The Good Press — Issue #56: Baseball Lives
Highlighting some baseball lives across the sport: celebrating Willie Mays’ 90th birthday, a tribute to Albert Pujols, and perhaps the most incredible comeback ever
Hello and welcome to another edition of The Good Press, a newsletter of observations about life, sports, and/or anything else that comes to mind.
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Last Thursday, Willie Mays celebrated his 90th birthday. The legendary center fielder for the New York/San Francisco Giants, who is perhaps the greatest baseball player to ever live, is a baseball life well worth celebrating.
The life and career of Willie Mays
Baseball legend Willie Howard Mays Jr. was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. Considered one of the greatest…
The man they still affectionately call “The Say Hey Kid” may not be a kid anymore (he now has the bittersweet designation as the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame after a year of losing many of his legendary peers), but nobody inspired a childlike wonder in fans young and old like Willie Mays.
In the New York Times, author James S. Hirsch wrote an essay reflecting on the greatness of Mays, and how he is still carrying the torch for his golden age generation of baseball players, even as he enters his nonagenarian stage.
Willie Mays Carries the Torch for His Generation
On the occasion of baseball's oldest living Hall of Famer turning 90, a reflection on the conditioning that…
In baseball, it’s extremely rare for a single play to encapsulate a player’s greatness, especially when it’s an all-around talent like Mays, who excelled as a batter, a fielder, and as a baserunner alike. But few plays are as famous as the play Mays made in September 1954, a play known simply as “The Catch.”
The Catch (baseball) - Wikipedia
The Catch was a baseball play made by New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays on September 29, 1954, during Game 1…
“The Catch” could only have happened at the Polo Grounds, the now-defunct baseball stadium in Upper Manhattan that was known for its unusual field dimensions, which enabled Mays to sprint after a ball that he caught at likely 425+ feet from home plate, usually home run distance nearly anywhere else.
Mays’ catch, and his lightning-fast throw back to the infield to prevent any runners from advancing, is a pretty good snapshot into his incredible talent. I’m too young to have seen Mays play, though I know there are some in The Good Press community who were lucky enough to see him work his magic.
In Other Words
Strive to give people their flowers while they’re still around to smell them.
There’s nothing wrong with honoring people before they’ve moved on. There will be plenty of time to honor them in remembrance, but why wait till then?
The Giants threw a wonderful birthday celebration for him on Friday night, and The Say Hey Kid was still the star of the show, looking as great as ever.
Happy birthday, Willie. May you continue to inspire with your extraordinary baseball life. May you keep cutting many more birthday cakes in the future.
As it happened, seeing the celebration of Willie Mays at 90 made the wheels start spinning in my mind to spend an issue celebrating various baseball lives. So if you’re scoring at home, that would be “Baseball Lives,” as a plural noun (and not “Baseball Lives” like sentient balls that come to life) as this week’s topic.
The second baseball life I want to highlight this week is that of pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez, a 37-year-old right-hander who appeared in parts of 12 MLB seasons from 2006 to 2017 for Colorado, Baltimore, and Cleveland.
The New York Times’ James Wagner wrote a nice story this week about the promise that Jiménez made to his mother to get a college degree, and his journey to fulfilling that promise 20 years after he left his childhood home.
A Pitcher Never Forgot His Promise to His Mother
When leaving the Dominican Republic, Ubaldo Jiménez promised his mother he'd get an education. Twenty years later, he…
Like many young kids in the Dominican Republic, Jiménez dreamed of a baseball life in America, and he had the talent and work ethic required. He would go on to sign a professional contract with the Colorado Rockies, making it to the majors in 2006 and being named to an All-Star team in 2010. That 2010 season was the type of season dreams are made of: 19 wins on the mound, 214 strikeouts, one of the strongest seasons a pitcher has ever had for the Rockies, who play in the notorious Denver hitters haven, Coors Field.
But back before he left his homeland, Jiménez made a promise to his mother that he would graduate high school and college on top of his baseball career. This past week, as Wagner’s story details, Jiménez graduated with honors from the Florida Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management, fulfilling the promise he made 20 years ago.
Thanks to the anonymity of taking online classes at a private school (only one professor recognized his name and asked him if he was, indeed, the same Ubaldo Jiménez who threw a no-hitter in 2010), Jiménez was able to juggle baseball, his marriage, fatherhood, and school in order to make his mother proud.
In a sport where many athletes sacrifice their academics in order to put many eggs in one basket training to be a professional athlete, Jiménez is a terrific success story of a baseball life as someone who’s worked hard to secure a nest egg for his family while also thinking about the next stage of his life.
Though he hasn’t appeared in a major league game since 2017, he still has aspirations to make a comeback for one last hurrah, if his arm is up to it. Even if he’s thrown his last pitch, I greatly enjoyed reading the story about his off-the-field life, and everything that shaped him into the player and person he is.
More than just a nice baseball story, too, it’s also another reminder that in most situations, you should listen to your mother. She usually knows best. I sure hope you celebrated Mother’s Day in a meaningful way this weekend.
There are two more baseball lives I’d like to touch on today. First, the incredible career of former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols.
Pujols is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time and one of the best first basemen to ever play the game, but Father Time is undefeated, and it appears that Pujols’ time is up after he was let go by his most recent team, the Los Angeles Angels, after a disappointing ten years in an Angels uniform.
