In the movie Moneyball (still the best movie ever about baseball stat nerds), the one scene that seems to stick out is one in which Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the Oakland A’s, swings a trade for Ricardo Rincon. It’s a fast paced, dialogue heavy scene, with Pitt and Jonah Hill juggling names and phone conversations–“how about Juan for Doug, how about Elton for John?”
Trading players is a fascinating part of professional sports generally, and yet a part that’s completely incomprehensible in any other setting. “We really want the chair of your physics department. We’d be willing to trade you an art historian, and an economist to be named later.” In most professions, people like to have some say over where they work and live. Not so sports, where at a moment’s notice, you can be told “sorry, I know you like your Manhattan apartment and you’re dating a supermodel and all, but you’ve been traded. Report to Houston in the morning.” In Ball Four, Jim Bouton describes a teammate who was traded, then sent to the minors, then traded again, all within a week. Each trade required the player and his wife to pack up their things and move to a new apartment. By their fourth apartment (again: fourth in a week), he says they’d developed quite a rhythm moving boxes back and forth–his wife having driven their moving van a total of 3500 miles, with him flying to the new city, playing a game, then meeting her at yet another new place.
As fans, of course, we don’t think of any of that. We evaluate any trade totally based on whether we think it will help or hurt our favorite team. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants. Our trading history is, uh, spotty. George Foster for Frank Duffy (explanation: we needed a back-up shortstop, and traded one of our best minor league players for one. Duffy retired after a year. Foster, post-trade, hit 348 home runs, and made five All-Star teams). That one still rankles.
This past off-season, 2011-12, the Giants had one huge pressing need–hitting. The 2011 team had six very good starting pitchers. You really only need five, but because of injuries, a pedestrian career minor leaguer named Ryan Vogelsong was pressed into action, put on a cape and mask, and began rescuing beautiful blondes from the heights of tall buildings. (Great story, Vogelsong: he had decided to quit. 32 years old, nowhere close to a major league career–time to hang ’em up. The Giants call, his wife persuades him to give it one more try–a coach suggests a minor tweak in his pitching motion, and voila, he’s suddenly Tom Seaver). So it made sense to trade a surplus starting pitcher for a good hitter.
The Giants’ GM is Brian Sabean. He’s been there forever, and we Giants’ fans tend to think maybe a replacement might be nice. But we won the World Series in 2010, buying Sabean at least five more years. Like most GM’s, he’s made some good trades and some stupid ones. This off-season, he traded Jonathan Sanchez for Melky Cabrera. So: brilliant? Stupid? One of those trades that helps both teams?
Break it down: Jonathan Sanchez was insanely talented, and immensely frustrating. The brilliant kid in your class who never turns in his homework. He didn’t throw all that hard (fastball in the 89-92 range, pretty average), but when it moved; it was close to unhittable. Trading him made sense–would he ever put it together, live up to his potential?–but dangerous–you really wanna trade a guy that talented? A possible superstar?
What we got for him was Melky.
Talented kid, from the Dominican Republic, bounced around a lot–Yankees to Braves to Royals. Has his best season last year, but before that was widely regarded as a disappointment. Could be good. Could be mediocre. The consensus–the Royals got the better of us, getting a potential star, Jonathan, for a nothing-special outfielder with a funny name.
Melky’s not short for anything. His name is Melky. There was a story he was named after Melchior (one of the Three Wise Men). Not so. His Mom just liked the sound: Melky. And he doesn’t have a middle name, so that option’s out. This would be like me naming a kid “Sporgle.” The Giants’ fans have taken to him big-time, which, since we’re baseball fans, means dressing up like milk men to go to the ballgame. Melk-men, milk-men; it works. In the locker room, apparently, he sits quietly before each game reading the Bible. This is not because he’s a Christian or particularly devout–a batting coach once told him it would help his concentration to read before a game, and a Gideon Bible was what was in his hotel room. He read it one game, got four hits that game, has done it ever since. This is my single favorite thing about Melky–he reads the Bible as a superstition.
He’s been unbelievable. He’s hitting something insane right now, .380-something. He’s a brilliant left fielder, fast, can throw. He plays the game with this crazy smile on his face–he’s joyous to watch. He bought a house for his Mom in the Bay Area, so she can do all his cooking and laundry. He’s this goofy, great kid.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Sanchez pitched a few games for the Royals, was terrible, got injured, and is out for the season. His career may be over.
See why trades are fun?