Bobby Cramer made his major league debut Monday night. The left-hander started for the Oakland A’s in Kansas City and was the winning pitcher in a 3-1 game, allowing a run on four hits in five and a third innings, with four strikeouts and a walk.
This is notable because — as Tom Keegan writes in the Mercury News — Cramer has been out of organized baseball at least twice since he signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent out of Long Beach State in 2003. It’s notable because he’s had elbow surgery three times, because he’s worked at Shell Oil and as a substitute teacher, because he’s pitched in the independent Golden Baseball League and the Mexican League, and because he’ll turn 31 next month.
If you pay attention in September, you get rewarded with stories like this. September baseball means pennant races, such as they are in the wild-card era, but it also means an awful lot of teams playing out the string. Look closely, though, and there are rewards.
Sometimes it’s a glimpse of a dashing rookie, a future superstar getting his feet wet. A year before Buster Posey was a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, the best player on a Giants team that’s fighting for a playoff spot, he was a September call-up who spent most of his time in the dugout and got two hits in 17 at-bats as his team wheezed to the finish.
And sometimes it’s a guy on the other end of his career, a journeyman you’d figured had hung ‘em up but who’s been hanging around at Triple-A and, hey look, here he is again. But the best ones are the lifetime minor leaguers who finally get their chance.
These are the guys who give those of us with a few miles on us permission to keep dreaming. You reach a certain age and you don’t get to imagine yourself as Buster Posey anymore. Simple mathematics will tell you that at the age of 47, to pick a number, you’re not going to be a 23-year-old phenom bursting onto the scene with six hits in nine at-bats, or whatever the equivalent would be in your racket, the way Posey did this May.
But a 30-year-old with a USW card and three scars on his throwing arm just getting to the big club reminds us that great triumphs can happen long after we’d scheduled them, sometimes long after we’d stopped believing they could happen, and they might not look like the triumphs we’d imagined.
Last week the Dodgers gave a September call-up to a 33-year-old first baseman named John Lindsey, who had spent 16 years in the minor leagues with four organizations without setting foot on a major league field. Lindsey had played in 1,571 minor-league games before getting into his first big-league ballgame last Wednesday in San Diego.
He was sent up to hit for Scott Podsednik in the eighth inning of a game the Dodgers were trailing 4-0. But when the Padres replaced left-hander Joe Thatcher with righty Luke Gregorson, Dodgers manager Joe Torre called the right-handed Lindsey back and sent up Andre Ethier. The Dodgers were 10 games out with 22 to play at the time.
After 6,342 plate appearances in the minors, Lindsey would have to wait for his first one in the majors while Ethier dug in for his 2,734th. It probably wasn’t the first time events hadn’t played out like the movie in Lindsey’s head. Ethier flied out to end the inning.
The next night in Houston Lindsey got another chance to pinch-hit, this time sticking around long enough to fly out to right field against Gustavo Chacin. Three days and five at-bats later, he got his first hit, a single off of Nelson Figueroa. John Lindsey’s going to fade back into the baseball background now, but for the rest of his life he’ll be a guy who made the major leagues. It’ll be in the first sentence of his obituary, that he played for the Dodgers.
Bobby Cramer, the A’s rookie who beat the Royals Monday night, might do the same, or he might stick around for a while. I don’t know. A few hours ago I’d never heard of Bobby Cramer. Now he has a win in the big leagues. Two more and he’ll match his total of elbow surgeries.
And here’s the best part about Cramer’s win over the Royals: Both Kansas City pitchers pitched well. The starter went five innings and gave up two unearned runs, the reliever went four and gave up one run. And aside from the fact that they were beaten by a 30-year-old undrafted former substitute teacher making his debut, the Royals’ two pitchers have one more thing in common. Luke Hochevar and Bryan Bullington both began their careers as the top overall pick in the June amateur draft.
Their careers aren’t working out as planned. One or both might end up being useful at some point, but they’re never going to be aces, which is what top overall draft picks are supposed to be.
But who knows. They got a glimpse of Bobby Cramer, didn’t they? Maybe it dawned on them that there can be other kinds of triumphs, later ones. They’re not sweeter — given the choice, most of us would like to be the phenom who turns into the superstar. But they might be worth waiting for.