Two things happened at once on Sunday, during the final game of the San Francisco Giants 2013 season.
Barry Zito was brought in to face one batter, making his final appearance with the Giants. The 126-million dollar man has been the dog that Giants fans have kicked since the moment he signed in 2007. It’s easy to hate a guy who makes more money than anyone else. It’s easier to hate when you’re convinced the moment he signed that he would suck. It’s even easier when he proves you right the first couple of years. Barry Zito’s Giants career had far more downs than ups. He never posted an ERA less than 4, which isn’t a terrible middle of the rotation starter. But he was being paid like an ace.
And yet, for all the derision, Zito handled it with class. He had some problems, which is hard to blame anyone about, but especially the last few years, he took being the butt of constant jokes in a way that would make a middle school anti-bully video proud. And he had one moment when everyone in the Giants’ universe needed him to come up big, and he had the biggest game of his life. And for everything negative Giants fans have thought of him, he’ll be most remembered for that one success.
So, he came in, faced one batter, pulled out a strikeout, and walked off to a standing ovation, and gave perhaps his only curtain call as a Giant. And now it’s done. That’s baseball.
But in that moment, something else was happening. No one around me at the ballpark knew about it. I didn’t know about it. It was only when I glanced up at a in-house TV that I noticed it. The San Diego Padre batter who struck out was putting away his helmet and gloves, and his manager came over and gave him a brief hug.
It was perhaps the most unbaseball thing that you would see. So I looked it up.
The batter was Mark Kotsay. That’s a name that, as a Giants fan, I knew well. It seemed like he’d been around as long as I could remember. He’d been a Padre, an Athletic, a Brave, a Marlin, a Brewer, though never a Giant. He was always a guy on the other team.
And it had been his last at-bat.
Kotsay’s 17-year career had been a twisting path throughout the majors. He finished his career with a respectable .276 batting average, a .332 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage (that’s a .737 OPS for those of you who don’t want to math). He averaged 11 home runs a season, never more than 17.
Over 17 seasons, Kotsay got into three playoffs. Once with Oakland, once with Boston and once with Milwaukee. In each postseason, his team won in the Divisional Series and then lost in the League Championship Series. Although he started his career with the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins, he never played in a World Series.
Kotsay was just always there. And now he’s not.
His numbers were almost always above league average. Never spectacular, but rarely awful. Even though he changed teams several times, he was never the hot-ticket item in free agency. I’d never pulled for him to be a Giant. He was rarely the player you feared or that was in the middle of a lineup, but he was never a pushover.
That’s the irony of baseball. There’s a very limited number of major leaguers. There’s only 1,200 at most at any given time. To make it to the major leagues is a very difficult, very special experience. To stay there for a full career even more so. And yet, despite the specialness of that role, it’s easy to be overlooked and never noticed.
And in that moment, while a man who spent much of a career being overpaid and who wasn’t even retiring was receiving a ridiculous ovation in an emotional moment that left Giants fans diving to social media to celebrate and commemorate, as he went out with one more success, another player who had always been there and worked hard to be in the background had just seen his career end with one last strikeout, one that meant he’d finish his last season with a sub-.200 batting average for the first time since his 14-game debut in his first season. And while the fans cheers echoed for someone else, for him it was all over quietly.
Baseball needs those background players. The names we recognize, even if we don’t remember them right off the bat. Someone has to be in that other uniform. Or, sometimes, in your own team’s uniform for a couple of years. Baseball has to have those player, among their 1,200. And sometimes, when they’re gone, you don’t even notice it.
This day, a lot of people didn’t. But it was a moment that was more baseball than any other.