As you may or may not be aware, the Phillies are once again the employers of one Les Walrond. Walrond, who was, a week ago, signed out of independent minor league ball, was promoted yesterday to AAA Lehigh Valley. For those of you who are not familiar, Walrond is a 34-year-old left-handed reliever with a career major league ERA of 7.07. In general, if your ERA is going to be the model number of a jet airliner, you tend to want to go with an Airbus, rather than a Boeing (3.40 versus 7.37 and so on). Walrond made his major league debut in 2003, and has played for three major league teams since then, but he’s never had more than the proverbial cup of coffee. In fact, by innings pitched, Walrond is still a rookie. In 2008, he was a roster filler for a few weeks with the Phillies, and we, as fans, gravitated to him because of his funny name. But the more I think about Les Walrond (and yes, I do spend time thinking about Les Walrond), the more I see him as a player of great sociological significance.
Walrond is the exemplar of the itinerant worker of major league baseball, the man who was never a prospect or a star but aimlessly wanders through the underground wasteland that is the high minors for a decade or more, hoping, in his heart of hearts, to catch on for that one last chance at breaking into the show, but expecting only his next paycheck. The high minors and independent ball are full of such players as these men, traipsing aimlessly around like the title character in “Charlie on the MTA” while younger and more promising talents are skyrocketing past him. The best baseball movie of all time, in my estimation, is Bull Durham, and it studies this phenomenon through Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis. He delivers the following monologue while sitting on a crowded bus wearing cheap clothes, preaching the Right Way to Play Baseball to boys ten years his junior:
“Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”
I don’t know Les Walrond personally. In fact, I don’t even know what he looks like; I don’t think I saw any of the six games he pitched in a Phillies uniform in 2008, and if I did, I certainly can’t recall his appearance. With that said, I can’t say that getting back to the gleaming Olympus described by Crash Davis is the motivating factor in Walrond’s continuing struggle in the minor leagues. Most American boys dream of playing in the majors. I know I, at age nine or so, had my heart set on playing third base for the Baltimore Orioles (even at that age, I knew how rare it was to be drafted by one’s childhood team, so I lowered my expectations a little). But as we get older, everyone reaches a point where the major league dream is so obviously unattainable we have to give it up. Maybe Walrond hasn’t reached that point. Maybe he just loves the game so much that even playing it at the minor league level is enough. Maybe he loves the travel and the camaraderie. Maybe he just has nowhere else to go. Whatever his motivation, Les Walrond is one step closer to getting back to the show.
From a rational standpoint, as someone who wants the Phillies to win games in bunches, not only in 2011 but in the future, I hope Walrond stays in Lehigh Valley. Whatever big league innings he’d pitch would be better consumed by Scott Mathieson, or Justin De Fratus, or even David Herndon. But from the standpoint of the boy who stood in the backyard 15 years ago, imagining the dust and trees as Camden Yards in Game 7 of the World Series, only to have his dreams dashed later, I could stand to see Les Walrond get one more shot.