By James Fegan
Just a month ago, Major League Baseball held its First-Year Player Draft. Even with the bloat of fan voting and injury replacements, it’s a study in contrast from the selective process of the All-Star Game. Before the first night is over, the focus has shifted from prospects to projects, and before long after that, organizations are doing little more than stacking bodies to line the gauntlet that every player must endure to even make the major leagues.
After the first round, the statistical odds of finding an impactful player become shockingly miniscule. For example, Kevin Tapani is the greatest player to be selected 40th overall. 45th overall has never seen anyone post as much career success as the injury-prone Jed Lowrie, and things diminish swiftly from there on.
In that vein, imagine the odds of a player in which an organization has a made far smaller investment, such as the Mets when they signed a 17 year-old Jose Quintana as an amateur free agent out of Colombia in 2006, or perhaps spend more consideration on his odds a little over a year later, when he was released and had a positive PED test on his resume. When the Sox picked him as a minor league free agent in 2011, when he had already been released by two organizations without having ever made it above A-ball, that was somehow not his nadir.
By the time Quintana had finished his first season in 2012, clearly running out of gas down the stretch and barely fending off a league that was threatening expose his then-limited arsenal and eat him alive, he was already one of the most successful minor league free agent signings of all-time. Let alone when he fashioned himself a plus curveball, gained three miles per hour on his fastball, filled out his once slight six-foot, two-inch frame into the body of durable 200-inning per year horse, and sharpened his command to stand among the best in baseball, all of it done seemingly on the fly.
The All-Star Game has done a good job in recent year convincing us that it doesn’t matter. Between frenzied ballot stuffing during the fan vote, philosophical gulfs between traditional and statistical valuation of performance, players both coasting in on reputation and half-season flukes getting rewarded, and all those darn middle relievers making the team, it’s become necessary to look beyond the All-Star roster to have a discussion on the best players in the league.
Indeed, to appreciate and discuss Quintana, it’s become necessary to look beyond public recognition of almost any kind. Poor run support and the Sox relegation to also-ran status during his tenure have kept him off win total leaderboards and off televisions for any primetime late-season matchups, and despite improving his English as dramatically as he has his pitching, he’s been removed from most marketing pushes.
It’s been useful for sanity’s sake to stop viewing players as a chosen few getting millions of dollars to play a kids game and fulfill their dreams, but dogged professionals who have been training and doggedly preparing for their careers since their high school years. That kind of approach makes it easier to understand their motivations and decisions, but can also give an event like the All-Star Game the air of a corporate awards banquet, and seem every bit as vestigial as the average corporate retreat.
But then there comes Quintana, rising above odds absurd for a league that already counts its long odds as a virtue, keenly aware of the improbability of his life and his shared status with Julio Teheran as the only Colombian pitchers in the majors. Recognition for his amazing path is so overdue, that every trinket, every injury-aided honor feels momentarily less like fodder for partisan cheering and more like justice.
“This seems like a dream,” Quintana told WSCR’s Bruce Levine.
Which is the whole point. The compromised selection process and the business-like nature of the game hasn’t diluted the meaning for Quintana, and if the game can’t reward the players who truly care, and actually fulfill the baseball Horatio Alger narratives we have tried to convince ourselves to stop craving, then what would be the point?