Friday, July 03, 2009

Blog blast past: Requiem for the released, Russ Adams

The Blue Jays have given former first-round draft choice Russ Adams the dreaded DFA, designated ... for ... assignment. It might sound bad, but Quad-A ballplayers take it in stride. From Aug. 7, 2008, here's a tribute to a human footnote.

Russ Adams is best known for not being something.

Let's think about what that says about us, rather than what it says about the first-round pick who was once the answer to the Jays' shortstop situation. Being a sports fan and cheering for a bunch of jocks employed by a multinational corporation, because it's your team, is an ultimate act of naive sentiment. It's odd how it's rare that any of that is saved for a bright hope who fell flat on his face.

Maybe it's an offshoot of the self-loathing that builds up from having spent your waking hours worrying about the outcome of games you cannot control. To think I believed in Russ Adams?! He's dead to me.

There's names for the exemplars of this phenomenon -- bust, flop, fizzle, dud, Ryan Leaf. It might be the worst ignominy to own in sports, on par with being a cheater. People will let an athlete off the hook for being an out-and-out rat bastard, but not for failing like Russ Adams has as a major-leaguer.
"I don't see playing baseball professionally, playing over two years in the majors, if someone thinks that's failing, I don't know what planet they live on. I'm not going to be sitting at home at 40 and think I'm a failure in life because I didn't play 20 years in the big leagues. That won't dictate my happiness." -- Syracuse Post-Standard
Hands up, everyone whose knee-jerk reaction was something along the lines, "Oh, go cry me a river." It might create the mental picture of Adams, barring some near-miraculous turnaround, spending the next 20 years dreaming of a parallel universe where he was the American League's answer to Chase Utley.

A lot of sports fans probably look it that way. It's not clear that the ballplayers actually do.

It's undeniable what springs to mind after seeing that quote from Adams, whose Triple-A rate stats in Syracuse this summer (.232/.322/.378) scream, "quintessential Quadruple-A player." This, of course, is from someone who as every Jays fan must know by now, was drafted ahead of Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher and Joey Votto (not just a Toronto boy, but a paisano of J.P. Ricciardi).

It's actually straight of out of the novel North Dallas Forty. There's a scene where the antihero Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte played him in the movie) recalls commiserating with a player who had been traded, dumped by a team that had publicly proclaimed he would be brilliant:
"He seemed like the only survivor of a ten-car collison who was trying to explain how it happened. Several times during the course of our conversation he had stopped to stare off into his disastrous past, thinking of all those glories he had only tasted slightly."
There's a double-edge to that analogy. It could seem empathetic or just downright cruel. But it's c'est la vie for a human footnote.

For anyone who needs a refresher, the Jays advanced Adams quickly through the minors after he was drafted in 2002 (Matt Cain and Cole Hamels, both now top-flight starters in the NL, were also available when Ricciardi made the 14th overall selection).

In 2005, he put up a decent enough first season as a rookie shortstop. According to his page, his age-24 season compared pretty favourably with that of Orlando Cabrera, who's been an adequate, sometimes all-star shortstop for a decade.

He had the throwing yips in '06. You can't presume to know what's in a player's mind, but the stats make it look like he was taking his defensive problems up to bat with him. The Jays eventually had to send him to Syracuse to learn how to play second base, which was a give-up play.

Inside of two years, the Shortstop of the Future has become one of among the couple hundred Triple-A veterans -- roster flotsam who move about the minors, their names known only to the most hardcore baseball fans. They're valued by MLB organizations for what might be called their overdeveloped flexibility. Most of them, almost as a survival skill, have learned to play several positions (good for when the big club is shuffling players around). They've been around long enough that they don't need to be babysat by their manager. They're also fully comfortable with the hard reality that they can traded, demoted, promoted, or released at any time.

Who knows why it didn't work out for Adams. One historical note is that left-handed hitting shortstops are a rarity. (Stephen Drew of the Arizona Diamondbacks is the only everyday SS in the majors who bats lefty.)

The thing is, though, is that most fans don't fully appreciate that it does take exceptional skill, the kind not found in 99% of the population, to even be a career minor leaguer. People also don't get, or don't care, that's it debatable whether failing as an everyday shortstop actually hurt Russ Adams as a person. He got far enough to get all his illusions about playing baseball shattered, but a lot of men never will.

Some day in the not too distant future, the Jays will probably waive him. Drunk Jays Fans and the like will write a blog post for shits and giggles. Maybe someone will do up a Top 10 list of Toronto sports busts, slotting Adams in with Rafael Araujo and Ricky Williams, but Russ Adams will just go on living his life. The wicked burn won't be on him.

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