by Ken Napzok
The greatest moment of the 2019 baseball season did not take place on a Major League field. There wasn’t a multi-million dollar stadium full of fans watching and it was not broadcast on a major network with Joe Buck’s voice taking us through it.
It was not in the World Series or down the stretch run days of September. There was no glare of the spotlight shining down upon it. No. None of those grand things were attached to the greatest moment of the 2019 baseball season for the greatest moment of the 2019 baseball season took place in the Minor Leagues.
And it was one for the ages.
On July 7th in the Greater Nevada Stadium, home to the intrepid Reno Aces, Triple A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, 32-year-old Cody Decker stepped into the batter’s box with one out in the bottom of the ninth with one runner on first and his Aces down by one. A story book set-up indeed.
Decker’s baseball story cannot easily be fit onto one page. He is both a minor league journeyman, working hard for six organizations beginning with the Padres in 2009, and a home run king. As he dug into the batter’s box on this July night — another in a long line of Minor League nights — the compact right hander had 203 career home runs to his credit, making him the active leader in the minor leagues.
In 2015, he had the proverbial cup of coffee that saw him get 11 at-bats over the course of 8 games. His one start was in his hometown Dodger Stadium, but it was against the unearthly Clayton Kershaw. He recorded one RBI over those eight games but did not register a hit. It would be easy to define Decker by these stats and numbers, but, again, Cody Decker’s career cannot easily be defined.
He made a name for himself as a true character of a game. Comedy videos under his Antihero Baseball/ Daylight Films banner captured his humor, charisma, and one damn good prank of his El Paso Chihauhau’s teammate Jeff Francoeur. His presence on Team Israel during the World Baseball Classic helped introduce the worldwide baseball audience to the Mensch on the Bench.
Yet for every laugh he experienced or induced in the game there were struggles, injuries, close calls, and doubts after every closing season. There was the eternal pursuit of the mere taste of that baseball dream and the healthy desire to look at life outside of the lines.
All of that — all ten years of it — where circling around his heart and soul as he stepped up to the plate. Only a select few knew what this at-bat was. This was going to be the last professional at-bat for Cody Decker. No matter the result he was going to retire after the game.
With one strike on him, Cody swung at the next pitch from Jandel Gustave and sent it high and deep into left centerfield. It kept going and going into the hot Reno night. It sailed over the wall and up against those large billboard ads that seem to be part of every Minor League stadium throughout the history of the game. The Reno Aces won the game 10-9.
And with that Cody Decker retired.
One can only imagine the train of thoughts racing through his mind as he rounded the bases. The bright, burning hope of his early days surely had to be there. Back when a 1.084 OPS for two teams in 2009 helped launch his career.
He must have replayed all the big hits and important plays that dotted the dusty diamonds of his summers. As he eyed second base, I wonder if the pain and disappointments of all those injuries that plagued him at times and the inherent clubhouse politics of the business that cost him chances roared out from the shadows and mixed with his joy to build the case for keeping this dream going. For playing one more game.
However, as he approached second he raised his right hand and a smile broke out across his bearded face. Joy in the moment alone? Perhaps. Or maybe it was the joy in knowing that there is peace is moving forward.
Accomplishment in facing the future. As he looked to his teammates storming toward home plate and took in the cheers of the crowd, Decker seemed to meld into the finality of the moment. A new future was awaiting him at the end of this journey. A future that included a radio show with his whip smart comedy wife Jennifer and pal Eddie Pence and a place with the El Paso-based Border Youth Athletic Association where he and others would begin to change lives through this simple game of ball.
All of it seemed to be coursing through his very veins as he rounded third and headed home for one last time. He flung his helmet off and jumped into the arms of teammates. It was an explosion of emotions. The celebration was on and the memories were locked away. The last scene in his baseball playing story.
Cody Decker ended his career with a home run, a game winning one at that, and that connects him directly to Ted Williams, who had ended his career on September 28th, 1960 with a home run off of Baltimore’s Jack Fisher.
Ted Williams and Cody Decker.
One the Greatest Hitter That Ever Walked Down The Street and a career Minor Leaguer that went 11 Major League at-bats more into his boyhood dream than yours. Connected forever.
And that is why I love baseball and why it continues to reward and inspire fans for generations after generations. This game is full of these stories, these melodramas of the diamond. Every year the story goes on and the tales grow larger. And on a simple night in Reno, the greatest moment of the 2019 professional baseball season eclipsed the moments that took place on grander stages. One man walked off the game, headed into the real word, and faded into baseball legend.
Free Agent Watch
The off-season is here and that means our hearts and minds have turned to one thing and one thing only: FREE AGENT MONEY.
Well, there are awards to be won, Gold Gloves have been handed out, and the best bats of the season have been dipped in silver…
… but let’s focus on the headlines to come and the pursuits of those big contracts. There are a lot of free agents of import and value this winter and bargains to found, but let’s just look in on the three names on the top of everyone’s list. I confess to having no inside tracks on their next steps, but I think we can pull together some clues and make some bold predictions.
