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Bull City Summer

The drama of Wil Myers' potential call-up

Posted May 22, 2013

(Part I.)

So, had Wil Myers been called up or not?

Mike Birling said nothing. He and Scott Strickland just stood there for a moment, watching the ballgame. I got up to say hello, not having seen him yet during the home stand. Birling shook my hand warmly and asked: “Would you say that it poured here for five minutes last night?”

The question took me by surprise. I had no idea, for one thing, and I told him so. For another, were we really talking about the weather with Wil Myers’ fate hanging in the balance? I realized that I myself was one of the ants scurrying around in the hill I had kicked earlier.

It turned out that Birling and Strickland were already in the middle of a joshing back-and-forth debate about whether the previous night’s rain was hard enough to have been declared a storm, in which case lightning could have been involved, and lightning might explain why the scoreboard display lights—balls, strikes, outs, hit/error—weren’t working. (They were fixed shortly afterwards.) Birling seemed to be jokingly implying that the precocious, meticulous Strickland might have somehow prevented this electrical damage had he prepared, semantically and psychologically, for a storm rather than just hard rain.

Everyone else in earshot was of course waiting for the word on Myers, and I found myself wondering if the Birling & Strickland Rain or Storm? routine was really just some well-rehearsed comic buddy-act to distract us from big news that we were definitely not going to be told—or perhaps they were going to tell us, with great fanfare, when the act was over; but first we had to wait out their “Who’s On First”-style warm-up teaser.
Finally, someone else asked aloud for news of Myers. Strickland often hangs around the dugout during games and he might have heard something down there. But he answered that he knew only what we knew, and that he knew Myers was out of the game solely because he had seen my tweet. Birling, chipper, chipped in: “I dunno. I’m supposed to go find out.” Then he shrugged and left. He never returned. That, of course, was because the little there was to report was so inconsequential that it wasn’t worth it. Mountains out of anthills…

Myers to the dugout railing; Myers gone from the dugout.

Meanwhile, Rich Thompson, who replaced Myers in right field (and the third spot in the Durham lineup), was busy getting two hits in three at-bats and using his great speed to help runs score. In the fifth inning, he hit what for most players would have been a single to right field, but Thompson—the active minor-league career leader in stolen bases—used his wheels to turn the hit into a double. The hit moved Mike Fontenot, who had singled, to third base, from where he scored on a sacrifice fly by Leslie Anderson. Thompson then manufactured an eighth-inning insurance run (the Bulls would go on to win, 4-2) pretty much all by himself: using his speed again, he beat out an infield single, moved to second on a groundout, stole third base, and scored on a wild pitch.

But Thompson wasn’t done shining in the limelight Myers had vacated. In the top of the ninth inning, Bulls closer Josh Lueke was in his second inning of work, trying for a long-form, six-out save. That has already become common for him this year: manager Charlie Montoyo keeps sending him out in the eighth inning with a lead, and riding him to the end of the game. Montoyo says that this is because Lueke will be required to pitch multiple innings if he is called up to the major leagues. In fact, Montoyo often says this of his late-inning, closer-type relievers; last year his workhorse was Dane De La Rosa, who saved twenty games for the Bulls in 2012 and went more than one inning in about a quarter of his fifty-four appearances. That’s nothing compared to Lueke, who has thrown more than one inning in nearly half of his Triple-A appearances (six out of fourteen). By the time this game is over, Lueke will lead all International League relievers in innings pitched.

Lueke had an easy, one-two-three eighth inning, and here in the ninth he starts out with a strikeout, his third, of Chris Rahl. But then Eury Perez singles to right field. The tying run will be coming to the plate in the form of Syracuse’s Jeff Kobernus, one of the league’s best and hottest hitters.

Except, no, not so fast. Perez tries to stretch the single to a double. Thompson gazelles over to the right field line, fields the ball quickly, and throws out Perez at second base.

