Ballplayer On The Brink of Strange Record

Matt Stairs is fairly certain this will be his last season playing professional baseball. Check that. He’s only sort of sure. And truth be told, he can totally see himself playing next year and furthering the record he’s about to set.

“Every year around this time I say this is it, I’m done,” he said. “Then I come back. I thought Toronto was the last place I was going to be playing. That was two teams ago.”

The 42-year-old Stairs slipped into workout gear affixed with the San Diego Padres’ insignia. Baseball’s greatest nomad has worn more logos than Pepsi. If Stairs makes the Padres’ opening day roster, it will mark his 12th major league team, the most for a position player and testament to his unparalleled staying power.

His journey took him from Montreal to Boston to Oakland to Chicago to Milwaukee to Pittsburgh to Kansas City to Texas to Detroit to Toronto to Philadelphia, with stopovers in 11 more minor league cities and a stint in Japan, and now to San Diego, where he wants to scratch out another season as a pinch hitter. Pitchers Mike Morgan and Ron Villone, owners of always-in-demand rubber arms, played for 12 teams apiece. A position player has never done that, unless you count catcher Deacon McGuire, who was with 11 teams and wore 12 uniforms. His 1891 Washington Statesmen became the Washington Senators the next year, and if McGuire was as pious as his nickname suggests, surely he’d cede the record to Stairs alone.

He earned it. Stairs plays the sort of entertaining baseball seen more often in beer-league softball than billion-dollar baseball. His left-handed swing better resembles an Earnie Shavers uppercut than a honed baseball skill. Stairs’ aggressiveness and single-mindedness – he is the rare baseball player who admits he tries to hit home runs in every at-bat – fit perfectly with his body type: short (5-foot-8) and stout (220 pounds), with a protruding belly that made him look like a pocket-sized Babe Ruth.

Gone this spring is Stairs’ trademark gut, a sacrifice necessary for survival into his 40s. To lose it, Stairs spent Wednesdays and Sundays playing hockey in a rec league in Bangor, Maine. A senior league, actually, which outlawed slap shots and checks. “You weren’t supposed to, at least,” Stairs said.

Between the games that saw him on ice for up to an hour straight and his new NutriSystem diet – Stairs laughs, knowing all the athletes who endorse NutriSystem on TV are retired – he finds himself at 193 pounds, the lightest he’s been since the Montreal Expos encouraged him to add a few pounds in the early ’90s.

Stairs didn’t quite realize the team meant muscle, so he figured he had carte blanche to eat and drink what he desired. So grew his middle section, ever endearing himself to the Expos fans who loved the countryman from Fredericton, New Brunswick, about 350 miles east. Never did Stairs get a chance in Montreal, nor in Boston. He found his greatest success as an archetypal Moneyball player with Oakland, one who didn’t look like catwalk material in uniform but walked and hit for power.

In the two years the Athletics gave him more than 500 at-bats, Stairs slugged .522 and had an OPS 31 percent better than league average. Had he been given similar playing time earlier in his career, Stairs may not have taken on the reputation as a journeyman that chases him today.

It also allows him a clear path to employment. Stairs fills a role: He is a left-handed pinch hitter. Every team needs one. Few are as good as him. His 19 pinch-hit home runs – including five last year – are one short of Cliff Johnson’s major league record. Stairs learned at the foot of the Ayatollah of pinch hitting, Lenny Harris – himself an eight-teamer – as teammates in Milwaukee.

“You need to accept pinch hitting,” Stairs said. “One at-bat is your time. I try to take positives out of it. The manager has the faith that I’m a guy in a certain situation. Fans get fired up when a good pinch hitter comes to the plate. The biggest thing is you have to accept it.

“If you accept being a pinch hitter and respect it and know it’s hard and do whatever you can to stay right, you can have success,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to stink. If you think, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to hit,’ you’re screwed.”

Even when embracing the role, players fall into pinch-hitting abysses that last for what seem like eons. Stairs hit a home run July 11 last year. His next hit came Sept. 10, when he smacked a ninth-inning grand slam. In between, he went hitless in 30 at-bats, and it exemplified his all-or-nothing approach.

“That is such a difficult role to succeed in, to be productive,” Padres manager Bud Black said. “To come to the park at 2 and hit at 9:30, one at-bat, in most cases, against the other teams’ best relievers, it’s not easy to perform.”

And yet, Stairs’ greatest at-bat came in a pinch role. His pinch-hit home run against Jonathan Broxton buried the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2008 playoffs and led to the Phillies’ World Series victory. It was a win for short, fat guys everywhere.

Last October, Stairs felt comfortable with his accomplishments: 17 seasons, 259 home runs, more than 5,000 at-bats – all among the best for Canadians. He took a job as hitting coach at the University of Maine and planned on coaching his 16-year-old daughter’s softball team and set up baseball clinics for the summer. He was ready to announce his retirement in late January when he received a call from his agent, Bob Garber, whom he had told, “Don’t talk to me until you get me a job.”

Garber said the Padres wanted Stairs, the perfect veteran complement for a team teeming with young players. His wife and three daughters gave Stairs the go-ahead, urging him to go after the team record and pinch-hit record and hit a home run with a record-tying 11th team, Montreal being his only homerless stop. His response: “I’m not worried about records. I’m worried about my body breaking down.”

It’s held up so far, and who knows how much longer Stairs can last? Jamie Moyer is pitching at age 47, Tim Wakefield and Omar Vizquel plying their trades at 43. Stairs has a home run this spring and three more shots to the warning track, and if he needs a little extra oomph, he can always eat a couple burgers and drink some beer and get back to 200 pounds.

Whatever it takes to stay relevant. Stairs has managed to do it this long, and there’s plenty left to accomplish. Twelve teams down, 18 to go.

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Posted in BaseBall, Sports.

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