Stras, as the cool kids call him, is fresh off a World Series win and World Series MVP trophy. (Do you think he’s just doing donuts in his front yard behind the wheel of that fancy car he won for the award? No. Probably just using it as a doorstep? Yeah. That sounds right.) He decided to opt out of the 4 years and 100 million dollars he had left on his contract to hit the open market. While that wasn’t surprising, there was a sense throughout the postseason that Strasburg wasn’t necessarily going to opt to cash in elsewhere so much he was going to use this opportunity to secure his future with the Nationals. Despite being one of the biggest names in baseball since it seems like his birth on July 20th, 1988, Strasburg continued to just — you know — feel like that type of guy that values loyalty and community. Though, devil’s advocates would say that is something all players believe in until other teams start offering those dollar signs like the devil himself making a deal with every rock star ever.
Teams In Play: Nationals, Yankees, Padres
Strengths: True starting pitcher. Lifetime winning percentage of .659, career WHIP of 1.086, quietly became of clubhouse stalwart and leader while the world was still a flutter over his potential star level. Despite those ole’ pitch count jokes, he led the N.L. in innings pitched in 2019 with 209. Represented by Scott Boras.
Weaknesses: Once was injury prone and that shadow hangs over free agency dreams. Turns 32 next season and despite the advancement of health and wellness in baseball, that number still matters for pitchers. His beard gets a little bushy. Represented by Scott Boras
Insiders Say: There seems to be a draw toward his hometown of San Diego, but he did recently move his family to Washington. D.C. Would you want to pack up your baseball trophies AGAIN?
What Would George Steinbrenner do?: Overpay to get him so he could brag about grabbing the number one overall picked player from 2009… in 2020. Then find out he doesn’t like the spotlight of New York and have Billy Martin jump him in a hotel lobby bar.
Our Prediction: Washington Nationals.
Gerrit Cole was TWICE drafted in the first round of the MLB June Amateur draft. First by the Yankees in 2008, when he was just a fresh-faced Orange County High School wunderkind, and then in 2011 by the Pirates after he had completed all of his exams and courses at UCLA. He made the majors by 2013 and won 19 ball games for the resurgent Pirates in 2015. In 2018, he joined the Astros and became even better. However, THIS season was the first season in which Gerrit Cole became known to everyone in the baseball world not just the fantasy baseball owners proclaiming him a sleeper pick in 2014 or Pittsburgh bar keepers convinced Cole was good but “not Doug Drabek good.” Gerrit Cole put up one of the best “walk years” in recent history and did so on the national stage.
Teams In Play: Astros, Phillies, Yankees, Angels, White Sox
Strengths: Pick one. Any one of them. He has the aura of an ace and, now, the pedigree to back it. Won big when it mattered. Lead the world in batters sent back to the bench without dinner. WHIP below one in a year in which players were awarded second base just for showing up. Represented by Scott Boras
Weaknesses: Was proven to be a failable human in 2016 and 2017. Did lose a World Series game this year. Failed to scale the bullpen wall and charge the mound to pitch in Game 7 when A.J. Hinch wasn’t looking. Represented by Scott Boras.
Insiders Say: He is the pride of Newport Beach and Orange County and most rich people eventually end up behind the Orange Curtain at some point in their lives. Does this guarantee he goes to Angels? No, but it does increase the chances.
What Would George Steinbrenner do?: Hold a grudge that he didn’t sign with the club in 2008 and hire a private investigator to follow Gerrit around. Use any information found against him during negotiations and publicly scorn him when he didn’t sign again.
Our Prediction: The California Angels of Disneyland
In March of this year, my longtime friend and fantasy baseball team co-owner Corey turned to me during our fast paced auction draft (read: I took a nap during the sixth hour) and said, “I think there is a chance we can get Rendon, let’s do it.”
“Huh,” I thought to my silly self. “Is that the superstar offensive player we need to build our offense around?”
I knew Rendon was good. He arrived to the bigs midway through 2013 and made an immediate impact. By 2014, he was a Silver Slugger winner and led the league in runs scored. Yet he was injured in 2015 and, though he recovered, there was nothing about his stats that would make me think he could be the guy.
But we drafted him. 33 bucks in FAAB.
Wow, I was silly indeed.
Anthony Rendon is that player. He is the anchor, the building block, the leader rallying the troops for the charge. There are the stats to impress (league leading 44 doubles, 126 RBI, and a 1.010 OPS) , but there is now a World Series title to cement his value.
Teams In Play: Nationals, Dodgers, Rangers, Padres
Strengths: Middle of the line-up star with a well-rounded bat that goes beyond the homer crazy trends. Doubles machine. Can pick it in the field. Has the facial hair fit for a grunge-era bass player. Represented by Scott Boras.
Weaknesses: Several solid seasons, but only one big one triggers peaked alarms. Recently remarked that he hopes he’s still not playing baseball at 36. (But that’s a strength for him as a well-rounded human) Might have to shave. Represented by Scott Boras.
