Photo Credit: John Lott
On Tuesday night, David Aardsma took to Twitter and struck a blow for baseball’s proletariat:
— David Aardsma (@TheDA53) March 22, 2016
So the next morning, I walk up to his locker in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. “I’m here to do your cover story,” I announce.
Aardsma breaks into a big grin. His tweet was a joke, a jibe at the monotonous magazine covers that feature baseball’s most familiar stars at this time of year.
“I’d love to see a cover with three guys that no one has ever heard of,” he says. “And only one of them is going to make the team. Have some fun with it, rather than having the same people on the cover that everybody already knows.”
Aardsma was having fun with it, but it soon became clear that his thesis had a serious side. And he certainly is an ideal candidate for such a cover. For the fourth straight spring, he is fighting on the fringes for a final bullpen spot, against men who are his friends in an odd community of castoffs. The previous three years he didn’t make it.
And yet as he embarks on a 14th pro season at age 34, Aardsma posits that guys like him are often vital to a team, even as they dwell in the shadows. That has become his raison d’être and his motivation, and on Tuesday, he sought to put an amusing Twitter twist on that notion.
“I think the average fan often misses out on the real battles in spring training,” he says. “There’s a lot of faces behind those battles. Those battles often end up I think determining where the team goes a lot of times. What is comes down to is the 23rd, 24th, 25th guys on those rosters that make good teams great and make bad teams worse. Those are the guys you need down the road for some really important innings.
“There’s so many guys in camp whose careers depend on this spring training, guys whose careers are riding on the last week of spring training. And you never really hear about them.”
Photo Credit: John Lott
So here’s to David Aardsma, whose last name puts him first on the alphabetical listing of all-time major leaguers (he bumped Hank Aaron), and who, over a dappled nine years in The Show, has occasionally proven quite valuable, most notably in 2009 and 2010 when he saved 69 games, logged a 2.90 ERA and struck out 129 in 121 innings for the Seattle Mariners.
All of that came after he’d posted a 5.55 ERA for the Red Sox in 2008. With relievers, you just never know.
And with Aardsma, the brief glory years gave way to Tommy John surgery and a nomad’s journey: three failed spring-training bids, a full season in the minors, 77 games in the majors and five sets of release papers. Now, with 331 big-league games behind him and a career 4.27 ERA, he’s in the Blue Jays’ camp on another minor-league contract, trying to convince management to pick him out of a crowd.
“I kind of knew going in that there weren’t going be a whole lot of spots available, but my mindset has to be that that’s my spot,” he says. “Everyone has to watch out for me. You have to have that mindset, and if you don’t, you’re not going to get that spot.”
Everywhere he’s gone in recent years, he’s seen familiar faces. And if they’re not familiar at first, they soon become so.
Twenty feet away in the Blue Jays’ locker room stands Steve Delabar, like Aardsma a former star reliever fighting for a job.
“Delabar and I have crossed paths hundreds of times, but we’ve never played together until now,” Aardsma said. “You’re all like-minded and you’re all in the same little circle so you end up playing catch together, you end up throwing BPs together, you end up sitting in the bullpen together. You realize, these are all the guys that are trying to take my job and I’m trying to take their job. It’s funny how that works out.”
He says his friends believe he must “wish the worst” upon his fellow competitors. He doesn’t. They’re his friends and kindred spirits.
“No,” he says, “I just want myself to be better.”
In certain games over a long season, the David Aardsmas of the world matter to a big-league team. Your bullpen is gassed from last night’s game. Your team is down 8-4 in the fifth inning. In comes your long man and holds the deficit in tact for two, maybe three innings. Maybe your team rallies to win, maybe not. At worst, you have a rested bullpen for the next night.
Aardsma has been that long man.
“I don’t get any sort of decision at all, you never see it on the scorebook, but it makes a difference,” he says. “Last year in Washington I threw three innings. The last time I threw three innings was eight years ago. But what it did was save the rest of the bullpen. The next day it’s a close game. All those guys [in the bullpen] didn’t have to throw and now we’re fresher than the other team and we win that game.”
And occasionally, a seemingly failed middle reliever rises from the ashes, helps push a team to the playoffs and makes himself rich in the process. Hands up, Blue Jays fans, if you can think of an example.
This right-hander came to Mariners’ camp last year with a career 4.16 ERA and 4.26 FIP, failed to make the opening-day roster and spent April in the minors. Called up in May, he posted a 1.00 ERA and 1.88 FIP over the next three months, came to the Jays in a deadline trade and became a key bullpen contributor down the stretch.
A free agent after the season, he signed a two-year, $11-million deal with the Tigers. It was a nice year for Mark Lowe.
When Lowe was sent down a year ago, “he was probably a little side note,” Aardsma says. “ ‘Remember Mark Lowe? He didn’t make the team.’ Somebody on Twitter probably went, ‘He sucks. His career’s over with.’ ”
Those are familiar words to Aardsma. But with a week to go in spring training, he’s still in big league camp, still single-minded, still confident he can help.
He is scheduled to pitch in his fifth exhibition game on Thursday. In each of his first two, he gave up a run in one inning. In each of his next two, also one-inning stints, he gave up no runs. It is hardly an eye-opening sample, but he says he is pleased.
“I think it’s gone awesome,” he says. “The only game I’m not happy with was my very first one, and it wasn’t really that bad.
“I haven’t been throwing as much as I want to. The starters are throwing a heck of a lot. But I’ve also thrown on the minor-league side. That’s the only thing: I just wish I was on the major-league mound more often to show them what I have. But I think they have a really good idea what I have.”
As spring training winds down, Aardsma recites the same mantra that managers trot out at this time of year. A roster is always changing. Teams need depth.
“A major-league team is never just 25 guys,” he says. “There’s a heck of a lot more guys that go into that over a season. Good teams make sure they have a great support group.”
And maybe one day, David Aardsma will land on a cover in one of those groups, surrounded by a bunch of guys no one has ever heard of, under a headline that reads: #WeCount.
But not anytime soon. On Friday, the Blue Jays assigned Aardsma to minor-league camp.