What Makes (and Unmakes) an All-Star?

New York Times
July 11, 2017
By Doug Glanville
A career is more complex than the stat line on the back of your baseball card.
I never was an All-Star, but I was on a few ballots. In both 1998 and 1999, when I was among the leaders in all of baseball in hits just before the break, my manager with the Phillies, Terry Francona, made a valiant effort to lobby the National League All-Star manager on my behalf. To no avail.
That was as close as I would ever get.
We often see All-Star status as a one-way flight to greatness, an indelible marker. But All-Star athletes deal with setbacks of all kinds that are no different from other players’ — injuries, demotions, performance decline. And it’s guaranteed that when All-Stars fall, they fall from much higher ground. Today, the toughest part of it may be that they do it in public: everything tweeted out, Facebook-posted, splashed on a web page, instantly Instagrammed.
We saw this over the past few weeks, when two former All-Stars were let go midseason. The Cubs catcher Miguel Montero was ignominiously “designated for assignment” and later traded to the Blue Jays. And that timeless artifact, Bartolo Colón, a four-time All-Star, was sent packing by the Braves.
The tipping point for Montero was when he initially blamed his pitcher for the opposing team’s rampant success at stealing base after base, instead of taking some responsibility as part of the pitcher-catcher battery. Headlines blared and alerts lit up cellphones, many using the word “blasted” — in reference either to Montero’s critique of his pitcher or to one of Montero’s teammates responding to his comments.
Colón’s departure came with less fanfare and controversy, which could be an indicator of how even All-Stars can fade to black without much notice, despite, in this case, a 20-year career. Colón was later picked up by the Twins, and the Sporting News noted, “Twins get ‘sexier’ ” by signing Bartolo Colón to a minor-league contract — this because of his nickname, Big Sexy. Sexy or not, I am mostly happy that my playing days predated all of our current social media staples.
In baseball, one’s pedigree can create the belief that instead of focusing on the journey, as every cliché implores us to do, we’re supposed to occupy a station and own it, not just enjoy the ride. Sport in particular is driven by numbers, and when a season or career is over, or a ballot box closed, the awards often follow the bottom line, not how we counted to get there. As a first-round draft pick, I was presumed to have an exceptional skill set and therefore the bandwidth to “make it” — not just to the next level, but to the top. Where I’d stay. There seemed to be no other acceptable outcome.
If you look at my baseball career, on the back of my bubble gum card (or in today’s terms, on my Baseball Reference web page), you see years, statistics and stops: Geneva, Winston-Salem, Daytona, Orlando, Des Moines and then, finally, the big leagues (Chicago, Philadelphia, Texas). Through the lens of the level of those stops, it looks like an escalator of guaranteed growth, a hedge fund manager’s dream.
Until it abruptly ends. The final entry is 2004. What you don’t see is the shoulder issue that made me miss the beginning of the 1992 season, how the 1994-95 strike eliminated nearly my entire spring training and made that minor-league season a game of catch-up, being blindsided by a 1997 trade from Chicago to Philadelphia, the hamstring surgery in 2003. For most players, the minor-league experience is invisible to a big-league card despite its major influence. Yet in my case, most notably absent was my father’s bout with illness for three years in the middle of my career.
Every player has similar stories, All-Stars included. When I truly look at the ride of my career — or anyone’s, for that matter — it is bumpy, not smooth, and a few times I even went backward. (See 1996, when the Cubs sent me back down to the minors.) The 2017 All-Star rosters are full of inspiring journeys, from Justin Smoak and Brandon Kintzler, two up-and-down big leaguers making their first All-Star appearances in their 30s, to the return to dominance of Yu Darvish and Greg Holland (and others) after Tommy John surgery. Then there are Justin Turner and Josh Harrison, at one point deemed utility-only players, both turning those roles into All-Star performers, dispelling the idea that versatility is a sign of weakness. And the stature-defying successes of both Aaron Judge (6-foot-7) and Jose Altuve (5-foot-6). As for their communities? The above All-Stars play for Toronto, Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York and Houston. Inspiration has a diverse reach.
If numbers were everything, it would be easier to absorb and rationalize those bumps. Means to an end. But on the other side of getting released, fired or relegated, emotions are the key player. Like the percolating anxiety caused by knowing that some of those downhill changes are permanent, and we are powerless to discern which ones.
But if a career is more complex than the stat line on the back of your baseball card, so, in a sense, is life. Even the mountaintop is always shifting with its inevitable weather changes. For anyone, athlete or not, the next step could always mean a plummet to the bottom.
A couple of months ago, I was part of the very public layoffs at ESPN, and I realize, more than ever, how my time in professional baseball helped me frame the bigger picture on the other side of any setback, especially when you are falling from the top of an industry. Just as I learned when the Yankees released me in 2005. Both experiences led me to take time out to examine what I learned from the ride, whether I appreciated my station when I stopped to take it in. That reflection only underscored the significance of the now.
In tonight’s game, we will witness the talents of those who perform in the rarefied air we often speak about when it comes to the few who reach the top of the top. They are in their moment. And maybe, if we are lucky, they will create an original and singular moment for all of us, the kind that happens when we watch the best outshine the best.
Republished from The New York Times
Photo: Miguel Montero rounding the bases after hitting a home run for the Chicago Cubs in April. 
Photo Credit: Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox, via Getty Images


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