The Nationals recent call-up of Moises Sierra from AAA ball is not the kind of transaction that stops Baseball Twitter in its tracks. Sierra, a corner outfielder with some power, has been a professional ballplayer for years — from his 17-year-old self in 2006 to his big league debut in 2012 with the Blue Jays, to the White Sox, to the Chicago farm system, to the Royals, to Miami, and now here in Washington. His career year came in 2013, when he posted a very respectable .827 OPS in 122 plate appearances for Toronto. For his big-league career, he’s a .675 OPS player worth -0.3 bWAR. He will get a chance with the Nationals, and we will see what comes of it.
Matt Reynolds, another recent acquisition to the club, is a similar case. Drafted out of the University of Arkansas in 2012, Reynolds has toiled up and down the Mets minor league system and has lined up at every defensive position other than pitcher and catcher. A career .640 OPS hitter worth -0.3 bWAR, Reynolds offers some speed and glove skills but, like Sierra, he falls into that frigid analytic concept called “replacement-level” or even “sub-replacement level.”
Of course, baseball isn’t played by analytic concepts. It’s played by human beings trying to hang on to jobs and earn income for themselves and their families. It’s played by young men trying to affirm their identity one at-bat at a time. Year in and year out, rosters turn over and over and over again, and zero-WAR or negative-WAR players are brought up as “depth” or “pinch hitters” or “late-inning defensive substitutions,” they get an AB or ten, they’re sent back down, some wash out and fade away, some re-emerge elsewhere.
The Grind Continues
I recently had the chance to speak to a long-time “grinder” about what it takes to carve out a career playing on the margins.
Simon Pond was a Blue Jay having a red-hot 2004 spring training. His then-teammate Jayson Werth was then dealt to make room for Pond on the big league club. Werth’s career went one way, culminating with a mega-deal in Washington and years of success here. Pond’s went another.
This is not to say the arc of Pond’s career was an unhappy one; quite the opposite, actually— Pond seems essentially at peace with the end results of his playing days and the lessons he’s taken from them.
“I made it by being obsessive and out-of-balance,” Pond said. “People called it a healthy obsession, people would say it was hard-working, and it was celebrated. Then I came out of baseball and got married, and I’m struggling with mowing the grass and common-sense things that were not a part of my life because I was so obsessed.”
“In a lot of ways,” he said, “I was tremendously immature. I was obsessed and focused, but is that a healthy human being? It was my path and I’m not ashamed of it—but it is healthy?”
For the record: Pond was a strong minor league ballplayer for a long time, across many different levels, for Montreal, Cleveland, Toronto, Baltimore, Boston and Pittsburgh. His best year was his age-26 year in 2003, when he slashed a terrific .321/.397/.485, with 12 homers, 85 RBIs and 35 doubles.
He describes the process, the commitment level of reaching this rung of baseball, as something that took grip of him as an athletically dominant youngster and really never let go: the belief that baseball is a skill game and skill can be mastered if only by pure will, pure drive, pure and relentless repetition and quest for a mythical ideal performance. If someone asked him to swing a bat at night 50 times in the mirror, Pond said he would do it.
“500 times,” Pond recalled how the idea of mastering a skill gave him a feeling of control, and fed his desire to be great: if he worked harder, he could be as good as anyone.
“The energy I took to baseball, I was screaming to the universe that I was alive,” Pond said.
This existential intensity shot him into the draft. The Expos snatched him up in the 8th round in 1994, right out of high school. His obsession got him sent to rookie ball where he was thrown in the mix with guys like future Hall-of-Fame outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. It got Pond promoted through low- and high-A levels; it got him invited to spring training camps year after year. It also held him back in ways he can only now really articulate and appreciate.
Pond hit .259 as a 17-year-old, then .170 as a 18-year-old, and then .300 at 19. The difference, he explained, was “authentically letting (stuff) go that isn’t serving you.”
“I had to take internal responsibility for stuff,” he said. “I had to drop excuses.”
His track upward through the minor leagues stalled as his relentless desire ran into organizations full of similarly relentless, similarly desperately driven young men. Constant competition, about everything, everywhere, all the time, took its toll.
“I heard Dave Winfield say he had fun and the results would take care of itself. I would not describe it as fun. You are out there competing day in day out w people who are better than you. Of course there’s good moments, but baseball is ridiculously humbling. It was not a fun thing for me. It was satisfying and extremely challenging. But it was not fun.”
Pond holds no grudges toward teams that cut him, explaining the level of his play was his responsibility alone, and as he looked back, he is certain that he was given every chance that he could have hoped for, and just couldn’t capitalize. He couldn’t break through—until that magic spring of 2004, when he did, and even that experience came with ambivalence.
“It was such a reality check,” he said. “It’s not like you’re here now, everything’s awesome. It’s still an exercise in getting your butt kicked and taking it.”
I imagine that these hard-won lessons born of real, on-field failure, could create a sense of bitterness and regret. But this is not so: instead, in Pond, I heard a tone of deep, profound, thoughtful gratitude. He jokes that he’s done a lot of meditating and breathing and has found a focus on loving-kindness, but it is clear that shedding the perfectionism, the maniacal drive that underwrote his baseball career, has created balance and comfort where once there was a constant edge.
“I joke now with people that my 40’s kind of feel like I’ve never had it so good,” he said. “I have a house, I have an income I can count on, I’m married with two kids. I wish I was a better baseball player, but in another sense I think the best thing that ever happened to me was that I didn’t get what I wanted.”
You can never take away the fact that Simon Pond was a Major League player. In history, there have been few that can stake that claim. For the evaluators of talent, they have to decide who to promote — be it Pond, Sierra, Reynolds or somebody else.