In 1992 at the age of twenty-four Matt Stairs appeared in thirteen games for the Montreal Expos. He made thirty-eight plate appearances and recorded only five hits. The next season in 1993 he appeared in only six games, making eight plate appearances and recording three hits. To put those numbers in perspective, over the course of a 162 game season a regular starter will get between 550-650 plate appearances.
Matt Stairs would not resurface again in the Major Leagues until 1995, and as a member of the Boston Red Sox, totaling ninety-five plate appearances. It would not be until his age twenty-nine season as a member of the Oakland Athletics that Matt Stairs would become a Major League regular. By the time he retired at the age of forty-three Matt Stairs had played twenty-two seasons of professional baseball.
He had been a (in order); Jamestown Expo, Rockford Expo, West Palm Beach Expo, Jacksonville Expo, Harrisburg Senator, Indianapolis Indian, Montreal Expo, Ottawa Lynx, Chunichi Dragon (Japanese league), Montreal Expo (again), New Britain Red Sock, Pawtucket Red Sock, Boston Red Sock, Edmonton Trapper, Oakland Athletic, Chicago Cub, Milwaukee Brewer, Nashville Sound, Pittsburg Pirate, Kansas City Royal, Texas Ranger, Detroit Tiger, Toronto Blue Jay, Philadelphia Phillie, and finally Washington National (The reader should note the irony that Mr. Stairs begin and end his career with the same organization, remembering that the Montreal Expos who drafted Matt in 1989 relocated to Washington and changed their name to the Nationals).
In 2008 Matt Stairs was a member of the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. He played in nineteen games and recorded seventeen appearances, he was signed late in the season to be an experienced pinch hitter, able to come off the bench in late game situations. In one of his seventeen plate appearances Matt Stairs labored (and I say labored because anyone who saw the overweight white guy with the body of a substitute teacher swing a bat knew it was an act of physical labor) a homerun deep into right field of Dodger stadium. It was with one out and one man on in game three of the National League Championship Series against Jonathon Broxton. Google Matt Stairs and the first suggestion is “homerun in 2008 playoffs.”
The homerun is an absolute beauty. One of those moon shots that are absolutely gone from the second the ball leaves the bat. Watching that game, with an already large soft spot for Matt Stairs, I couldn’t help but smile that the portly Canadian had finally etched his name, however small, into baseball history.
Wins Above Replacement or WAR is an advanced baseball metric. It measures the amount of value, pure value that a player brings to a team. How many wins above replacement value does player x add to a team. Replacement being defined as an average AAA player.For Reference the best players in baseball are usually between 7.0-10.5 in the WAR category. Last year, Mike Trout of the Anaheim Angels had a truly historic season and according to WAR was worth 10.9 or 11 wins.
Matt Stairs never had a WAR above 3.1 and that was for one season, his would have only one more season with a WAR above 1.0. His annual number hovering somewhere between 0.8 and -1.0. Matt Stairs was, in every sense of the word average. Completely and totally average. He was the ‘Replacement’ in WAR, the bench Mark for what every Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez is measured against.
For a couple summers in my early adolescence my friend’s father would take me and his son to Minor League baseball games around Central Texas. The Round Rock Express and San Antonio Missions became breeding grounds for my deep seated feelings about the sport. In tiny Minor League stadiums the players are, for the most part, almost completely accessible. Without the celebrity that accompanies the big leaguers. Guys in ‘small-ball’ often use the same entrance and exits into the stadium, often park in the same tiny lots, and usually drive cars of the same monetary value as the people in the stands.
My friend and I were waiting outside the stadium to get autographs of a few big-time prospects that were coming through San Antonio, when we saw him, in person for the first time. Matt Stairs was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, eating Arby’s that looked cold, and talking to another player about whether he could eat Bennigans for a third straight night. Next to him a couple Dominican players who looked barely older than me and my junior high aged friend were flirting in Spanish with a group of Mexican girls.