Two outs, and that pretty much takes care of it. All hail Rich Thompson! Hail him not only for making everyone not miss Wil Myers, wherever he is and whatever is happening to him, but also hail him retrospectively. Thompson first made it to the majors in 2004, with the Kansas City Royals—the team that traded Wil Myers to Tampa Bay almost a decade later. Thompson was twenty-five, on his way up, probably confident that he would be drawing a permanent major-league salary pretty soon, at the time a cool $300,000 per year (it’s now $490,000). But he got into just six games with the Royals that season, mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive substitute, and had only one at-bat. Irony: in that at-bat, the speedy Thompson grounded into a double play.

He didn’t make it back to the majors again for eight years.

When he did, it was with Tampa Bay. Last season, Thompson was called up around this time, mid-May, because of injuries on the big-league squad. He got into a May 16, 2012 game as a late-inning outfield replacement but did not come up to bat. The next night, though, May 17, he started in left field. He struck out looking in his first plate appearance. In the second, he singled to left, not only getting his first hit but also driving in his first major-league run. It took him two presidential administrations between opportunities. Life is not easy for some of us.

To return to the beginning of this story, and to tell it true: most callups are temporary, and short, which is why it isn’t generally necessary to get all that excited about them—even when they result in a guy finally getting his first career base hit at age thirty-three. But most minor-league endings are not happy ones. Tell it true. Thompson got seventeen more plate appearances with the Rays after his first hit, adding a second hit in one of them, and then did not get another. About a month after his callup, he was sent back down to Triple-A. That, unfortunately, is pretty much how baseball works.

Thompson had a good 2012 season for the Bulls, and the Rays re-signed him for 2013, sending him back to Durham as Triple-A insurance for Sam Fuld, who holds down the reserve outfielder job in Tampa Bay. Thompson is a similar player to Fuld—a fast, left-handed-hitting outfielder—and Fuld is coming back from a serious injury he suffered last season. So Thompson is now doing what many, many veteran Triple-A players do: He’s waiting for someone ahead of him to get hurt and hoping that, if that happens and the Rays need a replacement for Fuld, they’ll call on Thompson instead of making a trade or hitting the waiver wire seeking external reinforcements.

The possibility that the Rays will disregard their own Triple-A depth in Thompson’s case is, sadly, strong. Thompson was batting just .202 on May 9, and he had not been hitting the ball hard: a lot of weak groundouts and harmless flies to the infield and the opposite field. He had already hit into three double plays. That may not sound like a lot, but three is how many double plays he hit into all of last year. Thompson is grounding into double plays at the highest rate of his fourteen-year career.
Are Thompson’s bat and legs slowing down on him, now that he is thirty-four? How long before our velocities and our drives necessarily, irrevocably decline? There is twenty-two-year-old Wil Myers, who doesn’t need to run fast because he couldn’t swing a slow bat if he tried and hits long balls that result in unhurried home-run trots. Yet Myers so far looks like a disappointment, with a slash line of .250/.350/.382. Those numbers are roughly equal to those of Steve Tolleson, a twenty-nine-year-old journeyman who has been trying and failing to hit his way out Triple-A with five different teams since 2009. Yet Rich Thompson would be thrilled if he had Myers’ and Tolleson’s numbers. He went on a hot streak after May 9, but even that left him at just .221/.291/.265. Only six regular players in the International League have worse numbers than those.

On this night, the night Thompson replaces Myers in the lineup, he is supposed to be getting his second night off in a row, by Charlie Montoyo’s design. The skipper is trying to give the struggling, pressing Thompson a healthy breather from his own slump. That Montoyo had planned to give Thompson consecutive nights off, which he seldom does unless a player is injured (Thompson isn’t), tells you about the depth and distress of Thompson’s season-opening slump.
Instead, he is called into emergency action after Myers’ departure, then goes two-for-three, steals a base, creates a couple of runs, throws out a runner trying to stretch a single for extra bases, and looks generally like the very valuable player Durham had last year (.311/.369/.426). That is cause for a different kind of excitement. It’s not the kind that bubbles up when you think a hot-to-trot, twenty-two-year-old thoroughbred like Wil Myers has perhaps been called up to the major leagues for the first time. Instead, it’s the excitement you feel when you discover that the old plant you worried might have died has a new, unexpected green shoot. It’s quieter and more qualified excitement, it has a ways to go to be validated, but it’s there.

