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The curious case of Mike Jacobs, my new favorite Royal


I think everyone here knows how I feel about Mike Jacobs. It's fair to say that Jacobs not only has a few baseball traits that drive me mad, but he is that actual archetype of a player I cannot stand. He doesn't walk or get on base. He's utterly limited defensively. He doesn't help you on the bases when he actually gets there. He's next to worthless against lefties. He strikes out a lot. A lot. When the Kansas City Royals traded for him this offseason, well, that was my fourth-least favorite move by general manager Dayton Moore.*

*The first three were signing reliever Kyle Farnsworth.

It wasn't that I thought the Royals gave up too much to get Jacobs -- they traded away Leo Nunez, a nice but replaceable middle reliever. So no, it wasn't that. What bugged me was that Jacobs seemed to me exactly the sort of player the Royals did not need and should not get: A no-walk first baseman who is a defensive liability and is getting paid a not-insubstantial $3.25 million. Nothing about that move made sense to me, nothing, not with Moore finally talking sense about improving the team's on-base percentage, not with the the Royals already having a young left-handed-hitting first base prospect -- Kila Ka'aihue -- who had a massive minor league season and who DOES walk and DOES play better defense than Jacobs and DOES NOT cost more than league minimum.

So, no, I did not like the move to get Jacobs, and I still do not like the move to get Jacobs, and so on.

But here's the kick in the head.

I think my new favorite player on the Kansas City Royals is Mike Jacobs.

* * *

I remember the first time I told Bill James that Duane Kuiper was my favorite player growing up. He was amused by this, and he immediate pulled out his new Baseball Abstract and looked in the index to find what he had said about Kuiper. He found my man listed in two places:

Page 555: In the Buddy Bell section (Buddy, another hero, ranked as the 19th-best third baseman ever), Bill pointed out that Buddy was the worst-ever percentage base-stealer (55 for 134, an abysmal 41 percent). And Duane Kuiper was second-worst (52 for 123).

Page 690: Duane had a quote about Rico Carty (59th-ranked left fielder) in Terry Pluto's Curse of Rocky Colavito. The quote: "Rico always played with his wallet in his back pocket. He didn't trust the valuables box in the dressing room. ... besides, he never slid, so it wasn't like something would happen."

Bill seemed just a touch sheepish about my favorite all-time baseball player getting only two rather haphazard mentions in his book, but more than that he had trouble understanding why Duane Kuiper was my favorite player in the first place. Bill's favorite players -- like Amos Otis and Craig Biggio -- always seemed so logical for him. Otis was the perfect Bill James player: Underrated, independent, brilliant at all parts of the game, unyielding, misunderstood. And Biggio was the perfect Bill James player: Underrated, brilliant at all parts of the game, beautiful to the discerning eye.

But Duane ... I never held any illusions that Duane Kuiper was somehow unappreciated. He was probably appreciated fairly. I never argued that he was better that anyone thought. Even though I wanted to be just like him, I never thought he was as good as Joe Morgan or Willie Randolph or Frank White or Lou Whitaker ... He was my favorite player because he was my favorite player. That's all. It came from someplace deeper than logic. As the short kid with thick glasses growing up in Cleveland, I was not blinded to his weaknesses or my own. We both were doing the best that we could.

So if I had to guess at why I have this sudden and rather jolting admiration for Mike Jacobs, it probably has something to do with that, something emotional. It isn't that Jacobs is somehow a better player than I thought he was: He was good all spring and he's had a nice start to the season -- .282, four homers, 10 RBIs -- but I suspect he's just about the same as I expected, a free-swinger who will hit some mistakes out of the park, will punch up a .320 or so on-base percentage, will struggle defensively. My new feelings about Jacobs don't have anything to do with the fact that he seems a good guy, though he does seem to be a good guy and other players on the team seem to like him a lot. My new feelings do not revolve around the fact that when you go to his name on the Internet, you come to a site featuring the lead guitarist from a band called Evil Jake. This isn't even about one of my favorite baseball stories -- Jacobs playing a central character -- when the Florida Marlins decided to give out Jacobs' T-shirts on Jewish Heritage Day only to find out that Jacobs isn't Jewish.*

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*The reason I love that story so much is that the Marlins immediately tried to talk their way out of it by saying, "Oh, no, those are two separate promotions." Yeah. Sure they were. They just happened to decide to give away the T-shirt of a first-year Marlins player with a Jewish-sounding name on Jewish Heritage Day.

No. The reason I have come to like Jacobs and to root for him ... well, I guess it started on what was supposed to be Opening Day in Chicago. The game was snowed-out, and so the Royals had a voluntary workout. Jacobs was there, and it was cold, it was windy, few players were outside. He went to home plate even though there was no pitcher. He dug into the batter's box. He swung at an imaginary pitch. And he hit an imaginary home run. He ran around the bases with his arm in the air, like Tom Berenger in Major League. Now, as someone who loves baseball and Major League and the ridiculous, I can't help but appreciate that.

