Matt Stairs solidifies place as greatest journeyman slugger
They did not stop the game. They did not go into the crowd to get him the baseball. They did not pour champagne on his head after the deed was done. Well, it's been like that for
On Sept. 28 Stairs faced Washington rookie pitcher
And with that, Stairs became the greatest journeyman slugger in history.
Of course, it depends how you appraise a baseball journeyman. I say you have to play for at least 10 teams. That's a nice round number. Stairs, like the Spinal Tap amp, goes to 11. He began his career in Montreal, playing for a team that no longer exists. After that it was a month or so in Boston, five rebellious years in Oakland, a party at Wrigley, a layover in Milwaukee and enough time for a few Primanti Brothers sandwiches in Pittsburgh. He became a fan favorite during some dry years in Kansas City, pit stopped in Texas, spent a weekend or two in Detroit, came back home to Toronto* and finally, all things considered, found he'd rather be in Philadelphia. That's 11.
When Stairs cranked that home run off Estrada, he passed frequent flier
Fifteen days later -- on Monday -- Stairs dusted off the hangover swing and unloaded one more time, this time turning on Los Angeles closer
"I'm not going to lie," Stairs told the assembled media after the game. "I try to hit home runs and that's it."
Cliché, sure, but Matt Stairs always looked like he was getting ready for a slo-pitch softball game. He would sit in his underwear by his locker, and he was squat, he was balding, and he had a goatee, and he looked like the kind of guy who would stand still on airport moving sidewalks. He looked like he was just dying for one beer.
In some ways, the looks were misleading. Stairs was once among the more promising young hockey players in Canada. He had, according to his own scouting report, a wicked slap shot. And he could move. Years and years later, he still had lingering after-affects of that athleticism. Stairsy, as everyone called him*, could not run much, no, but he was not clumsy either, and he generally caught what he reached. He played five positions in his career, though he readily admitted he could have skipped a couple of them. He was usually good for a triple a year. He was probably not the worst athlete in the room.
But in many ways, the softball image fit, even after Stairs gave up smoking. He came to the ballpark to swat. I can remember once interviewing softball-bashing legend
Stairs had some of that in him. He had become, over time, the kind of guy a manager sent to the plate in desperate times, when only a home run would do. It did not start out that way. Stairs was such a good hockey player growing up, that when he signed with the Montreal Expos, many of his friends were surprised he even PLAYED baseball. The Expos signed Stairs with visions of a scrappy middle infielder, and he gave them reason to hope when he hit .372 in Harrisburg one year with 10 triples and 23 stolen bases. Yes, 23 stolen bases. But hope faded fast, he wasn't quite scrappy enough, and the Expos exported him to Japan. Really.
Stairs didn't like Japan much. He came back home after only 60 games, and this time Montreal sold him to Boston. He still wasn't scrappy enough. The Red Sox dumped him, and he signed with Oakland.
Then, he had the moment of stupor that changed his life. Stairs was playing for the Edmonton Trappers -- where else? -- and wasn't hitting a lick. And he woke up one morning with the kind of hangover they write horror movies about. That day, out of necessity, he dropped his hands and lifted his eyes. He got four hits that day and crushed a grand slam. What the heck? Next day, four more hits. And four more after that. The slap shot was back. "It was awesome," Stairs would say.
With that, Matt Stairs left behind the scrappy hustler he never was and reintroduced himself as Babe Ruth Miniature. He crushed 27 homers in only 352 at-bats in his first real shot at the big leagues. He drove in 100 RBIs in his first full year. He smacked 38 homers the year after that. The A's signed him to a deal that paid him three million bucks.
He bought a bunch of new cars and a big television for every room in his house. The the A's traded him to the Cubs who let him go to the Brewers ... and so on.
I began to write about Matt Stairs four years after that, after he had started the "Have bat, will homer," phase of his career. He was 36 by then, and the Kansas City Royals were his seventh team, and the Kansas City Royals were all kinds of lousy*. Those teams had a knack for not only losing, but losing with style.
But Stairs just did what he did. He knew his role. Stairsy kept on swinging hard and striking out and sitting on the bench and launching home runs. One of his homers won a Kansas City fan $25,000 in a contest called the Sonic Grand Slam Inning. He hit two in one game in Philadelphia and two more in a wild game in Detroit. He would, of course, end up playing for both those teams.
All along, he loved the game in his own way. The losing bugged him -- he had never played in even a championship series until this year -- but it did not deter him. The constant shuffle from team to team wasn't fun, but it wasn't going to stop him from playing ball. "I might feel differently tomorrow," he would say, "but I doubt it."
So this year, when the Blue Jays traded him to the Phillies, it was just another move and just another uniform and just another place to swing for the fences. When he came up to pinch-hit in Game 4 in the playoffs against the blazing fastball of Jonathan Broxton, it was just another pitcher. And when he saw the fastball coming, he unloaded like always. And when he felt the barrel of the bat hit the ball just right, he knew. He's 40 years old, and he had played in more than 1,600 games, and he has struck out more than 1,000 times, and he has given plenty of fans behind plenty of walls souvenir baseballs. He has felt just about everything you can feel in this crazy game.
Only this time he got to be a hero. That was new.
"I just happened to barrel it," Stairs said in his first playoff press conference. "And ... victory."