I've played a lot of organized baseball in my lifetime. From tee-ball up through high school, I was on a team every summer, and during my lengthy involvement with the game I forged a lot of great relationships and created a lot of amazing memories.
But there's one game that stands out above all others as the most memorable in my playing career. It wasn't the best game I've ever played or anything, but it's one that I'll always cherish and think back to as a transcendent moment.
Back in little league, when I was probably just entering my teens, I was playing in a park board league. Our group of guys had been playing together for several years, as had another team in our league called the SlugRats.
The SlugRats were widely reviled. They were the Yankees of park board ball -- they recruited talent and basically played the game with a repellent sense of arrogance. Their coach was a ruthless, scowling disciplinarian reminiscent of Viktor Tikhonov, coach of the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team. Their star pitcher was a "kid" who appeared to be at least five years older than anyone else in the league and whose blazing fastball tended to zip past hitters in the blink of an eye.
That ace pitcher happened to be toeing the rubber for one summer game in which my team was facing off against the SlugRats. The result of the game was nearly a foregone conclusion, for while my team was certainly one of the more talented in this league, we were routinely blown out by the mighty SlugRats (much like all other opponents).
But, on this particular day, our guys had the timing of that scorching fastball down. For whatever reason, I was all over it in particular. We won the game 5-4, and celebrated like we were hoisting a World Series trophy. I drove in four of our team's five runs on that day. You couldn't wipe the smile off my face with napalm.
Sure, the stat sheet would say that I had some hits and four RBI, but those numbers couldn't possibly encapsulate the feeling I had, born out of doing everything in my power to help my team win.
I think a lot of baseball bloggers and analysts played baseball at one point in our lives, but over time we forget about the special moments like that. The stats and numbers are important and they tell an unbiased tale of what has happened on the field, but they can sometimes overlook the smaller niceties of the game. And they can keep us from appreciating a kid like Drew Butera.
I wrote about Butera in late July, noting that his increased presence in the lineup was bound to become a drain on the team's offensive proficiency. Those feelings have not changed; in spite of the fact that he has posted a thoroughly competent .781 OPS in 27 plate appearances since I posted that article, Butera remains an enormous offensive liability. His overall hitting line this year (.208/.245/.333) is surely more reflective of his actual ability than his recent performance.
Yet, as I watched Butera gleefully slap hands with his teammate in the dugout this weekend after perfectly executing a suicide squeeze to help the Twins manufacture a crucial run, I came to a realization: I'm sort of starting to like the kid.
It's ironic, I know. I've been one of Butera's fiercest critics, and by no means does my softened stance indicate that I think he should be in the lineup any more often than he is now.
But one can't overlook Butera's contributions. Despite his relative lack of talent, he's played his ass off and managed to make Joe Mauer's limited availability over the past month a relative non-issue. That the Twins have gone 11-3 in the last 14 games started by Butera doesn't prove he's a lucky charm or a winner by nature, but it does indicate that he hasn't exactly been holding the club back.
Regardless of his recent performance at the plate, Butera is simply never going to be an asset offensively. And the stat-head inside me is still driven mad every time he's written into the starting lineup, essentially erasing the inherent American League advantage of a designated hitter.
But there's no denying that he's a strong defender at a crucial position, and while I don't necessarily believe that his presence behind the plate meaningfully improves any of the Twins pitchers, there's a clear comfort level there.
The fascination with pro athletes who appear to be "having fun" has been completely played out, run into the ground by John Madden's absurd infatuation with Brett Favre. But with Butera, I really can buy it. This is a kid who, based on his complete inability to hit in the minor leagues, might have never gotten a shot to play in the majors under different circumstances. But now he's playing and contributing on a team with playoff aspirations, helping fill the void left by an ailing MVP and Gold Glover. And he's having the time of his life.
How can I tell? Because the smile on his face as he sat in the dugout after pulling off that beautiful squeeze bunt (or after he guns down a base stealer, or hangs on to the ball during a vicious collision at the plate, or manages to muscle a ball over the fence) was the exact same one on my face after I helped lift my team to victory over the SlugRats so many years ago.
In the end, that's what this game is all about.