Insiders Say: The Rangers have the home state advantage, but he seems like a better fit for the Dodgers. He also could be part of the Padres’ attempts to jump to the front of the line.
What Would George Steinbrenner do?: Listen to Brian Cashman’s passionate plea to sign a potential clubhouse leader and then offer an obscene amount of money to Kevin Brown instead.
Our Prediction: Go West, Young Man. Rendon dabbles with San Diego, but ends up with the Dodgers.
… Curt Flood said enough and the path to free agency — to freedom — began.
As you read over all the predictions and think pieces about this year’s free agent crop and as you see all the big numbers and dollar signs flashing before your eyes, make sure you take a moment to remember Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals defensive wiz of an outfielder who decided in late 1969 that the long standing reserve clause enjoyed by major league baseball owners from the dawn of the game was akin to slavery and indentured servitude and wrong on every level.
The story of Curt Flood can’t simply be told here, so I urge you to seek it out. It’s important to the game even if you miss the days of players being tied their teams forever with no true choice to choose their destiny and get their worth.
When he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in October of 1969, Curt Flood did not want to report to the club. It wasn’t just a matter of not wanting to join the second division Phillies, it was about his future, his family, and not wanting to play in front of a city that was regarded, generally, as a, shall we say, tough city for a black man to play for. Curt Flood believed he and every player in the game deserved a choice.
So he fought for it.
Player’s Union rep Marvin Miller stood by him as a lawsuit went forward against Major League baseball and its commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The case was tried at several courts before going all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972. Only former players Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg testified on his behalf. Former owner and rebel to the core Bill Veeck did as well. No present day, active players came forward. (No doubt fearing the blacklisting that had befell Flood.) Curt Flood stood alone.
He lost in every court. Lost every appeal. The Supreme Court’s ruling ended his attempt to break players free from the ties that bound them to the clubs forever and gave them no choice in trades. He lost his career.
Flood, still property of the Phillies the entire time, was traded to the Washington Senators for the 1971 season. After 13 games and a .200 average, Flood retired, but that was clearly more than just the stats. Just four seasons later, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Jim McNally played the entire season without a contract. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled them free agents and effective, finally, broke the reserve clause. The game changed overnight.
Waves and waves of players since then have enjoyed the great bounty to be found in playing the game and have enjoyed the fine tastes of the fruits of their labors. As they should. The owners that once fought free agency, quickly adapted and used the system to their own advantages in building winners. As offseason after offseason has rolled on, the legacy of Curt Flood’s fight has slipped away. Though, the 10/5 rule — in which a player who has played ten seasons in the league and five consecutive with one team had earned a say in what teams they could be traded to — is called the Curt Flood Act of 1998, it is easy to forget how a center fielder with seven gold gloves, 1,861 career hits, and the desire for professional and personal freedom did to change the game.
This week in baseball history…
… Darryl Strawberry went home again and never was the Straw That Stirred The Drink again.
Every offseason we always hear about players seeking to go home. Whether through free agency or trades, there is always a bevy of superstar sluggers and preeminent pitchers ready to leave the teams that birthed them into the majors and head back to where it all truly began: their hometown (or region) team. More often than not it works, but sometimes, in the most glaring ways, it does not.
Darryl Strawberry was without a doubt one of the biggest stars of the game during the 1980s while wowing crowds in Shea Stadium for the Mets.
He was the 1983 National League Rookie of the Year and only seemed to get better. He was a seven time All-Star while with the team and led the senior circuit in home runs in 1988. With one of the most beautiful, sweeping swings in history, he constantly remained in the headlines and after the conclusion of the 1990 season, in which he set a career high with 108 RBI, the 28 year-old right fielder was set to hit the free agent market and his hometown of Los Angeles was in his sights.
Darryl Strawberry signed a 5 year, 22.25-million-dollar contract with his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers on November 8th, 1990. His turbulent days with Mets — much of that turbulence centered around his desire for a better contract — were over. The next chapter was about to begin.
The story didn’t end well.
His 1991 season was rather solid and par for the course. He was an all-star again and finished the year with 28 home runs and 99 RBI… and that was the end of his glory days. The pressures and distractions of playing in front of your city and with your friends around you are large, both on and off the field, (the Dodgers also brought in Strawberry’s childhood pal Eric Davis) and Strawberry’s unfortunate personal problems — including drug addiction — got the better of him. By 1994, the Dodgers released him from his contract, and he was scuffling for the Giants. He was then suspended from the game for drug violations.
There was a late career redemption arc for Strawberry with the Yankees, including a rather productive 1998 campaign, but it was never the same. Surely there was more to the story than Strawberry just going bust on the field. His off-field struggles don’t deserve shame and his battles deserve just as much compassion as they do tough love. Yet this date in baseball is a reminder that going home for the big money is never a sure thing in baseball.
Walk Off Quote
“Baseball is a public trust. Players turn over, owners turn over and certain commissioners turn over. But baseball goes on.” – Peter Ueberroth, baseball commissioner, 1984 – 1989
Ken Napzok always tried to mimic Darry Strawberry’s swing at parties to limited success, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed.