“The goal for me was always to start in the major-leagues, and to say that I did that is pretty cool. Can you say that?” –Joe Biagini
When a season is plagued by general baseball disillusionment, and your beloved team is stuck at the almost-bottom (oh, hey there Giants and Royals), you need all the little victories you can get. You need the fun, individual narratives of success to focus on, if only to transcend those overall feelings of loss. (A life metaphor as much as it is a baseball truth, of course.)
Yesterday we were gift wrapped and delivered one such tiny big triumph, when now legendary jokester Joe Biagini—Rule 5 guy, lover of cured meats, and patron saint of the socially awkward—stepped up and out of the bullpen, and started his first major league baseball game.
On Sunday, thanks to what feels like a never-ending onslaught of injury, Biagini made a somewhat unexpected spot start in Florida against the Tampa Bay Rays. In four innings he threw 52 pitches—the most for him in MLB to date, and 37 of which were strikes—resulting in one unearned run on two hits, and leading his team to a tight 2–1 victory. The whole tableau felt like a real (if minor) reason to celebrate, especially in the second month of a season where there hasn’t been much to celebrate at all. With all the blister, split nail, sore elbow and tight arm drama we’ve been weathering, this now temperamental fan base found a temporary Sunday afternoon reason to rejoice.
Biagini—the player and the person—is equally compelling for the things he is not as for the things that he is. (A really good pitcher and a lovely surprise.) He’s not a Justin Verlander, or Clayton Kershaw, or Jake Arrieta type. He’s not an aloof, crisp, and refined smooth-talking superstar, nor is he the traditional baseball success story. In December of 2015 he was a relative nobody plucked out by the Jays as part of the Rule 5 draft pick, and at the age of twenty-five appeared as a reliever on their 2016 Opening Day roster. Biagini soon distinguished himself as the team’s self-anointed jester, each offbeat interview an unpredictable, wacky, must-see performance that in some ways lightly mocked the entire conceit of sports stardom itself.
By all appearances, Biagini has an earnest, adorably goofy, slightly disheveled aspect to his character—one that he seems to wholly, happily, and admirably embrace. His general unlikeliness is only emphasized by those high five failures and less than typical signature scrum appearances. He appeals to us in part because so many can relate to what he presents—ill-timed jokes to belie any nerves under pressure, an ability to laugh at himself and the situation at hand, and an oft-discussed self-articulated awkwardness he’s come to accept. Most importantly, Sunday showcased a willingness to step up when it’s expected of him, even if he’s the unexpected (and maybe a little uncomfortable) pick.
“It was important for me to not overthink it,” Biagini told Sportsnet of the start post game. “Take it one inning at a time — or two innings at a time, if you can juggle that.”
Yesterday’s win—“a different special thing,” as Biagini himself put it—certainly didn’t have the same absurdist baseball qualities as a position player pitching in a dire situation, or that recent anomaly of Marcus Stroman pinch hitting in the 11th. The believers among us all knew Biagini could do this when the moment eventually presented itself, and ultimately his successful performance is not really a surprise. Yet his time on the mound was, in it’s own delightful way, a kind of welcome weirdness in the darkness. During a mostly dead last start to the season, it’s not only nice to take in an “event” game such as this, but to see teammates rally around a player trying something new the way they did Biagini. The support and advice they offered only emphasizes that despite how bad things have been, these guys continue to stand up for and support each other—maybe a small solace, but a necessary one nonetheless.
So, how did Mr. Biagini himself feel about his first start? “I probably smell worse than I do after bullpen outings because of the more length of time letting it kind of stew a little bit,” he said in that comical yet ultimately meaningful post game scrum. “You guys can cut that out if you want to. Just trying to be real.”
Given how Jays fans have been floundering in a pit of their own baseball sadness for the last many weeks, the general joy and levity, and the accompanying personal success story, is certainly more than welcome. Further, it looks like this is just the beginning for our Joe—reports have him starting again within the week. Even if we can’t get all the wins and player wellness we wanted, we can at least watch one of baseball’s more enjoyable unlikely hero narratives play out before us—and maybe even laugh a little while it does.