This offseason, just like the many that have come before, has been filled with speculation, bold and cautious prediction, and quasi-mystical prophecies and foretellings concerning the future homes of folks like Stanton, Ohtani, Hosmer, Moustakas, Ichiro, and etc. For a moment, I considered writing an article with my own thoughts concerning shifts within the Cubs (I bleed Cubbie blue) or possible movement within the Red Sox (I’m a New England native and resident) but, to be honest, I don’t really have a nose for that sort of stuff. There are many writers here at Six Man Rotation that do an incredible job measuring trade probabilities, weighing offseason rumor, and applying a level of scrutiny and baseball knowhow to situations that I would never even think to consider.
Bill James said something nifty in his first Historical Baseball Abstract that I find pretty relevant to the sentiment I’m currently trying to convey. He said, in reference to the universal appeal of baseball, that “No matter how it is that your mind works, baseball reaches out to you. If you’re an emotional person, baseball asks for your heart. If you’re a thinking man or a thinking woman, baseball wants your opinion.” So, being more emotional than a Jamesian “thinking man”, I’d like to talk about Davy Force and, in doing so, put into personal perspective an interaction that Albert Almora Jr. had with a young fan way back on a cold May day at Wrigley Field.
Let’s start with Force and his career statistics: A right handed infielder, Force played professionally at shortstop, second base, and third base. He played for fifteen seasons, had 4,250 career at bats, 653 runs, 1,059 hits, and commanded a batting average of .249. I’m sure that most baseball fans, with the exception of the occasional diehard, have not heard of Force. And why would they? His career is not one that transformed him into a household name. Also, he played during the 1870’s and 80’s. That in and of itself puts him at an extreme historical disadvantage for modern recognition. Still, Davy Force existed and participated in the history of baseball. His life is recorded in a series of boxed numbers and statistics that we can use to compare him to his contemporaries and those who came after. If Force was around today, would he be able to compete? Would he be able to make it to the majors? While the existing numbers can act as a decent reference point to project his statistical ghost into the modern day, I really don’t think that’s a question anyone could answer beyond the shadow of a doubt. Statistics have a way of tearing the humanity out of a person.
While numbers can provide some logical scaffolding for moving forward, there’s a certain amount of individualism that they remove. Looking at Davy Force in a baseball reference book gives me some concept of what his baseball career was like, but it gives me absolutely no idea as to what it was like to watch him play. What did he look like as he walked up to the plate? Did he have some quirk that endeared him to fans? Was he then, unlike today, someone folks speculated about? Fawned over? Was he frustrating? Lackluster? Was it more “Force made a hell of a play yesterday” and less “Force played like hell yesterday”? Sitting here in the home stretch of 2017, I have no idea. What I do know is that he existed, he batted .249, and he died at age 68 in New Jersey.
Alright, so what. What does the opaque career of an infielder from the 1800’s have to do with Albert Almora Jr.? Well, not so much. Bear with me for a bit longer.
Back in May, my fiancee and I headed out to Chicago to catch a couple Cubs games. The Cubs were at the start of a four game series against the Phillies and, because the season was young, the atmosphere at Wrigley was relaxed and happy. Folks were just happy to be watching baseball. We spent our first game somewhere above the first base line. Great seats. Expensive, but the view was certainly worth it. I honestly cannot remember if the Cubs won, I only remember having a great time watching Maddon and the gang.
The next day was a day game and felt colder than the day before. We bought some bleacher tickets for relatively cheap, got there early for seats along the centerfield wall, and hunkered under multiple flannel layers and a couple knockoff jerseys. Two drunk guys in winter coats and business suits sat on our right and spent an hour before the first pitch was thrown complaining about the starting lineup. “It’s their B-team,” they lamented. “A bunch of nobodies. What a shame.” On our left was a small family of four. Mom, Dad, girl around nine, and a boy just north of three. Once the game started, the two drunks settled into a cold silence with the occasional huff of “B-Team” disapproval, while the little boy called to the Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora to toss him a ball.
Some quick stats: Almora has been around for two years. In those two years, he’s had 411 at bats with 120 of those resulting in hits. That gives him a career batting average of .292. It’s only been two years, but what can I say, I like those numbers.
The game was pretty much even and every out felt like a major victory. As the innings ticked by, the little boy on our left continued to yell to Almora (and only to Almora) for a ball. He was pretty polite about it, including a please after each request. (“Alllllmora! Can I have the ball pleeeease?”) It was cute, but given the wind, the other cheers and jeers from the crowd, I figured Almora either couldn’t hear the kid, or was too focused or tired to care.
Toward the end of a later inning, I can’t remember the exact one, Almora found himself with a ball after making what I recall as being a fairly routine play. At this point, the kid had run an impressive gauntlet of emotion. He had started optimistic, swung toward desperate, and had finally succumbed to a total and complete depression. He stopped calling and sat swinging his feet and experienced what was probably his very first baseball based heartbreak. Almora looked toward the center bleachers, calmly jogged over to the ivy, waved to the little boy and, with an easy toss, flopped the ball up to the boy’s father. The father looked like a little kid himself as he passed the ball down to his son. As Almora trotted back toward his position, the kid yelled out a thanks and, in that most classic of baseball moves, Albert Almora tipped his hat.
That’s a memory that’s going to stick with me for a very long while. In fact, it’s become my favorite baseball memory. And while it’s a moment that didn’t result in a spectacular victory or an impossible out, it was a moment that reminded me of the humanity of baseball and its players. I can’t make predictions as to Almora’s future with the Cubs or his major league career. As I said, I don’t have a nose for that. But what I can say is that regardless of Almora’s hopeful success in baseball, regardless of whether or not he continues to be a stellar outfielder, he has, at the very least, given some small moment to a young fan. Given his talent and age, it’s totally possible that Almora goes on to become a household name, someone that’s prominently featured as a key player in the Cubs lineup, and someone that becomes an example for who young fans and players should strive to be on and off the field. Being a fan of the Cubs and Almora, I truly hope that is the case. But, should his career wind up being distilled down into a line of statistics, that’ll be alright too.
For me, the best parts of baseball exist somewhere between the numbers, between the plays on a scorecard. The best parts of baseball live in the quiet moments of the game, the points in which the humanity of the game is allowed to seep through and toss us a ball. I like to think that some kid carried a memory of Davy Force with him through his life. Maybe, as that kid grew older, he shared that memory with friends and family, perpetuating the existence of Davy Force beyond his career and lifetime. It’s something that I don’t have access to, but I like to think that it’s out there somewhere, floating on down through a personal oral history. What I do have access to is a moment in which Albert Almora was a supremely decent ballplayer and human being. And I’ll carry that with me for awhile yet.