Eric Thames is one of the best stories of 2017 so far, just like I hoped he would be. He went from being drafted, to traded, to traded again, to waived, and released as he tried to stick in the majors, so he went to Korea and turned into Ted Williams. As one does. Brewers fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about in recent seasons (hands up if you remember them being in the NLCS just a few years ago), so this is their time.
The Cubs recently squeaked past them in the standings, and they probably won’t pass each other again, maybe for a few years. But at least the Brewers have Eric Thames. He’s so fun, everyone.
A couple of prominent members of the Cubs, though, think it’s suspicious that Thames is so good. They had never heard of him, or had forgotten about him, and now he’s hitting impressive home runs, so you do the math. The first person to wink-wink-nudge-nudge was John Lackey, who still looks like someone the sheriff throws out of town three scenes before the real bad guy is even introduced. His quotes, from Brew Crew Ball:
“You watch film on recent stuff and try to figure out a way, you know, to get him out. But I mean, really even the homer hit the other way, I mean, you don't see that happen here very often. That's kinda one of those things that makes you scratch your head.”
As BCB notes, while the words are fine, it’s accompanied with a wink when he gets to the “scratch your head” part. Are we reading too much into the wink? Maybe. But it’s hard to find an alternate explanation for the wink that’s charming. Not to mention, he’s been involved in this sort of shade kerfuffle before, with Nelson Cruz back in 2014.
This time, Lackey might have been upset that Thames hit this totally perfect, completely not-garbage cutter for a home run:
Hard to see how anyone could hit that pitch, really.
A little less ambiguous was Cubs’ pitching coach Chris Bosio, who was asked about Starling Marte’s suspension on a radio show, and came verrrrrrry close to directly implicating Thames (transcript via Yahoo! Sports)
“Well, the bottom line is [Thames] has hit the ball and we gotta figure out a way to get around [it]. All that other stuff, I’ll let other people worry about. But he’s doing stuff that I haven’t seen done for a long time.
“You start thinking about Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez when he went to the Dodgers, Barry Bonds … You’re talking about some of the greatest players to ever play this game. So, yeah, it’s probably a ‘head-scratcher’ because nobody knows who this guy is. And when he was here before, his body has changed. But, like I said, I’ll leave that to everyone else and we’re just gonna try to worry about how to pitch him better and get him out.”
Not sure what Griffey is doing in that company, but it still kind of reads like ...
“Look, I’m not saying Beyoncé lip syncs everything. But she’s singing stuff that I haven’t heard for a long time.
“You start thinking about Milli Vanilli, Mariah Carey when she went to Times Square, and Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live ... You’re talking about some singers who are being lumped together in this conversation for no specific reason. Nooooo specific reason at all.”
And here we are. It’s not a tale as old as time, but it’s a tale as old as Mark McGwire’s career, roughly. Player comes out of nowhere to do something surprising, player is dirty. No trial, no evidence, just straight to conviction by suspicion, even though Thames was given a “random” urine test already. He is Brady Anderson, who was the first player in baseball history to have a shocking outlier of a season, other than the dozens and dozens of examples from previous decades.
The thing is that we’ve been here before. We were just here. I was just writing this last year. This hot take shouldn’t be necessary. This is a response to an illogical opinion from 15 years ago that has never evolved. It remains an illogical and squicky opinion that would turn your stomach if it was used against players on your favorite team. So why do people still keep assuming that any surprising baseball player is on performance-enhancing drugs? Why are people so horrible?
Why are people?
As it happens, the article that I’m referencing was in defense of Jake Arrieta. The headline makes me mad, but only because I can’t use it again.
Only morons think every surprising baseball player is taking steroids
This time, Stephen A. Smith played the part of Bosio, coyly implying that Arrieta was dirty, reading of a list of his innings pitched like it proved a damned thing. People are great at using limited information to formulate or reinforce beliefs that they were going to formulate or reinforce anyway, and surprising baseball performances are a perfect petri dish for that kind of bacteria. Just ask Cubs ace Jake Arrieta.
No, even better, ask Chris Bosio. Insinuate that Arrieta didn’t do any hard work to become an All-Star, that he didn’t hone his craft with the help of repetition and coaching. Insinuate that all Arrieta did was drink some magic smoothies to get where he is. And record it. Please.
The twist to that Arrieta article is that 24 hours later, Dee Gordon was suspended for PEDs. Wee Dee Gordon, who scampered around like a meerkat and slipper-slapped at baseballs like they did in the old days. This hurt the Arrieta thesis in a way, because it was baseball telling the world, “Anyone might be dirty. Anyone and everyone.”
It supported the thesis in a much bigger way, though, because it was also baseball telling the world, “You can’t tell who’s on steroids with your eyes, dummy. You are very bad at that. Please stop.”
If I had to draw up a likely user of PEDs, it would go like this: A guy in his late 30s, who suffered career-threatening injuries, who needed help getting back to where he was in preparation for his one last shot. And look at that, Bartolo Colon was eventually suspended for PEDs. Sometimes it’s fire that’s causing the smoke. And if we’re going for more PED archetypes, I’ll suggest that “guy who goes overseas because he failed in the minors” is another one. So I’m not going to suggest that it’s rude to have fleeting thoughts or hunches.
It’s exceptionally rude, though, to be employed by a major league team and share those hunches with the world. Because if I had to draw up a typical baseball player, it would go like this: A guy in his 20s or 30s, who baseballs much better or worse than you were expecting and continually surprises you. And look at that, the sport is full of them again.
If you want to waste your time being so sure that every surprising, out-of-nowhere baseball player is dirty, go for it. I’ll be over here, enjoying the hell out of these surprising, out-of-nowhere baseball players. In 20 years, we’ll look back and see how many times you were proven right, and we’ll compare that with how much more fun I had watching baseball.