And so, I started watching Jacobs a bit more closely. And suddenly, involuntarily, I found myself rooting for him. Like I said up top, I don't know exactly why. But I think it's because of this: There's a certain thrill in watching a Mike Jacobs at-bat. He seems -- and I have to say "seems" because I have never asked him about this -- he seems to understand exactly what's happening around him. There's something in his body language, in the joy he seems to get out of baseball, in the way he holds his bat ... he seems to be saying to the pitcher:

"You know, I know, everyone here knows that I have some holes in my swing. And you know, I know, everyone here knows where those holes are located. I'm not going to hit the good fastball up and in. I'm not going to hit the sharp breaking ball. I'll probably chase a pitch when behind in the count -- let's face it, I can't really help myself, those pitches really look good. So, yeah, let's be perfectly honest here: If you throw good pitches, you're probably going to strike me out. And if you're left-handed, you don't even need to throw especially good pitches, you're probably going to get me.

"But ...

"Actually, BUT -- it's a big BUT ...

"But if you make a mistake, I'm going to freaking hit the ball 700 miles."

Maybe this is all just made up in my mind. I don't think so -- I think this is really the Mike Jacobs attitude. And anyway, it doesn't matter, that's what I see. When Bruce Springsteen sings The Wrestler, I hear him sing "Have you ever seen a scarecrow in a field with nothing but dust and weeds?/If you've ever seen that scarecrow then you've seen me." Those aren't the precise lyrics, but I've decided that I don't care, that's what I hear. We have to be allowed to interpret the game; that's what's fun about being a fan.

And so, I have come to see every Mike Jacobs at-bat as a struggle against the odds. And I love it. I have started counting down batters to when he comes to the plate. I have come to really zone in when he steps in there; I like watching every part of his at-bats, even the strikeouts. I guess if I could explain it another way: I used to love, love, love a boxer named Earnie Shavers. My favorite non-Ali fighter. Hardest puncher I ever saw -- he was a lot like the young Mike Tyson. Knocked out Ron Lyle in the first round. Knocked out Ken Norton in the first round. Knocked out Jimmy Ellis with one punch (Ellis had him in trouble seconds early ... you can go to 1:06 if you just want to see the punch):

There was more. He knocked down Larry Holmes in their fight (though Holmes later knocked him out ... that's a big part of the Earnie story). He hit Muhammad Ali so hard that Ali said "it shook my kinfolk back in Africa." He pounded Tiger Williams so savagely that Tiger actually collapsed to the ground 10 seconds after he took the final punch. I've often thought Earnie Shavers would be a great book because despite being perhaps the hardest puncher in the history of boxing, he was never champion. This is because he was not an especially great boxer. He could be hurt, he could be outboxed, he did not believe much in defense, he tired in the late rounds. And for a great puncher, he was not a great finisher, which sounds like a conflict, but they are really two separate things. Shavers could hurt you but that didn't mean he could take you out.

Point is, I always thought Shavers went into the fight the way Jacobs goes into an at-bat. He seemed to understand his limitations. And if you could avoid Earnie's big right hand, if you could get up off the floor, if you could land big punches, if you could take the fight into the later rounds, you would beat him. But he wanted you to know that if you left yourself open, and he caught you, you might not get up.*

*My understanding is that after he finished boxing, Earnie moved to England and he became a minister, which would only make the book better. I'm not sure who is buying that book but ... I'd like it.

There's something about that struggle that speaks to me. Sure it's fun to watch Albert Pujols hit and watch Johan Santana pitch, but I'm just not sure how close you can get to that sort of genius.

The weird thing is that my opinion about Mike Jacobs as a baseball player has not changed at all. As a baseball evaluator I still see all his weaknesses outweighing his strengths. As a GM, I would not have traded for him. But as a baseball fan ... I just enjoy the heck out of watching him step to the plate, kill or be killed. The other day he faced Cleveland's Jensen Lewis, and he took a high fastball for a ball, and then watched a 90-mph fastball go by that was right in his wheelhouse, I mean the perfect Mike Jacobs pitch -- 90 mph, just above the knees, outside but caught too much of the plate. That's the sort of pitch you only get once, and you could see Jacobs grimace for a second as if to say, "Man, that was it."

Two pitches later, stunningly, Jensen Lewis threw that exact pitch again. This time it was 87 mph. And this time Jacobs did swing. He jumped out of his shoes to swing. And he hit it 700 miles to center field. It clanked off the railing out there, bounced behind a wall, an absolute mammoth shot. Will he do that enough to make himself a valuable player? Maybe not. But, yeah, it will be fun every time he does it.