Here is a little baseball lesson, though—a devilish one from this unsentimental, unmerciful sport. After Thompson shoots down Eury Perez’s bid for a double, the next batter is the dangerous Kobernus. But Josh Lueke gets Kobernus to hit an easy fly ball to… right field, of course. Thompson ranges over, camps under it, and—loses the ball in the lights. It falls behind him, and the speedy Kobernus—another Thompson-type player; the player Thompson was when he was called up to Kansas City in 2004—has a triple.

It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened at the DBAP. I can recall two other instances in which Durham Bulls outfielders have lost the ball in the right-field lights at this ballpark. It’s not Thompson’s fault, and it might not be entirely a matter of losing the ball in the lights but losing it without them: after the game, Lueke tells Thompson that several of the lamps in the tower that illuminates right field (or is supposed to, anyway) are out. Maybe because of that lightning strike in the Birling & Strickland show? (“I tell ya it wuz a storm!” “Nahh, it was only a hard rain, Birling!”) Or was there a lightning strike? Has Myers been called up or not?

“This… is a simple game,” declares Skip, the virtually eponymous manager in Bull Durham. But baseball can also be—in fact, usually is—vexingly, riddlingly complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure of anything at all.
One thing is sure, though: Jeff Kobernus is on third base, there are two outs in the ninth inning, and the Syracuse batter is Will Rhymes.

Of course the Syracuse batter is Will Rhymes. Rhymes is the lone Syracuse Chief who played last year for… the Durham Bulls.

The third and final act of this drama appears tomorrow.
 

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Local
Final
UNC 82
OSU 74
Final
MVSU 60
NCCU 94
 
2nd
UNCW 59
ECU 52
 
2nd Intermission
CAR 1
NYR 0
 
4th
CHA 88
UTA 76
 
9:30pm Tonight
WVU
NCSU
Final
NYK 90
PHO 99
4th
NOP 70
POR 94
 
4th
CHA 88
UTA 76
 
2nd
HOU 31
ATL 45
 
1st
DAL 15
SAN 15
 
9:00pm Tonight
DEN
IND
10:30pm Tonight
LAC
MIL
Final
LALAF 16
NEV 3
Final
UTEP 6
UTST 21
Final
COLST 10
UTAH 45
4th
AFA 31
WMICH 17
 
9:15pm Tonight
BGU
SALABAMA
Final
GEOR 81
CHAR 78
Final
WKENT 67
LOU 76
Final
MICH 51
SMU 62
Final
CIN 47
VCU 68
Final
BSU 77
ABCHRIST 33
 
Final
PROV 85
UMASS 65
Final
AMER 46
MNTER 45
 
Final
UNC 82
OSU 74
Final
IUPUI 71
SALA 65
 
Final
VILL 82
SYR 77
Final
VT 64
CITA 61
Final
DUQ 79
MLOWELL 63
 
Final
FAIR 61
BEL 73
 
Final
YALE 60
GTDNS 64
 
Final
FD 76
DEL 74
 
Final
PSU 73
DREX 68
Final
UNCG 64
ELON 71
 
Final
ILL 62
MIZZ 59
Final
CAMP 90
MONT 64
 
Final
LONG 106
PSUBEAVER 74
 
Final
HOU 63
SCST 71
 
Final
FSU 75
SFLA 62
Final
BING 51
BONA 69
 
Final
RUTG 68
RFLSH 73
 
Final
MCNST 69
TOL 83
 
Final
JVU 84
TRUETT 55
 
Final
GT 65
VANDY 60
Final
INDST 56
EILL 60
 
Final
BUT 73
IND 82
Final
STEPH 94
ARTCH 57
 
Final
OREG 83
DELST 70
 
Final
Terriers 61
FATL 56
 
Final
TXARL 89
HPYN 50
 
Final
KU 96
LAF 69
Final
ARKST 67
MARS 58
Final
MEM 78
ORU 63
Final
KNST 53
UMBC 66
 
