Saturday, March 28, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Jose Valentin

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.


The first and most notable thing about Jose Valentin is the mustache.  Valentin had one of the great mustaches in baseball history, especially when you considered that his heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the great mustache droughts in American history.  Valentin did not sport a huge soup-strainer or a Rollie Fingers-style crazy mustache, but the power of his mustache came from its resiliency-- at a time when American ballplayers abandoned the mustache in droves for goatees and, especially in his era, the long, dripping soul patch, Valentin's mustache remained steadfast.  It is a mustache from another generation, a silent movie mustache with walkup music replaced by an organ blast of diminished chords or the mustache belonging to a 1970s detective who sleeps in a blanket of cigarettes.  In baseball terms, it is the mustache clung to by grizzled first base coach who is slowly turning into an anthropomorphic catcher's mitt.

The thing that I will always remember about Jose Valentin was that for several years in the early 2000s when he was on the White Sox, he absolutely murdered the Chicago Cubs.  I have a lot of thoughts like this; because baseball happens in moments, and the moments that stick in your memory tend to be the ones that are joyous or crushing, I tend to see a player who had a few big at-bats and remember them as a titan only to look up their numbers and realize they had thousands of plate appearances where the statistics suggest that they are flailing at the baseball with a large, novelty sandwich, so it is an absolute delight when the numbers bear out my memories and here they are: in 57 games against the Cubs in his 15 years in baseball, he hit .289/.386/.561.  Valentin was a career .243/.321/.448 hitter, but for 57 games against the team I would have watched him play against, he was 2019 Juan Soto.

There's a basketball video that I really enjoy shot from the stands of a Toronto Raptors game where the Raptors are clinging to a late lead.  Then the Grizzlies get the ball into the hands of Rudy Gay, and the guy filming it screams DEFENSE DEFENSE NO IT'S RUDY GAY! NO!!! NO!!!! NOT THIS GUY! NOT THISSSSS GUUUUYYYYYY AHHHH!!!! and then unleashes a barrage of profanity as Rudy Gay wins the game.

For several years, whenever I saw Jose Valentin in the batter's box, that was my internal monologue.  In 2003, Jose Valentin produced one of the more gut-wrenching sounds a baseball player could produce, the sharp blast of a walk off home run followed by Hawk Harrelson bellowing you can put it on the board.

I do not know if it is strange or deeply understandable that the rivalry in the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan area between the Cubs and White Sox is one of the most bitter, hateful rivalries in baseball for two teams that went 91 years in between games that counted and have played almost no meaningful games-- except in the way that four to six annual regular season baseball games count as meaningful-- since their World Series clash in 1906.   In New York, the rivalry makes sports sense; there's the Yankees, the biggest, richest and most decorated team in baseball that owns a chokehold on the history of the sport, and there's the Mets, a catastrophe.  In Chicago, this dynamic does not really fit because for almost the entirety of the twentieth century both teams were both so completely inept that the last time either team made the World Series before 2005 was in 1959, shortly after Bonanza was regularly broadcast in color.

The seething rivalry between the Cubs and White Sox has been shaped by the geography and the obvious faultlines that entails, but in sheer baseball terms the fans fought over the question of which crappy team was slightly less crappy for decades.  The Cubs were far more famously shitty and leaned into the history with a large cohort of fans driven by WGN's ubiquitous reach into American homes.  White Sox fans instead faced the ignominy of being absolute dreck and not even getting romanticized for it-- the louder Boston Red Sox seized the mantle of the second most snake-bitten team, driven by famous playoff collapses and an army of writers and sports personalities who could, within minutes, appear in a book-lined study to wax rhapsodic about them for Ken Burns.  For years, White Sox fans and Cubs fans were forced to snipe at each other over wins and losses against teams neither would face, only playing occasional exhibition games to slake supporters' bloodlust.  And then in 1997, that all changed.

The early years of interleague play in the city of Chicago arrived in a cloud of festive recrimination with a city ready to boil over into a baseball war between the very people who would spend Sundays united in honking, righteous anger at Dave Wannstedt.  The atmosphere in those early games reached a fever pitch for two fanbases largely unaccustomed to the playoffs.  I remember seeing players come out of both dugouts to watch a brawl happening in the upper deck of Comiskey Park.  The games the year that Sammy Sosa came back from his bat-corking suspension featured fans physically vibrating in anger.  This raucous maelstrom was where Jose Valentin did his most damage.

Valentin left the White Sox in 2005 for the Dodgers, missing the White Sox' World Series victory by a year.  He later ended up, poetically, on the Mets before injuries and age finally caught up to him in his late 30s.  Valentin eventually bought a team in Puerto Rico, and joined them after his career in the majors ended before returning to coach in the minors and majors.  But when I think of Jose Valentin, I see him switch-hitting, chin jutting out, his mustache imperious and stately as he prepares to wreak havoc in an intracity rivalry that means nothing and everything.

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