By Eric Nusbaum
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When he played with the Dodgers, James Loney used to host the team's annual charity bowling extravaganza. He hosted it for four years, from 2009 through 2012. This isn't immediately relevant to the 2013 playoffs or the Rays' 4-0 wild-card victory against the Indians on Wednesday, but bear with me, we'll get there. Loney -- whose career year will continue in Boston on Friday -- might seem now like the perfect Rays reclamation project. But before James Loney could be reclaimed, he had to be abandoned. The world had to give up on him.
Which brings me back to the bowling. If you were a PR person for the McCourt-era Dodgers, wouldn't James Loney have been exactly the kind of player you would have wanted to host your bowling tournament? Amidst the messy headlines and Manny weirdness, there was steady, unspectacular James Loney. He was just a regular guy, a first baseman trying to make his way in the world, the same way there are cooks and construction workers and schoolteachers trying to make their way in it. And much like the rest of us, Loney's results never seemed to meet his expectations. Still, he showed up every day, worked hard, never complained, never got hurt. In that sense, you could relate to a guy like Loney.
But not forever. Lingering over all those sympathetic qualities was the shadow of unfulfilled potential. Loney was the 19th overall pick in the 2002 draft. He had the talent, the sweet swing and slick defense. Over 468 plate appearance in his first two partial seasons with the Dodgers, Loney hit .321/.372/.554 with 19 home runs. Along with guys like Matt Kemp, Russell Martin and Andre Ethier, Loney was supposed to be the future. But has his teammates grew into their careers, Loney plodded along in his own. Over the rest of his time in L.A. -- 2,892 plate appearances, a more complete sample -- he hit .278/.336/.398. Every season was going to be the season Loney finally put it together. Every season wasn't.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." If this is true, then sports fans are of very high intelligence. In the case of Loney, Dodger fans were able to both like a player and hate him at the same time. We liked him for the reasons mentioned above. He was a nice guy. He made playing first base an aesthetic joy. But we hated him because waiting for him to hit was a depressing, trying activity that only served to remind us of our own shortcomings. James Loney would never be the James Loney we wanted him to be. In fact, he was terrible. When he was finally dealt to Boston in last summer's mega-trade, Dodger fans were thrilled and relieved to be rid of him.
So James Loney entered the offseason an undesirable option: a first baseman with no notable offensive skills. He did not get on base particularly well, or hit for power, or run fast. The Rays offered him a piddling $2 million, and he took it. He took it and batted .299 with 13 home runs. He put up a Fangraphs WAR of 2.7, which was 10th among qualified first baseman this year, just behind his replacement in Los Angeles, Adrian Gonzalez, and .3 wins ahead of his counterpart in last night's game, Nick Swisher. Maybe these are not spectacular numbers, but they are very spectacular James Loney numbers. Spectacular enough numbers that to observers who did not wait through those 2,892 plate appearances and four bowling extravaganzas, Loney enters the Division Series as an ordinary good player. He enters it reclaimed.
Context is a funny thing. I'm happy for James Loney. I'd still very much like to go bowling with him. But at the same time, I'm equally crushed by the Rays fans and casual baseball observers who don't understand the pain that has been watching James Loney the last six years. It has been the banal pain of everyday life: of opportunities missed, jobs applied futilely applied for, bills unpaid. When he grounded into a slow-motion rally-killing double play late in the eighth inning against Cleveland, I could have jumped off the couch screaming, "This is the real James Loney, now you can finally understand!"
Cleveland fans already understand. The
Indians Spiders have suited up many James Loneys in the course of their franchise history, a franchise, by the way, that has quietly gone 65 years without a World Series title. This might be a karmic thing -- a consequence of their official, non-Spider nickname and non-Spider mascot. But more likely, it is just one of those deals where things don't work out. Cleveland as a city has been in a pre-2013 Loney situation for a few decades now, which makes what happened last night either especially painful or totally unremarkable.
While the Rays were buying low last offseason, Cleveland was working on a comprehensive urban redevelopment project. It brought in Terry Francona, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher to not only build a roster but also instill some confidence in the broader project of baseball in Cleveland. Swisher, the West Virginia boy and Ohio State alum and probable bowling aficionado, was coming off another fine season with the Yankees and excited to return to what was more or less his home.
If James Loney is the common man, working quietly and diligently to get what's his, Swisher is the demonic optimist. He is the person we all sometimes wish we could be, the person whose very life is a testament to the power of positive thinking. His career has been a series of Nick Swisher jokes. He was taken three picks ahead of Loney in the 2002 draft. He was traded twice in nine months in 2008. He released a charity covers album of classic rock songs for kids. He has also been a productive major leaguer for almost a decade. Expectations for Cleveland may not have been Key Tower high, but Swisher was not shy about trying to raise them, whether with silly T-shirts or the bad slogans printed on those T-shirts, or the postgame fireworks shows he personally paid for at Progressive Field. The fact that Cleveland ranked second to last in percentage attendance this season did not -- will not -- deter Nick Swisher.
Cleveland -- rightful wild-card winners, I maintain -- blitzed its way into the postseason behind young pitching and young hitting (Danny Salazar, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis). Meanwhile, Swisher found himself in the midst of his worst season since 2008. The on-base percentage was down a smidge, the power down, too. And he was playing first base, a less defensively valuable but more offensively demanding position than right field which he had usually manned in the Bronx. Still, Swisher pushed forward with infinite high fives and a strong September as his team sealed its wild card slot. The Rays and Rangers tied for the second wild card. The Rays beat the Rangers in Arlington. Then the Rays came to Cleveland.
Nick Swisher struck out on a foul tip in his first at-bat on Wednesday. In his second, he grounded out to Loney. In the fifth inning, with runners on first and third and one out, he grounded out to Loney again. Then in the seventh, with runners on first and second and two out this time, the urgency of a single-elimination playoff game setting in, Swisher struck out swinging looking like he had the weight of Ohio on his back.
In 2011, the Rays' first baseman was Casey Kotchman, a reclamation project much like Loney in 2013. Kotchman hit .306 with 10 home runs that year for Tampa, and the Rays won the wild card, going 91-71. The next year, Kotchman took off for Cleveland. His replacement in Tampa Bay was old friend Carlos Pena. Pena hit .197 and the Rays went 90-72, but didn't reach the playoffs. As the starting first baseman for Cleveland, Kotchman hit .229. Cleveland won 68 games. It also didn't reach the playoffs. Kotchman batted 21 times for the Marlins this year. He is currently a free agent.
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Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. He is a co-founder of The Classical and his work has appeared in Deadspin, Slate, ESPN the Magazine and The Best American Sports Writing. You can reach him on Twitter @ericnus.