On Sunday night, in the top of the ninth inning, Chris Stewart batted with two outs and two runners on and hit a shallow fly ball to center to end the inning. If you were listening to the broadcast, Stewart let out a clearly audible cry of frustration as he watched the ball take a trajectory that would ultimately take it harmlessly into Ryan Sweeney’s glove.
Amused, I tweeted, "He must be angry at himself all the time." After all, Stewart is a career .216/.274/.291 hitter. He makes bad decisions at bat all the time. To this, Mr. @ddanyc responded, "I'd be curious to hear your theory (if any) some day on why local MSM fawns over crappy benchwarmers like Stewart."
The answer can be summed up in one word: it’s about narrative. Over the course of a long, 162-game season, you have to have something to say about every player, and if you are a team broadcaster, whatever your outlet, you can’t take the totally honest route and say, "What the hell is this guy doing here, anyway? He really doesn’t contribute anything at all." Instead, you have to talk about what a gritty, gutty, scrappy dude the player is, how he persevered through ten long years in the minor leagues, and how his poor mother is missing a head due to the tragic incident with the wolverine, despite which she successfully labored to put him through junior college.
You play up the human story, because the baseball story will get you fired, or at the very least chastised: "Jim Townshend really isn’t very good, and if the team could just get somebody better, they would do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many players available at his position, and the farm system can’t successfully develop a ham sandwich, never mind a competent major league reserve. You’d think a team with this kind of resources could do better than this, but nooooooo."
A few years ago, the Yankees player who got the bulk of this treatment was Miguel Cairo, via the radio team of Sterling and Waldman. Now, Cairo was not a player without value. He was a good, versatile fielder, could steal a base when you needed it, and every few years would string together enough singles to hit .290. That said, when Joe Torre started giving him regular work at first base in 2007, it was taking matters a bit too far. You wouldn’t have known it from listening to Sterling, who practically asserted that Cairo could heal the sick, fly, baked the best soufflé of any active major leaguer, and was able to control the length of his hair just by thinking about it.
When I was a teenager, the player who got this kind of adulation was shortstop Alvaro Espinoza. Espinoza was a good fielder, but his sole skill at bat was that he could hit singles against left-handed pitchers. Overall, he was one of the worst hitters in the history of the Yankees, as he demonstrated in 1990 when he hit .224/.258/.274 in 150 games. Given little in the way of positive things to say about Espinoza, whenever he came to the plate broadcasters would laud his improved bunting. Not "good." "Improved."
The same thing goes to a lesser extent for those members of the media not directly beholden to the team or its regional sports network, if only because the uplifting-struggle-despite-the-headless-mother story will always play better than the alternative, which is "That Gerald Kinky is on the roster is evidence that someone in the front office spent the winter sleeping." Beat writers, as distinguished from columnists, have rarely been adversarial journalists, going back to the early days when teams paid for their travel and gave them free booze in the press box.
And so journeymen get thrown up as heroes, creating a cognitive dissonance—if they are really this good, why are they journeymen? Every once in awhile, one of those players will get to play in the postseason due to an injury and will have a fluke 10-for-20 and everyone feels momentarily justified in the glowing things that they wrote—until the next season, when the guy hits .178 and gets released.
And, of course, don’t forget the aficionado factor: a pundit who can see value in a player when no one else can is displaying a kind of expertise, the snooty "discernment" that is usually reserved for the most snobbish of oenophiles.
In John Ford’s "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," the moral of the story is, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." With 25th men, they don’t even wait for the legend to become fact, they hammer it into place. The truth has too many negative consequences, so they create heroes, not worrying if the player can actually bear the burden of his own mythology.