Final
NW 67
WMICH 61
Final
MIZST 65
EMICH 77
 
Final
CHIST 77
STJOE 54
 
Final
KENT 83
UCLA 44
Final
COC 68
DAVID 80
Final
RIU 69
DET 55
Final
UCR 78
HOUB 67
 
Final
MURST 89
ILLST 77
 
Final
NWST 89
LALAF 85
 
Final
WAGN 66
MON 74
 
Final
MVSU 60
NCCU 94
 
Final
PITT 81
OU 77
Final
TENNM 77
PBY 60
 
Final
WYO 57
SOUTH 39
 
Final
AFA 75
UCD 81
Final
MSST 51
USCU 53
 
Final
JMU 71
HIGH 80
 
Final
TXST 90
HTILL 56
 
Final
DRAK 54
ISU 83
Final
SHU 73
UNH 60
 
Final
SCU 72
NE 78
 
Final
MSU 64
TXSOU 71
Final
UF 63
WAKE 50
Final
ND 94
PURD 63
Final
SHSU 61
PVU 44
 
Final
AUB 89
XAV 88
 
2nd
AKR 92
BLUFFTON 53
 
2nd
DAY 64
BU 55
 
2nd
UNCW 59
ECU 52
 
2nd
CLMB 75
HOF 71
 
2nd
GMAS 70
IONA 62
 
2nd
TOWS 47
LAS 58
 
2nd
MAN 70
MRGST 68
 
2nd
CCST 74
YALE 83
 
2nd
PEPP 61
RICH 64
 
Final
MAR 58
STJOE 75
 
2nd
KYST 65
TEXAM 56
 
Final
MAST 72
VALPO 75
 
2nd
UMKC 63
INCWORD 62
 
2nd
IDST 45
CALST 48
 
2nd
NIOWA 39
IOWA 32
 
2nd
SIUE 31
UWMIL 35
 
1st
TEX 37
LBSU 29
 
Half
TCU 43
TXSA 26
 
1st
ARK 18
SEMIZ 10
 
9:00pm Tonight
NCOL
JVST
 
9:00pm Tonight
ARST
LEH
 
9:00pm Tonight
NMST
NMU
 
9:00pm Tonight
WASH
OKLA
9:00pm Tonight
GRCN
STED
 
9:00pm Tonight
WEBER
WLVRN
 
9:30pm Tonight
WVU
NCSU
10:00pm Tonight
SDST
BST
10:00pm Tonight
GONZ
CPSL
10:00pm Tonight
PAC
FRES
10:00pm Tonight
PORT
MNTST
 
10:00pm Tonight
CSNO
TAMCC
 
10:05pm Tonight
UTST
SDKST
 
11:00pm Tonight
BYU
STAN
11:30pm Tonight
UNLV
UTAH
Final
LOS 4
ARI 2
2nd Intermission
CLB 1
CHI 1
 
2nd Intermission
BUF 0
COL 2
 
2nd
PIT 2
FLA 1
 
2nd Intermission
CAR 1
NYR 0
 
2nd Intermission
MON 2
OTT 1
 
2nd Intermission
TOR 3
PHI 5
 
3rd
NYI 0
TAM 0
 
2nd Intermission
NJD 0
WAS 2
 
1st Intermission
MIN 2
NAS 3
 
10:00pm Tonight
VAN
CAL
10:30pm Tonight
SJS
STL
Final
WAS 27
PHI 24
1st
SFX 7
SDC 0