- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Sure, cynicism is in vogue these days -- so much that it's easy to forget why we enjoy following baseball in the first place. Then one of those Kevin Costner cornfield moments comes along and puts it all back into focus.
Walk-off homers and dazzling debuts make for happy endings, but the best feel-good stories provide a touch of humanity that can't be celebrated with a shaving cream pie in the face. Sometimes it's less about baseball than about bonding with family, or achieving a personal triumph after an injury or different kind of setback.
In this week's edition of Starting 9, we reflect upon nine moments from the 2010 Major League Baseball season that left a nice, warm feeling and memories that will outlast the box score. Some of the events below barely generated a headline, but that didn't make them any less poignant or inspirational.
In case you're wondering, there are no references to Nyjer Morgan's antics, the McCourt divorce proceedings, the Florida Marlins' finances, the Tampa Bay Rays' attendance, Ken Griffey Jr.'s clubhouse nap, Carlos Zambrano's dugout blowups, Roger Clemens' legal issues, Hanley Ramirez's May loaf-a-thon, the Chone Figgins-Don Wakamatsu dugout spat, Phillies fans who vomit on their seatmates, Johnny Cueto's karate kicks, the Bryce Harper contract negotiations or the Pittsburgh Pirates' team ERA. This is strictly a Francisco Rodriguez-free zone.
Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga
It's odd that perhaps the most enduring moment of 2010 should come from a pitcher with a 20-18 career record and an umpire who was fresh off his worst mistake in 24 big league seasons, but that's what happened the night of June 2 in Detroit. While Joe West butted heads with the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox this season and Brandon Phillips made his antipathy for the St. Louis Cardinals readily apparent, Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga somehow found a way to make peace.
After Joyce botched a call on Jason Donald's groundball to ruin Galarraga's perfect game, the pitcher would have been justified in flinging his glove to the ground in anger. The umpire could have holed up in the dressing room and refrained from answering questions or reacted defensively. Manager Jim Leyland could have succumbed to the disappointment and whipped Detroit fans into a frenzy. But none of that occurred, and the principals provided a lesson in coming to grips with a bad result and moving forward.
When Galarraga and Joyce met the next day during the lineup card exchange, the umpire's eyes welled with tears and the pitcher responded with an understated-yet-supportive pat on the back. The Tigers gave Galarraga a cherry red Corvette in honor of his near perfecto, and Detroit fans gave Joyce a warm round of applause. Life isn't always fair. But professionalism and accountability sure make the painful moments easier to digest.
"That was one of the coolest things I've ever seen," Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge told MLB.com. "What sets that apart from anything that's probably happened in a long time in our sport is the absolute sportsmanship of it. Galarraga and Joyce are two true gentlemen, period, in the way that they handled themselves. People will always remember that. I'll never forget it."
Dallas Braden's perfect game celebration
Skier Lindsey Vonn sobbed in her husband's arms after winning a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games. Phil Mickelson shared the jubilation of a Masters victory with his wife, Amy. And on a sunny Mother's Day in Northern California, Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden celebrated the biggest moment of his professional life in a hug with his grandma.
Braden, who made news in April when he admonished Alex Rodriguez for crossing the pitcher's mound on his way across the infield, attained a new degree of fame May 9 against Tampa Bay, when he threw the 19th perfect game in baseball history.
Braden savored the achievement in an embrace with his grandmother, Peggy Lindsey, a woman who had a profound impact on his life from his formative years. Braden's mother, Jodie Atwood, died of cancer when he was in high school, and it was Lindsey who taught him values and helped keep him on a straight path when he could have gotten in trouble in his native Stockton, Calif.
"People have asked, 'What did you say to her?'" Braden said in a TV interview. "That was the reason for the hug, because there were really no words I could come up with to convey how I felt and how much it meant to have her there and experiencing that with me. I wouldn't have been there on that day if it wasn't for her."
John McDonald's Father's Day tribute
John McDonald was sick with grief when he entered the Toronto Blue Jays' clubhouse the morning of June 19. His father, Jack, had died of liver cancer four days earlier, and McDonald was just a day removed from the funeral back home in Connecticut. He decided to play because Father's Day was coming up and he knew his dad would have wanted it that way. In the waning days, when Jack McDonald was in the hospital in grave condition, he told his son, "Hit your next home run for me."
McDonald, a little-used utility man for the Blue Jays, got the call from manager Cito Gaston in the ninth inning of a blowout Father's Day loss to San Francisco. He stepped in the batter's box and hit Jeremy Affeldt's second pitch over the fence for a two-run homer.
As McDonald finished circling the bases, he pointed to the sky in honor of his father. Then he entered the dugout, where he was mobbed by teammates. It would be a poignant scene no matter who hit the memorial homer, but McDonald is universally regarded as one of the nicest people in baseball. He's Jim Thome-, Sean Casey-caliber nice. So his fellow Jays also were overcome with emotion.
"We cried on each others' shoulder for a good 30 seconds," Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells told reporters.
Three months later, McDonald can't help but think divine intervention was at play. He had missed nearly a month while tending to his ill father, and his only baseball activity consisted of working out with a local high school team.
