Embracing the Legend of Akil Baddoo and the Narrative Structure of a Full MLB Season

Tigers Rule 5 selection Akil Baddoo has played in three MLB games. Each has built up his mythology more spectacularly than the last.
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To watch baseball last year was to realize that the sport had lost its narrative structure. The beginning of the season split through the summer in an awkward stutter step; the middle was not there at all; the end felt rushed. Its circadian rhythm was busted. So, too, were all its usual mechanisms for developing storylines. Anything unusual in MLB could be explained away by the fact that everything was unusual in 2020. Any surprise, no matter how delightful, could be dismissed as a circumstantial fluke. Each day counted for too much. (Unless you took the equally reasonable view that none of them counted at all.) The season had its individual moments—both wonderful and awful—and it had its broader themes. But it did not have the framework for an arc to tie any of those together.

It did not have space for something like the debut week of Akil Baddoo.

The 22-year-old outfielder was selected by the Tigers over the winter in the Rule 5 Draft. Baddoo was drafted out of high school five years ago by the Twins, and he attracted some notice as a prospect, but Tommy John surgery ruled out most of his 2019 and the pandemic ruled out all of the minor leagues in 2020. This made him something of a mystery when Minnesota left him unprotected for Rule 5 in December: He’d always shown talent, yes, but he hadn’t been in a game situation in almost two years and had never had a chance to play above High-A. What he might look like in the big leagues was an open question.

Now, Baddoo has played in three MLB games. Each has built up his mythology more spectacularly than the last.

On Sunday, he hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat. (The Tigers lost.) On Monday, he hit a grand slam. (The Tigers lost.) On Tuesday, he hit a tenth-inning, walk-off single to beat his former organization, the Twins. (The Tigers, obviously, won.)

These moments would stand out no matter the context. But what makes them feel particularly special here is their narrative arc—how each builds on the last, and the space that is left for them still to grow into something, anything, else.

To hit a home run in your first major-league at-bat is fairytale stuff—the sort of outcome that seems almost too brilliant to dream about. But it is also weirdly common or, at least, not uncommon. It happens almost once a year on average: 123 times since 1901. It’s been done both by Hall of Famers (Earl Averill, Hoyt Wilhelm—a pitcher!) and by guys who never hit a home run again (Luke Stuart, Hack Miller, Dave Machemer, Mark Saccomanno, other names you have forgotten or never knew at all). It’s great! But it is not a miracle. So what can you do that might be even better? The logical progression is to upgrade from a solo home run in your first game to a grand slam in your second. And what can you do next that will be even better than that? No, there’s no individual outcome better than a grand slam, but there’s a team outcome, and that’s a game-winning hit. For extra drama, make it extra innings, make it after you’ve entered late in the game as a pinch runner, make it against the same organization that let you slip away a few months ago. Do not settle for simply being a fun fact. Become a legend.

Baddoo's individual moments from these games have all been done on their own. But they have likely never been done together like this. (Per Elias Sports Bureau, Baddoo is the first player since at least 1900 with two home runs, including one grand slam, and a walk-off hit in his first three games.) And they have almost certainly never been done with such a remarkable sense of timing—for these three games to be strung together in this order? It’s poetry.

Apr 6, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Akil Baddoo (60) celebrates with first base coach Ramon Santiago (39) after hitting a walk off single to win the game in the tenth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park.

Akil Baddoo celebrates with first base coach Ramon Santiago (39) after hitting a walk-off single against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on April 6.

This season is governed by an internal logic that was absent last season—a set of physical rules—and it stands to reason that Baddoo will eventually look mortal. (Perhaps as soon as Wednesday: Detroit plays Minnesota again at 1:10 p.m. ET.) But there is no need to entertain that possibility until it has been made real. It is still early April; there is space to believe in anything, or everything, and to allow it to mean exactly as much as you want it to. There is, after all, a structure for this.

Quick Hits

• The A’s fell to 0-6 after losing (again) to the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw had 8 Ks in a start that looked almost vintage for him, Mookie Betts hit his first home run of the year, and Oakland fell to its worst start to a season since 1916.

• The only undefeated team left in baseball is… the only one that’s played just one game. The Nationals finally started their season after being held up over the weekend due to COVID-19, and though they had to first place nine players on the IL, they won their belated opener against the Braves—on a walk-off from (who else?) Juan Soto.

• Gerrit Cole: still extremely good! (Shocker, we know.) The Yankees ace struck out 13 in seven scoreless innings as part of a 7–2 win over the Orioles.

• Department of Good(-ish) News: Fernando Tatis, Jr. will not need surgery after suffering a partially dislocated left shoulder Monday. After receiving an MRI Tuesday, he was put on the 10-day IL, and though there is no timeline for his return, it’s at least somewhat encouraging that he will not need a procedure that would automatically sideline him for months.