Last weekend my wife and I went out for a “Grown-up Day.” Essentially this means we get a sitter and go do something we can’t do with the kiddos. Enjoy a show, go for a quiet hike–whatever. Something quiet and not centered on the Paw Patrol. This particular Saturday, we were brewery-hopping in Cuyahoga Falls. At our first stop, we found an empty corner of the bar by the Cleveland Indians game and ordered a few flights. When we looked up, Victor Martinez was sobbing, and I caught myself saying out loud, “I think he’s my favorite player ever.”
Of course, this got me thinking about what such a designation even means– my “favorite” player. It’s not a tangible, definable thing. After all, I cut my teeth on metrics and cold analysis—separating the sheep from the goats (and GOATs) using statistical evaluations of on-field performance. What good is a “favorite” when we can identify the BEST so easily? But, more and more, I don’t have the energy or appetite for those in-depth analytical studies. They feel somewhat cold– lacking the spontaneous joy I still feel from my favorites.
And so– hopefully not in spite of spontaneity and joy–Michael Bode and I have decided to figure out why certain players have been our favorites.
I went first because I agreed to write the intro and well this whole discussion began with a personal favorite, Victor Martinez. Without further ado:
I’ll admit that this is likely part of the old-man, emotional thing, but the fact that we make Victor cry on a regular basis is not unimportant to me in this selection. It’s not that I necessarily prefer a sad ballplayer (though come to think of it, emo baseball could be fun), it’s that I want them to care. I certainly want them to care more than I do. And I don’t know that any player cares as much, or as publicly as Victor Martinez has.
A reminder of his backstory–Victor signed with the Indians out of Venezuela in 1996 at 17 years old for $8,000. His first season of pro ball was in Mahoning Valley, where he lived with a Warren, OH host family, the Bixlers. Twenty-two years, three teams and a career later, they are still his family.
After winning a few minor league MVPs and batting titles, Victor debuted with the Indians in September of 2002 when rosters expanded. By 2004 he’d post a 125 OPS+ with 38 doubles, 23 home runs, and nearly 600 plate appearances as the club’s everyday catcher. From 2004 to 2007, he never had fewer than 30 doubles, 60 walks, or 590 plate appearances. Every year his OPS+ was at least 120 (20% better than a league average hitter). He did all this at one of the most demanding positions on the field.
But I digress–I’m here to talk about the crying! Fast forward through the awful 2007 ALCS collapse against Boston, the stalled 2008 campaign that brought the Sabathia deal and the beginning of the rebuild, and the move of Cliff Lee a year later–the first team that had ever traded back-to-back Cy Young winners. Is this a team you’d want to play for? Is this a team you’d feel loyalty toward? And yet there was Victor, desperately hanging on to the sinking ship.
In the hours leading up to the 2009 trade deadline, Victor’s son asked him: “Daddy, are we still an Indian?”
Hours later, Victor sat devastated at his locker and cried about being sent away from his home:
“This is the toughest day of my career. This is my house, and I feel like I’m leaving my house. This organization brought me to the big leagues. It made me a better person and player. I always wanted to wear one uniform in my career…”
I watched that press conference twice that day. The first time I cried. I tried it again several hours later after the shock had worn off and the numbness set in. I cried all over again.
Victor isn’t the best player I’ve ever seen–not by a long shot. His defense wasn’t great, and his baserunning was atrocious. He never hit more than 25 home runs with Cleveland, and when we needed him most to save the 2008 season, he was injured. It certainly didn’t help things that he went to play for two of my least favorite teams. The downslope of his career has further sullied my memories. Since the beginning of last season, he’s accrued nearly 1000 plate appearances as a DH with an OPS+ of 80. He costs his team wins nearly every time he plays, yet Detroit, stripped of all valuable parts, has no one else left. So he struggles through the anemic at-bats, painful for all of us–no doubt for him most of all. After this season he’ll finally retire, after 22 years in professional baseball.
But for now, like his old manager would have insisted, he’s still grinding it out. He cares too much not to.
Wherein Steiner embraced crying in baseball, I sought out the laughter for my initial selection. While blubbering is one representation of both the competitive fire and emotional attachment to the sport, the enjoyment of the game demonstrated with a gregarious smile and uncontrollable release of endorphins through a hearty outburst of laughter are emblematic of one whose life is baseball. The Cleveland Indians might have a player who goes by the moniker of Mr. Smile on Player’s Weekend each season, but the smile I most remember was from the no-hitter that almost was. When Carlos Carrasco came a pitch away from baseball immortality before a Joey Butler blooper ended his bid.
You could see that appreciation after Butler’s hit dropped in. Carrasco was all smiles and he motioned to Kipnis for the effort on the play. The teammates all huddled on the mound thank Carrasco for his performance, and he seemed to just be happy that he could provide it for them. As he walked off the field, the visiting fans all stood and cheered loudly for Carrasco who smiled and removed his cap to wave before ducking into the dugout.
The origin story before that particular game had already solidified Cookie as a personal favorite. One of the key pieces returned in the trade of AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to Philadelphia (as Jon mentions above), Carrasco overcame language barriers severe enough he ate nothing but Dominos pizza for three months, early career struggles, heart surgery, and being hit with line drives (three times).1
Quick to add levity, Carrasco was prominently involved in the mini-figure creations of 2017, dressed up head-to-toe after he achieved United States citizenship, wore a Gatorade bucket on his head to play off Bauer’s GoPro, and is always willing to do quick-hit videos for the team such as the Melk and Cookie bit.
On another team, Carrasco might have a reputation as a superstar. He grew as a pitcher through the Indians development system from a low strikeout, high walk pitcher to one of the most reliable starters in the American League. Since 2015, Carrasco has the seventh-best fWAR (17.6) of any pitcher in MLB with the ninth-best FIP (3.14), while factoring into the AL Cy Young chase twice (finishing fourth in 2017). On the Indians, Corey Kluber’s dominance, Trevor Bauer’s scientific mind, and Mike Clevinger’s flamboyance overshadow his own excellence. Somehow the hidden star status suits the humbleness he portrays.
Carlos Luis Carrasco is my all-time favorite member of the Cleveland Indians, and it is for all the reasons above and more. Heck, I did not even yet mention the Carlos Carrasco Foundation helping children in America and Latin America whose mission statement is “to create an environment that offers every child a strong foundation for life-long success through signature programs and activities that motivate young people.”
Simply put, baseball is supposed to be a fun game, and no one has made the game more fun to follow than Cookie.