"I don't hit home runs on breaking balls," McDonald said. "Somebody was helping get that ball out of the ballpark."
The home run couldn't bring McDonald's father back, but it did give the family a diversion from the heartache. Then a funny thing happened: McDonald hit a pinch-hit homer against Boston's Jon Lester, a cancer survivor. Then he appeared on Boston radio to talk about his father on Jimmy Fund telethon night and hit his third homer of the season against the Red Sox's Michael Bowden. McDonald entered this season with 13 homers in 1,713 at-bats. This year he has six in 144 at-bats. And it all began with that inexplicable shot against the Giants.
"Every time I've played against a new team, I've had somebody come up and talk to me about my dad and tell me they've gone back on the Internet and watched the homer," McDonald said. "It's definitely still emotional, but it's more emotional in a happy way.
"Joe Girardi had been through this with his family, and he told me, 'Honor your dad by going out and playing the game the way you know how to play it. Play it hard, and you'll be in a good place and your dad will be happy.' It stuck with me. I keep on going back to that."
John Lindsey gets the call
Tigers catcher Max St. Pierre is a portrait in perseverance. He spent 14 years in the minors before earning a September promotion to Detroit -- where he's playing for a manager, Jim Leyland, who knows an awful lot about life in the bushes.
But St. Pierre wasn't even the most heartwarming call-up of the 2010 season. That honor goes to Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman John Lindsey.
Lindsey earned his shot in the majors, hitting .353 with 25 homers and 97 RBIs for Triple-A Albuquerque this season. But he'd been through enough disappointments to know that opportunity doesn't come easily. He had played 16 years and logged 6,342 minor league plate appearances when Albuquerque manager Tim Wallach told him he was joining the parent club in San Diego. The revelation hit him with such force, Lindsey said, his "legs got weak."
Lindsey is a survivor, for sure. He signed his first pro contract with Colorado as a 13th-round pick in 1995 -- the same year the Rockies used their first-round pick on Todd Helton, who has five All-Star appearances and 2,232 career hits on his résumé.
Lindsey's fellow Dodgers showed their appreciation for his persistence. Jamey Carroll and Ryan Theriot took Lindsey and fellow rookie Russ Mitchell to a Houston mall and bought them new suits, and manager Joe Torre gave him the lineup card from his first game as a souvenir.
"If you know John Lindsey, you know why he deserved this opportunity," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. "Besides having a great season at Triple-A, he has paid his dues and then some."
At 33, Lindsey was the oldest non-Asian player to make his major league debut since 34-year-old Alan Zinter broke in with the Astros in 2002. Lindsey added the punctuation mark when he singled off Houston's Nelson Figueroa for his first big league hit with his entire family watching from the stands.
"It was awesome," Lindsey told his hometown paper in Mississippi. "It felt just like it did when I got my first hit in Dixie Youth baseball in Hattiesburg."
Rocco Baldelli's comeback shot
In 2002, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli were joined at the hip as athletic young outfielders in Tampa Bay. Crawford, the former Nebraska football recruit, possessed an amazing combination of athleticism and speed. And Baseball America described Baldelli, its Minor League Player of the Year, as "the total package, and getting better."
Eight years later, Crawford has four All-Star Games on his résumé and a potential nine-figure deal on his winter agenda. Baldelli, in contrast, faces a hazy future in the game. He just turned 29, and he has logged a grand total of 387 at-bats since 2007. But he still has a flair for the dramatic.
Baldelli's career got sidetracked by injuries and a medical condition that leads to chronic fatigue, and he sat on the free-agent market all winter without finding a job. The Rays brought him to spring training as a special instructor, and he signed a minor league deal in July and worked his way back in stages with Class A Charlotte and Triple-A Durham before the rosters expanded in September.
Baldelli returned to Tampa with a bang, hitting a pinch-hit home run against Baltimore's Mike Gonzalez on the first swing of his 2010 big league season. Where it eventually leads, no one knows. But he has left some indelible memories in his own clubhouse.
"I feel great for the guy," Evan Longoria told Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times. "He's a professional in every respect. Just the pure persistence of his journey through the big leagues and back down and back up again. I can't do anything but commend him."
Trevor Hoffman's 600th save
Hoffman's peers aren't the only ones who hold him in high regard. Former Brewers great Robin Yount listened to the radio broadcast of Hoffman's 600th save, and he was sufficiently moved to pick up the phone and place a congratulatory phone call to Hoffman.
"That was pretty cool," Yount said. "Obviously I'm a Brewer fan, and it was pretty neat to hear that. I've been around the clubhouse enough to get to know him a little bit, but I wish I would have gotten to know him better. What a great guy."
Hoffman's 600th marked the culmination of an improbable career path. He nearly washed out as a light-hitting shortstop in the Cincinnati system before getting his big chance with San Diego after a 1993 trade with the Marlins. He became a fixture with the Padres, learned to adapt with a mid-80s fastball after hurting his shoulder, then finally reached a plateau no one else has attained. Until Mariano Rivera records 42 more saves, Hoffman exists in a fraternity of one.
