As legendary 20th century radio malaproprietess Jane Ace might say, we’ve been sitting on pins and cushions awaiting the milestones this season. Pick the season, show yourself who has a shot at reaching which one before the season ends. Nature of the baseball fan beast.
We’re waiting for in-prime Aaron Judge to meet and pass Roger Maris as the American League’s new single-season home run champion. We’re waiting for elder Albert Pujols, who busted Blake Snell’s no-hit bid in the seventh Wednesday, to join the 700 Club—and we don’t mean the one Pat Robertson founded, either.
Waiting for the stars to erupt further in the record books one way or the other is as old as the professional game itself, seemingly. But just as Meryl Streep didn’t bag Academy Awards without solid supporting casts off which to play, baseball’s big men don’t have room to be the big men without the not-so-big men around and behind them.
One of those journeymen will call it a career after the regular season ends. He won’t get a postseason epilogue; his Athletics are about as close to being there as a mouse to trapping the cat. Stephen Vogt is one of those little big men who deserves to be shown the love after a decade which personified the journeyman’s life.
His career began 0-for-32, from 2012 through 28 June 2013. Then, leading off the bottom of the fourth with the A’s ahead 5-0, Vogt sent an 0-2 service from then-Cardinal relief pitcher Joe Kelly down the right field line and over the fence. If you’re going to smash a career-opening slump that went year-to-year, you couldn’t do it better even in the cheesiest film script.
What began ending the longest career-opening position player’s hitless streak since another Athletic (Chris Carter) did it three years before Vogt teed off became a career that included two All-Star selections and clubhouse value to five teams including his return engagement in Oakland this year.
Vogt didn’t make a show of that slump-breaking, first-hit home run. Idolising Barry Bonds when he grew up, Vogt could only remember his father’s advice prior to his making the Show in the first place, after asking as a kid why Bonds stood watching before a home run cleared the fences. “Stephen,” the old man replied, “when you have 500 home runs in the major leagues, you can do whatever you want. Until then, you put your bat down and you run around the bases.”
He told a reporter he made one exception a few months after that first-hit homer, facing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in the 2013 American League division series—his first career game-winner, a bases-loaded RBI single—after fouling off seven in a ten-pitch plate appearance—for the 1-0 win over the Tigers that sent the set to Detroit tied at a game each.
Such moments have been few enough for the 37-year-old who’s caught, played first base, and played in the outfield in his Show decade, but he’s been one of those there-to-be-called-upon who inspired fan loyalty wherever he suited up. “I believe in Stephen Vogt!” became their rallying cry. Over a journey such as his, it has to be appreciated. (The A’s will honour his career before their season-ender against the Angels on 5 October.)
Vogt is realistic about a career that’s paid him a somewhat modest (in baseball terms) but much liveable $14 million.
“I haven’t always been the best player,” he said. “I’ve been one of the best players in the league, I’ve been one of the worst players in the league. I’ve been injured and everywhere in between, I’ve been DFA’d twice, I’ve been traded, I’ve been non-tendered, you name it. I’ve been the guy that knew he was going to have a job next year to the guy that had to fight for his job next year, and just always go out and earn it.”
A guy with that becalmed an attitude is a guy who earns respect without having to reach for the heavens or punch a hole in them. He’s also a guy who earns it on a self-resurrecting World Series champion even if he couldn’t contribute on the field because he was injured. That was Vogt earning a ring regardless with last year’s Braves.
“Vogter is one of the most inspiring players I’ve ever managed,” says Padres manager Bob Melvin, who once managed him with the A’s. “What he means to a clubhouse is immeasurable—two-time All-Star, beloved in Oakland. One of my all-time favorites. Definitely has a future in managing.”
Vogt has picked the brains of Melvin plus managers Mark Kotsay and Craig Counsell (for whom he once played in Milwaukee) along the way, perhaps with just that purpose in mind. He’s been a student of the game as long as he’s played it, and Melvin may not be out of line to suggest his baseball future. If nothing else, too, Vogt may become one of those skippers who knows how to keep his clubhouse engaged.
“He felt passionate about it and spoke up,” Kotsay told reporters, after the A’s beat the Mariners Tuesday. “Does he need to do that at this point in the season when he’s on his last fifteen games? No, he doesn’t. But that shows his character and his love for the game, his love for his teammates. It came across loud and clear.”
“Having him back this year is great,” says Sean Murphy, the A’s catching anchor now, who remembers Vogt mentoring him right out of the gate in spring training 2017 and taking him around to meet everyone the better not to let him feel like just another rook. “When I heard they signed him, I was like, ‘Yes, awesome, I can’t wait to play with him again’.”
“I had a coach tell me, ‘Every day you take the field, there’s a little boy or girl that’s at their very first baseball game and you need to show them the correct way to play’,” Vogt says, “and I’ve taken that to heart. And every night, that’s why I run hard, that’s why I play hard. It’s the correct way to play baseball.”
We’re not waiting for Vogt to punch a hole in the heavens for a major milestone. But we might be waiting to hit the Net running or pick up what’s left of the newspapers or flip on the television news and learn that Vogt’s going to be somebody’s next manager.
For now, let’s do honour to the Stephen Vogts who didn’t have to be game breakers, postseason race difference makers, or record busters, but who were equal value to their teams than the ones who earn the MVPs or the Cy Young Awards or just plain break the games and the championships open wide enough.
With the Vogts among them, the big men who can’t do it all by themselves don’t have to do it all by themselves. They don’t have to try striking guys out with single pitches equaling three strikes or hitting six-run homers with every swing. The Vogts let them play the game with the least possible additional stress.
That’s what the A’s will honour iat the end of their otherwise deflated season. It’s a tribute the hint of which other clubs might care to take when it’s time for their own veteran journeymen to step away from the field.