Mercenary Territory

Hall of Fame Induction 1939

The baseball world lost an iconic figure this month.  Red Schoendienst was a veritable institution.  His Hall of Fame career is inseparable from the image of him as the life-long St. Louis Cardinal.  We tend to think of old revered ballplayers as being tied to one franchise from cradle to grave.  The reality is far different.  Red played almost one-third of his 19-year career away from St. Louis in Milwaukee and with the New York Giants.  The celebrated one-city player is a rare breed of cat.  That is true not only today, but throughout history.  Baseball is “Mercenary Territory.”

“I’ve did my time in that rodeo
It’s been so long and I’ve got nothing to show…
Fool that I am I’d do it all over again”

Lowell George

The Hall of Fame players with their numbers retired and the monument plaques conjure up the images of the one-team player.  But, a look at the history reveals a different picture.  Of the first ten players inducted into the Hall only one played his entire career for one team.  That was Washington’s own Walter Johnson who pitched 21 years for the Senators. Honus Wagner carries the rare distinction of playing his first three years for the Louisville Colonels.  It remains as the last major league franchise to fold.  Wagner went on to Pittsburgh for the remainder of his 22-year career.  The rest of them fell into a pattern.  Late in the game they would go to another team for one last year or so in a sort of “Sunset Tour.”   It was a way for lower-tiered franchises to boost attendance while giving the old guy his swan song. Ty Cobb ended his long run in Philadelphia with the Athletics.  Babe Ruth finished back in Boston, but the second time was with the city’s less favored franchise— the Braves.  As a group, they averaged 2.8 teams per individual.

Jumping forward to the most recent ten Hall inductees, the picture is a bit different.  There are three players with one-team service; Chipper Jones, Alan Trammell, and Jeff Bagwell.  However, the other seven were more traveled than their historical counterparts.  As a group, they averaged 3.5 teams per individual.  Three players spent time with six teams.  No player in the original inductee group had more than five teams.  The years of playing time collectively between the two groups is nearly identical; 210 years for the original group, 206 years for the latest inductees.  A Hall of Fame career is a long career.

The 255 players with their plaque in Cooperstown represent less than 1.3 percent of the players who have put on a uniform.  For the rest of the lot, the game moves them at will.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the bullpens.  A look at the Nationals’ 8-man pen shows 3 players with single-team service.  Those are the young guys.  The ones with years under their belt have seen some different uniforms.  Shawn Kelley and Ryan Madson are the only two with ten or more years of playing time.  They are on their fourth team each.  A glance around other National League East bullpens reveals a similar pattern.  There’s a mix of young home-grown guys (spelled “Cheap”) and veterans with lots of stickers on the luggage.  If you get through the Rookie contract you’re worth keeping.  If you’re worth keeping, then you’re worth moving.

Baseball is a constant shuffle of players coming up, moving out, and leaving for good.  One always thinks of Opening Day lineups and 25-man rosters as being set if not in stone, then at least in hard clay.  The reality is that rosters are amazingly fluid.  In May of this year, there were 1020 Player Transactions.  This is everything from placing a player on the Disabled List or Paternity List to a trade.  Fifteen active players were traded in May.  In 2017 there were 143 active players traded during the season.  Over half of them (79) were moved during the Trade Deadline month of July.  Add another 84 for the off-season months, and the total swells to 227.  There were also 77 Free Agent signings.   Players get moved.  Players move on their own when they can.  Some players have a mix on their résumé. Our old friend Denard Span is now in Seattle.  It’s his fifth team during his eleven year career.

Out in the High Plains of the American West, there are a few brief weeks before the 4th of July when rodeos are seemingly everywhere.  It sets up a frenzied set of chases across arid lands in cars and light planes jitterbugging from town to town in pursuit of money and notoriety.  The old hands gave it an informal name long ago, “Cowboy Christmas.”  In a game where success comes in eight-second doses and failure can come in a permanent limp, the intervals are punctuated by overnight commutes on interstates amid vast darkness in cramped vehicles.  It’s a cash-and-carry existence where only the very few become commodities.  Some break even.  Most go bust.  At the end of the day on the 4th the fireworks come out as the rodeo glut ends.  Those who have chased the dream are left to count the money and bruises while wishing for another crack at it.  The hard business of what to do next can wait until dawn.

Author’s Note: “Mercenary Territory” appeared on the Little Feat Live Album “Waiting for Columbus” which has multiple ties to the DC area.  Three of the seven concerts recorded for the album took place in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of Georgetown George Washington University in August 1977.  Emceeing the concerts was radio personality “Cerphe” of then-“Progressive Radio” station WHFS of Bethesda, MD.
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