Hoffman reached 600 at age 42, so it was only fitting that the final out came on a routine grounder to 40-year-old shortstop Craig Counsell. Hoffman's teammates carried him off the field, and the Brewers celebrated the achievement in the clubhouse.
In his postgame speech, Hoffman apologized to his teammates for pitching so poorly in April and May and putting the team in such an early bind. He lost his closing job to John Axford, but took advantage of some late opportunities to reach a big, fat, round number.
"I'm big into Westerns," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin told reporters. "I felt like John Wayne was in the locker room."
The Morrisons draw strength through baseball
Tom Morrison, a former University of Kansas football player and Coast Guard gunner's mate, had one question in mind when doctors told him he had Stage IV lung cancer.
"Am I going to be around long enough to see my son get his first big league hit?"' he said.
The devastating news arrived in April, and the answer came at Citi Field in late August. After traveling 29 hours by train from Louisiana to New York because his medical condition prohibited him from flying, Morrison watched his son, Logan, play left field for the Florida Marlins and go 1-for-5 against the Mets. Father and son shared their story and bared their emotions in a dugout interview with reporters the next day.
"Baseball has kind of brought the family together," Logan Morrison said.
A month later, Logan Morrison boasts a .395 on-base percentage, and his biggest fan is as determined as ever. Just the other day, Tom Morrison popped up in the stands at a Brewers-Marlins game in Milwaukee. No train ride is too long for a man in search of memories.
Daniel Nava's Fenway slam
For years, David Eckstein has been regarded as baseball's quintessential "Little Engine That Could." He signed with Boston for a $1,000 bonus as a 19th-round pick in 1997, then wound up playing a pivotal role for championship clubs in Anaheim and St. Louis as a 5-foot-7 shortstop who had to shot-put the ball across the diamond to first base.
Daniel Nava's career might never reach Eckstein-ian heights, but he'll always have an at-bat, a swing and a moment to treasure.
Nava made a nationally televised splash at Fenway Park in June when he hit the first pitch from Philadelphia's Joe Blanton's for a grand slam. He joined Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jeremy Hermida and Bill Duggleby of the 1898 Philadelphia Phillies as the fourth player in history to hit a slam in his first big league plate appearance.
Nava, who stood 4-foot-8 as a high school freshman and weighed 130 pounds at graduation, worked as the equipment manager at Santa Clara University after failing to make the team as a walk-on. His subsequent odyssey took him to the College of San Mateo, back to Santa Clara and on to a stint with the Chico Outlaws in the independent Golden Baseball League when the Red Sox finally took notice. They signed him for $1 and agreed to pay the GBL an additional $1,499 if he stuck around through 2008 spring training.
Two years later, Nava is hitting .243 in 148 at-bats with the big club. The inventory includes 13 doubles, one triple and an unforgettable home run.
"They bought him for a buck," Nava's father, Don, told John Tomase of the Boston Herald. "They bought him for a dollar. And for him to do that, hit a grand slam in the most majestic park in Major League Baseball, with us in the stands, on his first pitch, this has got to be heaven."
Champagne showers for Young and Sweeney
Imagine spending more than a decade in the major leagues and rarely playing a meaningful game in September, much less October. That's been the reality for Texas infielder Michael Young, who endured a lot of sweltering days and ineffective pitching in Arlington without ever sniffing the postseason.
The same goes for Mike Sweeney, a guy who is invariably popular with teammates, polite to fans and the media, and accustomed to sitting at home watching somebody else play in the fall.
Young and Sweeney have combined for 11 All-Star Game appearances and two Marvin Miller Man of the Year Awards for charitable work, and they've both been nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and community involvement. And now they'll get a chance to play baseball when it matters most.
Young has appeared in 1,503 career games without a postseason appearance, but that all changes next week when the Rangers meet the Rays or Yankees in an American League Division Series. The same goes for Sweeney, whose streak of 1,451 playoff-free games will end when the Phillies appear in the NLDS.
"It'll be pretty sweet if we can meet up in the World Series," said Sweeney, a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter for the Phillies. "It's a lonely place to be on that list. I never wanted to look at it because it was a bit depressing. I had some great years in Kansas City, but I was always booking fly-fishing trips at the beginning of September because we were mathematically out of it."
Although Young and Sweeney have been liberated, St. Louis outfielder Randy Winn remains baseball's active postseason futility leader with 1,714 games and no postseason appearance. San Francisco's Aubrey Huff, third on the active list with 1,474 games and no postseason berth, has a chance to join Young and Sweeney in escaping if the Giants can clinch a playoff spot this week.
Other feel-good moments
Roy Halladay's perfect game, and no-hitters by Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson; Jamie Moyer throws a shutout at age 47; Matt Stairs breaks Cliff Johnson's record with his 21st pinch-hit home run; Jim Thome passes Frank Robinson and Mark McGwire on the career home run list; Mike Leake cracks the Reds' Opening Day roster, and Aroldis Chapman hits 105 mph on the radar gun; memorable debuts for Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg; Andre Dawson's powerful induction speech in Cooperstown; and Bobby Cox's farewell tour with Atlanta.