It was one of those scenes you see played out in movies like Bull Durham. The grizzled baseball veteran who is overweight, cynical and way past his never-actually-existing prime juxtaposed with two young Caribbean’s who are fast, strong, promising and literally, tall, dark and handsome. Ever the showoff I shouted out “Matt Stairs, Whoop Whoop” and he looked at me and with a level of genuine surprise and gratitude smiled and waved. From that moment on, Matt Stairs was, if not my favorite player, my spiritual favorite.
Why wasn’t he more people’s favorite player? I guess that answer is obvious, ‘he wasn’t any good.’ But aren’t 95% of us Matt Stairs. We are all phenomenally average. Neither gorgeous nor ugly, intelligent nor illiterate, rich nor starving, we all seem to be hovering right at replacement level. Sure, there are one or two among us who by sheer awesome luck or winning the genetic lottery will achieve wonderful and great things but we just don’t acknowledge this blinding reality because it’s not something anyone can really articulate.
The prevailing narrative of success, especially in the United States is one of a direct correlation between work, effort, drive, and success. That we are only separated from our wealth and status by effort and desire. Direct cause and effect between work and wealth is an easy one to accept, because it’s simply more pleasant to live in a world where we have more control over our own lives than do other people or blind inconsiderate luck. For the sake of argument I will concede the fact that yes, some people are just lazy and frankly do not push themselves for any quality of life above the minimum standard. While others are able to hustle and bustle their way to the top.
However, to say that everything in the world is determined by some Ayn Rand level of work ethic and discipline is simply ignoring the truth and burying your head into the sand of self-importance. How many incredibly talented actors have moved to New York or LA, worked three jobs, went to literally hundreds of auditions and only appeared in one commercial? How many short kids have stayed in the gym until the lights turned off shooting free throws only to get cut from the high school squad because their parents gave them insignificant chromosomes? How many bored teenagers have pounded their head at The Great Gatsby searching for the essay that will get them the A only to realize they don’t have the literary talent? Major realities that we face as a species are avoided because it’s just easier and more pleasant to live with the idea that your level of work equals your level of success.
The scariest thing about Matt Stairs is that by simply playing Major League Baseball he was; probably at any given time one of the top five or six hundred baseball players in the world. The absolutely crushing majority of all baseball players signed or drafted will never make it to the Major Leagues. And they are signed without any intention to do so. These players are what’s called ‘Organizational Depth’ they are not drafted or signed to be stars or starters or even back-ups on the big league squad. They are signed to be cannon fodder for the handful of prospects relentless climbing up the system.
There are countless AA burnouts who would kill for Matt Stairs’ career, but we just don’t talk about that, or we tell ourselves that they burned out because they didn’t work hard enough. Fans spend countless hours arguing about the most minute of personnel moves of our favorite teams. Rod Barajas or Gerald Laird will not make a single bit of difference.
What truly separated Matt Stairs from Alex Rodriguez? Did A-Rod actually, honestly, take that much more batting practice over the course of his life than Matt Stairs? Why don’t people talk about Matt Stairs, or the billion other phenomenally average players that make up sports-entertainment? Because to do so is to acknowledge that you yourself are not one of the special ones.
People buy Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter Jerseys because each of us, inside our heads, in the very back quiet recesses of our own thoughts tells ourselves that we are Kobe Bryant. I am not Matt Stairs, I am not a career minor leaguer, I am definitely above Replacement Value.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong or depressing with being average. A functioning society needs, literally millions of average hard-working people. People who lead lives of quiet desperation, looking forward to nothing more than driving home, kissing their wife and maybe playing golf with their daughter if they have time this weekend. This is what we are. So why not embrace that in our athletics? Let the owner of the restaurant where you wait tables cheer for Kobe Bryant.
Because you, me, and 95% of the rest of us, we are Matt Stairs. Our lives are too short and too varied and too dependent on everything else to completely control our own destiny. So we just don’t talk about it. Because the dark soulless truth is that we aren’t even Matt Stairs. We are organizational depth.