it becomes clear that their utility is no longer saleable.
Until then, as Hamlet (one season, career cut short by injury) said, "The play's the thing."
You hang on as long as you can.
Nothing to be ashamed of.
"Hey, when you're on the bubble gum card, you've made it, pal," Garagiola said.
"And in the locker room," said Lowenstein, "there's no class distinction. You're all the same -- ballplayer."
So it is with some joy that we report this: Terry Crowley was in the Baltimore locker room last week speaking to this point of his value. "The best way to find out what kind of year I'm having is to ask my teammates. If they think I'm hitting the ball well, they'll say so. I don't place much importance on statistics, but what I hope for is the respect of my teammates. When it's all over, what would make me proud is to know that they said, 'Terry Crowley can hit it for you when the chips are down.'"
And while Crowley was speaking, it was Eddie Murray who walked by, Eddie Murray who normally plays all 162 and does it all, run, field, throw, hit and hit with power, it was Eddie Murray who said loud enough to be a proclamation -- "That man you're talking to, that Crowley, that man's a flat natural hitter. That man's the King of Swing."