ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams has the nickname "Big City" -- given to him by his teammates because, well, he's big and because there's already too many guys named Matt on the team for him not to have a nickname -- but I don't like it. It's a little too easy, a little too on the nose, while still being completely wrong. There's nothing "city" about Adams at all. If anything, he's more Bryant "Big Country" Reeves. Cardinals fans have debated the ideal nickname for Adams for a few years now, from "Splat Adams" (or, inevitably, "Fat Adams") to "Big Hoss" to "Big Rock." I'm partial to "Big Mayo" myself. It gets across the "big" part while acknowledging that Adams isn't just large, he's also a little sloppy. He always appears to be spilling out everywhere; he has a jersey that just won't stay tucked.
Matt Adams is one of those guys who your friends who don't watch baseball will see on TV and say, "How is that guy an athlete?" Again, it's not just the size. David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera are big guys, but they also have a natural spryness to them, all their parts working in unison and harmony to create something that's naturally rhythmic and athletic. When you see them hit, you understand why their size isn't a detriment to their success, but simply part of a machine working in sync. Adams is not like that. He's more coordinated than he looks -- defensive metrics in fact rank him as a perfectly average first baseman -- but that is not a high bar to clear.
Watching Adams bat is to watch a man shift his weight back and forth awkwardly, a lava lamp on its side swaying one way to another. It is not a smooth process. It looks like, well, a fat guy trying to swing a baseball bat. I tend to liken him to Hunter Pence, another hitter with far too many moving parts who still somehow generates enough power, if by accident, once all those parts get moving in the right direction. Except Adams is Pence moving much… more… slowly. One of these days Adams is going to swing and miss and fall right on his face.
It is perhaps fitting, then, the biggest moment of Adams career, the highlight he will be remembered by, is so charmingly klutzy. On an 0-1 count, facing a future Hall of Famer who had pitched one of the greatest games of his career on the biggest stage possible, Adams found a rare Clayton Kershaw mistake, a hanging curve on the inside of the plate. You can almost see his eyes go cartoonishly huge and his tongue go flopping out of his mouth. If he were Pepe Le Pew, he'd be floating along, wafted upward by the scent of that pitch.
With that, the Cardinals had a 3-2 lead they'd hang on to, beating the Dodgers in the playoffs for the second consecutive season and advancing to the National League Championship Series for a fourth consecutive year and an absurd ninth time since 2000. They'll talk about that homer for years and years, and postgame, many Cardinals fans were comparing it to Jim Edmonds' famous homer to win Game 6 of the 2004 NLCS against Houston.
There's a similarity there in that both were hit by lefthanded batters who raised their arms in triumph upon hitting the ball… but that's it. Edmonds, like everything Edmonds did, was smooth and perfectly balanced; as soon as he swung, you knew the ball was gone, that something beautiful had just happened.
Adams' swing is nothing like that. Adams' swing is a lumbering lunge, a whipsaw flung at the ball, as gawky and graceless as everything that guy does. Also, Edmonds' triumphant gesture was because he'd obviously just launched a ball deep into the St. Louis night; that ball still hasn't come down. But Adams began celebrating his homer even though, uh, hey Matt, that ball just scraped the top of the wall. Two feet shorter, and Adams is going all floppy giddy on a single to right field. In this way, Adams' premature, yet ultimately warranted, confidence reminded one of another famous Cardinals homer, from Tom Lawless in the 1987 World Series. Lawless, a utility player who had a total of two homers in his whole career (and was most recently the interim manager for the Houston Astros at the end of this season), hit a ball into deep left and walked down the line like he'd just smashed it to the moon. He hadn't.
And even Lawless ran out the bases with panache. Adams' goofy, I'm not sure which way to run or what I'm supposed to be doing with my arms pseudo-dance around first base is Pure, Peak Adams, totally backwards and strange and not-how-that's-supposed-to-work-at-all. Which is to say, it was beautiful in its own way.
Adams was, semi-famously, a 23rd round pick in the 2009 draft out of Slippery Rock University, discovered rather randomly, old-school style, by a scout who just stumbled across him. His stats were incredible, as you would expect from someone facing Division II pitching, and Adams had clear power, but he was so maladroit a presence that it was difficult to imagine him pulling it together to hit big-league pitching. You'd have called him a project if you thought he was someone you could fix. But all that ungainly motion in Adams' swing just kept him hitting at every level until the Cardinals could not deny him anymore. Ultimately, he became the third person to start at first base for St. Louis on opening day in three years since Albert Pujols left, but next year he's going to be the first to do it twice. He's going to be manning that position for a long time.
(That 2009 Cardinals draft, by the way, featured Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal and Adams, in case you were wondering why the Cardinals keep making the NLCS every year.)
The Cardinals advance now to play the Giants, with home field advantage even, and Adams will be out there again, flailing and stumbling and doing amazing things. No one strikes out in a more ugly fashion, and all told, he's not going to convince your average NBA fan that baseball players are the platonic ideal of human physical perfection. But in his own stumbling, inelegant way, he will keep hitting the damn ball hard, and it will be beautiful. Now it's time to work on that home run trot.
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