The 41-year-old had perhaps the greatest start to a career in MLB history over his first decade in the big leagues back in the 2000s, but injury issues and Father Time’s influence meant that he was never quite able to recapture that Hall of Fame form as an Angel after his baseball brilliance in St. Louis.
Sometimes the numbers do say it all: Pujols and Hank Aaron are the only two players in MLB history to hit 600+ home runs, 600+ doubles, and 3,000+ hits.
But the man they once called, “The Machine” is, in fact, human. And even Stan “The Man” Musial got too old to catch up to a fastball eventually. I hope that younger fans, who may mostly remember his late-career decline, can take the time to look back and appreciate how terrific a player Pujols was in his prime.
Content warning: The following part of today’s issue is about a baseball player who survived a suicide attempt and his remarkable comeback story. If you or anyone you know is in distress and in need of free, confidential support, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online, where you can chat online with counselors for emotional support and other services, or call 1–800–273–8255.
The last baseball life that I want to shine a light on this week is as astonishing a story as I’ve read in a long time: the life of Drew Robinson, a 29-year-old outfielder currently playing Triple-A minor league baseball in Sacramento.
On April 16, 2020, Drew Robinson’s life changed forever. On that day, he didn’t expect to play another baseball game; he didn’t expect to wake up the next morning. Battling depression and confidence issues as a baseball player and a person, Robinson attempted to end his life on that fateful April day.
-Bang- went the single gunshot. But it wasn’t the end of his story.
In February 2021, ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote the definitive story to date about Drew Robinson, with no sugarcoating of his struggles. It’s a portrait of a young man struggling with depression, struggling with pandemic-related isolation, the thought process he had on that day that changed his life, and everything that’s happened to him since Robinson woke up the following day, after miraculously surviving the gunshot that was intended to be his demise.
If you would like to read about Robinson in detail, do read Passan’s story above. It is painstakingly detailed, including the reporting about the day of the incident, so keep that in mind if you read Passan’s long-form reporting.
At 29 years old now, Robinson is doing very well with his extraordinary new lease on life, despite the permanent loss of his right eye after the incident 13 months ago. He has been sharing his story with others in and out of baseball, trying to help end the stigma associated with mental illness and depression, trying to make sure that no one ever feels as helpless and lost as he once felt.
If that had been the end of Robinson’s baseball life as a player, had he retired to become a coach or a mental health professional or even to leave baseball entirely, it would still be an incredible story of perseverance and resilience.
But something funny happened once Robinson started taking batting practice again over the summer and fall of 2020. Even though he only has the use of his left eye, he found himself smashing home runs again in practice. He found that with his brain still wired to track a pitched baseball, he was still able to hit the ball with authority, even as a one-eyed slugger. Of course, this was just practicing with friends. Nobody could’ve imagined what came next.
The San Francisco Giants, who he’d been set to play for in 2020 had the season started on time, invited him back on a 2021 minor-league contract. Nothing was guaranteed, but it was a chance for him to earn his way back. When the minor league baseball season started on May 4, there was Drew Robinson, in the starting lineup for the Giants’ Triple-A team in Sacramento, earning it on the merits of proving himself as a high-caliber player once again.
As fate would have it, Sacramento’s season began on the road in Las Vegas, Robinson’s hometown. So not only did he return to the field last week in his first professional game since 2019, but he did it with family in attendance.
“When I was running around the field, hearing the crowd, hearing my family, hearing everybody cheer me on, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” Robinson said about his emotions during his season debut in his hometown. “It felt so good to be out there. I’m so happy I was able to appreciate everything for what it was in the moment. That’s something I wasn’t able to do before the incident.”
He is a man with one eye who sees the world more clearly than ever before. It sure puts a tough night at the plate into perspective. After a hitless game on Opening Day, a few days later, Robinson had his first base hit of 2021 and a diving catch in the outfield, proving that this is no charity case.
Tuesday night, there was Drew Robinson again, keeping his eye on the ball and hitting his first home run of the season in front of that hometown crowd.
Robinson is playing at the second-highest level of professional baseball in America. He is one call away from a return to the majors. The Giants have already shuffled their outfield a few times this season with call-ups from the minors, which means it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Robinson could get promoted back to the big leagues this year if the Giants need him.
Even if Robinson doesn’t get the call-up, is there any doubt about who is 2021’s comeback player of the year? I sure know who I’d (eyed?) vote for.
Thank you again for indulging me and my baseball brain. I know it’s a long one this week, but the baseball lives of the people who make this game special are endlessly fascinating to me; these are just four that came to mind this week.
Maybe more baseball. Maybe something else. Let’s find out together.
Till next time,
Previously in The Good Press
The Good Press — Issue #55: Reset
As American football tries to find its future stars at the NFL Draft, English football fans made their voices heard in…
May 5, 2021
The Good Press — Issue #54: Stupor League
Somewhat suddenly, a seismic sports story shook soccer, then it all fell apart within days, leaving the European…
April 28, 2021
The Good Press — Issue #53: Baseball’s Best Out West
Baseball’s best out west have started 2021 with a bang. Commemorating one full year of The Good Press with some…
April 21, 2021