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A Hard Man to Understand

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I stopped going to classes. It wasn’t that I had better things to do; I spent a month trying to learn how to play the "B" chord on a guitar. Sometimes I would skip class, stay home and read the textbook. On those days I would wake up, shower, dress, and get ready to leave. When the time came to open the door to my dorm room and walk to class, I just… wouldn’t. I’d conjure some imagined stomach pains or blame insomnia. Then the next day, I’d imagine what it would be like to come back when everyone knew I wasn’t there the previous day, and I’d stay home then, too. It became a cycle. There were some classes I signed up for and then never attended even once.

It’s embarrassing to reflect back on that part of my life, not only for my academic failures, but for the sheer egoism I displayed. I imagined vengeful TAs and snickering classmates when in fact I was just a particularly faceless young man in a school of twenty-four thousand. I felt no connection to the teachers or students around me. No one noticed I was missing, except the professors who submitted the grades at the end of each quarter. It’s easy to look back on that part of my life and realize on the fact that there was really something wrong with me. At the time, though, I couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) grasp the entirety of my situation; the moment the time came, I treated it as only a moment. That’s what falling feels like; you don’t have time to think about it because you’re too busy falling.

...

Run a search for "Rey Quinones" and the majority of the articles you’ll find will be about departure. They’ll utter the names of Spike Owen and Dave Henderson, who left the Mariners in exchange for Quinones in 1986. Or they’ll talk about Mike Dunne and Mark Merchant, the prospects Pittsburgh gave up two years later. The stories are rarely about Quinones himself, only his price. When the Pirates tired of him three months after his latest deal, they found no one left to trade with, so they cut him mid-season. They didn’t even consider sending him to the minors; they just wanted to be rid of him.

Assembling the story of Rey Quinones is like doing a puzzle with half the pieces missing. His name appears throughout the usual sports page fare. He’s a collection of numbers, usually errors, tacked into the third line of game recaps. He’s a series of anecdotes by beat writers, each more improbable and hilarious than the last. He’s a name to be thrown out on deadline day, the trade rehash, the remember-when article. But the one familiar article you never find for Rey Qunones is the "Where Are They Now?" piece. No one asks. No one cares to know.

There was never a question as to whether the kid could play. He had range to spare, plenty of pop in his bat, enough athleticism to make scouts smile. Everyone agreed that Quinones could have been a star. Ted Williams described him as perhaps being a "Frank Robinson at shortstop", a picture that assaults the imagination. Mariners team trainer Rick Griffin claimed that he could throw a ball from home plate into the second deck of center field.

And yet what we have now are the anecdotes. The most famous of them was the time that Quinones was unavailable to pinch hit one game because he was back in the clubhouse playing Nintendo. (To be fair, he was on World 8-4 of Super Mario Bros.) He failed to show for the start of Spring Training in 1987; when questioned, he claimed that he’d had visa problems. Team president Chuck Armstrong had to remind him that you don’t need a visa to leave Puerto Rico, a U.S. protectorate. Perhaps even deadlier to his reputation were his on-field foibles; despite his strong arm, he often lobbed his throws to first, and booted the routine plays. He showed little in the way of concentration. He left his team without notice or permission to attend his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, missing several games. He suffered from mysterious, nagging injuries that never showed up on the machines. It’s as though the simple act of being Quinones was too exhausting for Quinones.

Former teammate and fellow Puerto Rican Henry Cotto once said, simply, "Rey Quinones is hard to understand." Three general managers, three coaching staffs, three sets of scouts glimpsed the reserve of natural talent. Three organizations found themselves unable to discern what, exactly, went on in the shortstop’s head. Nor could they find the location of his heart, but it never seemed to be with baseball. Quinones told reporters early in his career that he didn’t need baseball, because he owned a liquor store in Puerto Rico he could live off of. The following exchange, reported by Kirby Arnold in "Tales from the Mariners Dugout", comes closest to approximating Quinones’ mindset:

[Chuck] Armstrong was walking through the Mariners’ clubhouse before a game when manager Dick Williams called him into his office. Armstrong walked in and saw Quinones there with Williams and general manager Dick Balderson. "Rey, tell Chuck what you just told us," Williams said.

"I’m a good shortstop, right?" Quinones said.

"You’re a very good shortstop, Rey," Armstrong told him.

"I could be the best shortstop in the American League," Quinones said.

"Yes you could," Armstrong replied.

"I’m so good," Quinones continued, "that I don’t need to play every day."

Armstrong was stunned as Quinones continued.

"I don’t need to play every day, and you have other guys who should play so they can get better," Quinones said. "So I don’t need to play tonight."

