Friday, August 5, 2011

Goodbye, Matt Stairs

Matthew Wade Stairs retired today at the age of 43, after 19 seasons in the bigs, with 13 teams, and zero defensive positions. Built like a fire hydrant and a pure sabermetric wet dream of Three True Outcomes (Strikeout, Walk or Homer), Matt made just under $19 million in his life for the simple virtues of taking walks and hitting home runs, with absolutely no chance at the Hall of Fame. And yet there's odd little touchstones; you don't get to be the oldest player in the league for years and years without being all kinds of useful, and loved. And he's got one more moment than many other people have, which we'll get into later.

How long was Stairs in the bigs? He was drafted by the Expos, and broke in north of the border, where he was born, just another jewel of the best farm system in baseball during my lifetime. His best season was at age 31 in Oakland, where he had a .258 / 38 / 102 year in one of the worst hitters parks in the world; it speaks volumes to his life that as soon as he was with an organization that valued him properly, they sold him off before they had the pitching to go on a playoff run. He was only a full-time player for ten of those years, and not since 2006. Most of his time as a regular was spent on terrible teams, in front of meager crowds, far away from the playoff glare. He leaves with a solid .832 career OPS, and looked for all the world to be one of those classic underrated guys that teams never actually win with, because all of their positives are in a few narrow places. The kind of guys who are never really remembered.

And then, of course, Providence, God, Fate or Yahweh intervened for him, and he did this. Sorry the video isn't better, btu that's MLB for you.

That home run didn't win the NLCS for the Phillies against the Dodgers, and it didn't end Jnathan Broxton's career. That home run didn't win the series against the Rays, or make Cole Hamels unhittable, or Brad Lidge perfect.

It only seemed that way.

Because honestly, when a human basset hound like Stairs has his Elvis moment of perfection, the sense of White Hot Destiny can not be denied. Like Boston Fan with his interminable stories of the Dave Roberts Steal (more on that in another post tonight), we all knew the team was going to win after Stairs ended Broxton, merely the best closer in baseball that year, in a park he never lost in.

Many people wondered why Stairs didn't retire after that, but going out on top is not the way of a grinder like Stairs; you don't pick your exit and leave like a suicide, you fight for each breath and paycheck. He scraped through 2009 on Charlie Manuel's bench, hitting under .200, but having a small heroic moment against Broxton again in the 2009 series, drawing a walk in the middle of a rally. In 2010 he dropped weight and had a surprisingly useful year in the Petco silo, but 2011 was little joy or production in DC, where all beloved athletes go to die. When they released him, that was it.

Matt Stairs didn't retire; Matt Stairs *was* retired. Like any other working stiff.

There's a reason why guys like Stairs are beloved by the real fans, and why his moon shot against Broxton brings tears to the eyes. It's because every ordinary guy that ever watched a game while dreaming of playing themselves can imagine himself in that Stairs uniform. It's because he never put himself above the game, had drama about his employment, took himself too seriously or seemed to complain about living the dream life of an MLB player, even at the end of the bench. He was not who we dreamed ourselves to be, but how we imagined ourselves, when we considered what that might actually look like.

19 seasons. 13 teams. 43 years. One perfect moment. And one career where every drop of juice and utility was squeezed out.

Sometimes grinders can be perfect, too.

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