The 751st Best Player in Baseball (March 25, 2014)

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Scottsdale Stadium feels nothing like Phoenix. It’s much too green for the desert—besides the infield and outfield grass, the ballpark is ringed with grass hills for seating, complete with trees scattered here and there for shade. It’s cool, too, because it’s a Friday night game, and temperatures have fallen to just above 60 degrees, well beyond the scorching midday rates. And whether because of some earlier celebratory fireworks, settling moisture in the air, or just a trick of the light, a mist has settled around the flood lights. All this, combined with the modesty of the stadium (there is just one deck, and almost all the seats are bleachers) creates an overall effect of a minor league ballpark somewhere in, say, Ohio. It’s the Platonic ideal of baseball.

In the visitor’s dugout, Oakland A’s catcher Stephen Vogt doesn’t sit still. During and between innings, he’s up and down the dugout line, slapping teammates on the knee and chatting up anyone who will stop and listen. The game moves on as the hours wane, the San Francisco Giants take a slim 1–0 lead, and Vogt keeps patrolling the bench.

In the bottom of the eighth, he comes in as a defensive replacement for John Jaso. It’s a tough inning; pitcher Jim Johnson throws a ball wide and in the dirt that Vogt can’t get to. The scorer calls it a passed ball, but Vogt pounds his glove anyway. Two runs score, giving the Giants a 3–0 lead. Then in the top of the ninth, Vogt comes up with one out, to face the Giants ace closer, Sergio Romo. It’s no contest—Vogt fouls off one pitch, but watches a called third strike go right by.

The A’s lose. That doesn’t matter. Wins and losses have nothing to do with spring training. Stats don’t matter either—at least for those guaranteed a roster spot. For a team’s superstars, top prospects and reliable veterans, what matters is how they feel—what shape they’re in, how their knees are holding up, whether they can get full extension on their swings. But then there are the fringe players: the utility guys, middle inning relievers, and backup catchers fighting for those last few spots.

For those guys—and Vogt is without a doubt in that group—every at bat counts.

Read the rest at Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/stephen-vogt-may-end-751st-best-player-baseball-238309

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