When we were kids, my friends and I would tear up any Rey Quinones baseball card we saw; if we found it at a shop, we’d pay the nickel for it so that we could rip it apart. He was the team villain. The ignominy of Rey Quinones is tempered only by his own obscurity. His antics were nestled within a string of ninety-loss seasons, and the well-known shortstop he replaced, Spike Owen, hit a robust .234 in his time in Seattle. In Pittsburgh his legacy is somewhat more tarnished; it’s rare for a team to lose prospects who unanimously washed out of the league, and have the trade still be seen as a loss. It played no small part in costing general manager Larry Doughty his job. The three months Quinones spent as a Pirate were that bad. When the team cut him, Jim Leyland didn’t hold back: "I thought we were getting someone who wasn’t the best of guys but had talent," the Pittsburgh manager said. "We got a guy who was a good guy but didn’t show talent." He added: "I can put up with errors, but not errors with no effort."

Professional baseball players are held to a different standard than the general population. They’re required to play through physical pain. They can’t call in sick on their birthday. We accept these things, and we’re generally in agreement that players are compensated financially for their efforts. What’s interesting is that we’re far more accommodating as fans for a player’s physical shortcomings than their mental ones. When a player isn’t very good at their job because of the limitations of their skills, we accept it; we’ve seen our share of players like Jeff Kunkel and Rafael Ramirez. But when it comes to the psychological aspect of the job, there is no quarter. Quinones was immature, a head case; there was no help, no place for him. When the Pirates cut him, the shock brought him to tears. He had claimed he didn’t need baseball; baseball, as it turned out, didn’t need him.

...

The more pieces of Quinones’ puzzle I put together, the more disturbing the picture became. There’s the story of the start of his final season, in 1989. Like usual, spring training had begun and Quinones was the only Mariner yet to report. This time, however, he couldn’t be reached by telephone, and neither his close friends nor his brother could make contact. "I’m his roommate and sometimes he listens to me," Mario Diaz said. "I would like to talk to him but I know how difficult that is. We don’t live that far apart in Puerto Rico, but I never saw or talked to him this winter. Nobody sees Rey during the off-season." New general manager Woody Woodward began with salary threats, but was eventually forced to send two scouts to find him. When they reached his home, his wife told the scouts that he wasn’t there. They soon spotted him anyway – hiding in a house across the street, peering through the curtains. He agreed to return to America with them, but he wasn’t gone for long.

After being cut by the Pirates, Quinones returned home to his home in the rough neighborhood of Rio Piedras. The Rangers declared interest in the young shortstop, but he turned them down. He joined the Santurce ballclub during the Winter Leagues, in hopes of impressing another club, and hit well. After a few weeks, he started showing up late for games. Soon, he wasn’t showing up at all.

...

I’m not sure exactly how, but I managed to turn things around in college. There was no epiphany, no magical moment of inspiration. After an endless string of false starts and disappointments, of broken resolutions, one stuck. I made it to class, and then I made it to another. I made the quarterly Dean’s list after having failed all three classes the quarter before; I hung the certificate on my fridge with ironic pride. I slipped through the giant emotionless university system with a liberal arts degree, a 2.5 GPA, and a little bit of hope. Eventually I spent four more years of college and got my Master's in teaching. Now I’m the authority figure that terrified me as a student.

I see kids that act like Rey Quinones all the time. They get sucked into the culture of failure that surrounds their socioeconomic status, and lower their expectations to meet their pessimism. Like Quinones, they struggle with language barriers that prevent them from expressing themselves the way they wish they could be heard. They turn to defense mechanisms, irreverence or sullenness, or they just stop showing up. It’s my job to catch these kids, to make sure they understand the opportunities they have, and to keep them from going through what I did. I haven’t always succeeded; I’m not that good a teacher yet. But my peak years are still ahead.

I don’t know Rey Quinones. Few people have, I think. None of the articles I read ever seem to share much of his side of the story. But I wonder if he ever had the support he needed to be the Frank Robinson of shortstops. Mental illness in sports has come a long way since 1989, but the stigma of being a "head case" still rests on the player, and the team is still seen as being helpless in dealing with the player’s antics. How much responsibility lies where is impossible and irresponsible for me to claim. I don’t know what could have been done. All I know is that in the end, I came away feeling something that I never expected to feel about a lazy, lackluster baseball player: pity.

There’s one last piece of the puzzle. Quinones’ name shows up in one final strange, sad story. Last month the 20th Annual Cabin Fever Auction was held in Bristol, Connecticut. Among the items for bid: a 1996 New York Yankees World Series ring. The ring was given to a member of the Yankees’ administrators by the name of Rey Quinones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s little information about how Quinones joined or left the Yankees, or how the ring made its way to auction (where it sold for $14,153.00). We’re left to wonder whether that ring helped cover the operation costs of a little liquor store in Rio Piedras.

(Note: This article was originally published on April 24, 2012 at Pitchers & Poets.)

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