It was an unusual scene for a day in Spring Training. No one looked happy or expectant of good things. No hope sprang eternal as it usually does in camps in Arizona and Florida before the season when all things are still possible for every team before they play the games. It wasn’t about baseball, it was real life intruding on the game. And not in a good way.
It is early enough that there are still many of the minor league players still in camp trying to impress and when one of their own announces that he is leaving the game he has loved at 23 years of age it is not a time of celebration. The obligatory statements are made about how it is a shame, the unfilled dreams, the “family” being pulled apart, and how sometimes real life takes baseball by the throat and reminds us all it is only a game.
In Pace Florida, a town not far from Pensacola, Andrew L. Cumberland began playing baseball while growing up. “Drew” to his friends and teammates he was drafted out of high school by the San Diego Padres in the 1st round of players in 2007. He played that summer at age 18 in the Rookie League and then in lower A in 25 games and batted a remarkable .320, which in baseball language means he was successful in getting a hit of some sort in three out of ten attempts. To put that in perspective, players who manage that for their entire career go to the Hall of Fame. Three out of ten over a career will be good enough to be remembered as one of the greats. In the fall, when most of the world turned to football, Drew went to the Padres team in the Arizona Rookie league and hit .318. He was a shortstop and 2nd baseman still looking for the place he was most comfortable, but if he could maintain hitting statistics like that, they would find a place and be sure he was comfortable.
In the next three years he played in Eugene, Oregon, Fort Wayne Indiana, San Antonio, and Lake Elsinore California. As he moved up his hitting remained consistent and his play in the field remained at the “excellent prospect” level.
In 2010 he had to stop playing. He had symptoms of concussion syndrome. He was later diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder which has damaged portions of both his inner ear and greatly affects his balance. Essentially retired from the game by a body that would not cooperate, he stayed at Fort Wayne to coach, and while he enjoyed the experience he refused to believe his promising career was over.
Over the winter he had medical treatment and worked out vigorously with no side effects so he reported to camp here with the hope of returning to the field. After 14 days of play, the symptoms returned and on Monday, he retired as an active player and left camp, “unavailable for comment” as the team PR flaks put it. He can no longer play the game he loves with a passion and played so well. He is done at the age of 23.
No one said the game was fair. That would make it different from real life, so it isn’t. Athletes often fail to see that, because when you are 23 and very very good at something that few others in the world can even try to do, it is devastating when you learn you no longer have the physical capacity to do it. While not exclusive to professional athletes, it is particularly prevalent among them. It is sad to watch and hard to grasp. Cumberland plans to return to coaching in the minors again this year, teaching others nearly his own age how to use the techniques and skills that made him so successful but which his body now refuses to let him display.
May Drew Cumberland also be wise enough to understand that while he has a lot to teach others, he has a life yet to be lived outside of this little boy’s game at which he excelled.
Meanwhile, on the other coast in the Florida camp of the Baltimore Orioles, Brad Bergesen, 27, a right-handed pitcher, reported with all the others. He was with the major league club last year for all of for 35 of the 162 games they played last year. For this meager effort he was paid $400,000. When he was offered a roster spot this season his agent began salary negotiations.
There is an old joke about the definition of chutzpah. It is said that it is a man who murders both his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the Court claiming he is an orphan.
As crude as it is, until last week I was reasonably certain it was as good as any. Now there is Brad Bergesen and I am not so sure.
While most of the world was wondering who would win the Super Bowl and there were still two week left before pitchers, catchers, and roster players who were injured last year had to report, Mr. Bergesen was burgling his team through a process known in baseball as “arbitration.” Baseball arbitration bears no resemblance to what may come to mind when one thinks of it in real world terms. Rather, a simplified version of how it goes is this: After the first three years with one team, a player may request salary arbitration, or, alternatively, he may be “offered” arbitration by the team if a salary cannot be negotiated to their mutual satisfaction. Once at that impasse, the player picks a number that he believes he is worth for the use of what tools he has in the coming season and the team picks a number they believe is worthy. These two numbers are given to a panel of arbitrators. After hearing arguments from the player and the team representatives, they decide which one the player will receive. The arbitrators cannot choose a number but must pick either the player’s number or the team’s. It goes without saying that the team’s number is always the lesser of the two.
This arcane process was once thought to be a fair way to keep penurious owners from keeping players of great skill in relative poverty after a surprisingly sterling early career. Like all other things in the world of baseball finance it is no longer any such thing.
How do we know this? Consider the case of Mr. Bergesen.
A native of Concord California, he was drafted in 2004 in the 4th round by the Orioles. A draft choice at that level is one which the team would expect to reach the major leagues. He was there for those 35 games, appeared in 12, winning 2, and losing 7. He was hammered for more than 5 runs per nine innings pitched and allowed more than 1 base runner per inning pitched. Horrid numbers even by Oriole standards. When his salary negotiation came up this year, he decided the skills that had given that effort were worth $1.2 million. The team refused, but in an act of either great faith or incredible stupidity actually offered him $800,000. Perhaps they felt he might feel wanted.
There is nothing physically wrong with Brad Bergesen. He just hasn’t shown anyone that he can throw a baseball for strikes, get batters out, or keep them off base with consistency. Yet he will earn twice what he received last year and one must assume since the Orioles were foolish enough to offer it, they might expect him to be twice as good. Perhaps he will win 4 or 5 games and only lose 6. You all may stop wondering now why the Orioles consistently are finishing last in their division.
So, Drew Cumberland walks into the obscurity of the coaching ranks while reeking of potential due to his physical condition, Brad Bergesen walks back out onto a major league baseball field reeking of wealth due to the pedestrian performances of his past.