I love a good story. And that's the appeal of sports, really—those good stories. Winning a lot of games makes for a good story. Winning a title makes for an even better one. But of course, there are many other stories. The vast majority of sports stories are those other stories. Roenis Elias' time with the Mariners was one of those other good stories.
To those more versed than me, Roenis Elias' story began far earlier than when he initially entered my field of view. Well, when I first noticed has nothing to do with when his story actually began, but 2014 spring training is the central moment from where I'd work forward and back. I think, for many M's fans, that's when we all started to take notice.
There'd been much talk that spring about who'd fill out the end of the rotation. Roenis Elias was not initially part of it, with mostly-forgotten names like Randy Wolf and Scott Baker taking precedent. Then, all of a sudden, there was Elias.
His name started to bubble up after a couple appearances, and Lloyd decided to give him a real look. It lined up such that he'd get a Sunday start against the Angels picked up by MLB.tv, so I set aside some time to watch.
That was all it took. A beautiful over-the-top curveball spotted on the outside corner for a punchout looking. That's ball. It's just spring, but that's as good as the game gets—in those simple moments.
But I didn't want it to be simple. I wanted it to mean something, and I wanted it to be real. So I wrote some dumb thing about how the Mariners were going have him try to stick just one arm angle, and maybe this would give him a bit more control and maybe that would mean they really had something.
Well, he was up again the following Sunday, again broadcast in some capacity. And I should've learned something, not misidentified the pitch, but it looked just so damn good.
Jeff at USSM would eventually educate us on this being a regular intentional thing, but I honestly failed to pick it up at the time—as hapless as the lefty batters he was practically pitching to from behind their backs.
But anyway, kid did great, and that was that. Someone who'd entered March as a no-name non-prospect from double-A would break camp with the big club.
I think we all remember the first start, that Thursday night in Oakland. I remember I was in Orlando for a conference for work, at which I was shooting a number of video interviews. As a result, I had a booth with a TV with some high-speed internet, combining both with MLB.tv and watching the game late at night as the event's attendees strolled by on their way back to their rooms from the bar.
Really, any one of those random individuals two to six drinks deep could've fared better at calling a strike zone than Sean Barber—who, while potentially robbing the Mariners of one more win in a season that'd desperately need it, at least gave us this:
I always loved that. Elias, with that Scotty Smalls extended brim pulled way over his eyes, always the resilient competitor. That resiliency was a central theme in Elias' story, though by no means the only aspect. Following a start in Texas, Lloyd McClendon said:
"He came off of a boat," McClendon said. "I don't think facing Prince Fielder is really going to scare him that much. He was fighting for his life trying to make it to this country. He's shown a lot of poise."
I used that quote in an extensive post on Elias' immigration from Cuba, that daunting trip across the water to Mexico. The Cuban immigration process a subject that isn't talked about nearly enough in baseball circles, making researching the piece all the more difficult. But after digging and digging, much information pointed towards Elias' treacherous journey to the United States closely intersecting with new Mariner Leonys Martin's—whose defection included at one point being held hostage with other players, potentially Elias.
But again, that's part of the story, but not all of it. Is there appeal in overcoming adversity to be the cocky Cuban junkballer? Absolutely. But none of that would matter had he not been so damn fun when he was on. There's another start we'll get to in a moment, but for me, the persona that was Roenis Elias was never underscored more perfectly than him going into the Bronx and just straight doin' work:
Six hits, two earned runs, a pair of walks and ten strikeouts. One of those hits was a solo home run by Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off the game. Elias was not impressed:
"I was thinking, `Wow, the first batter,’" Elias said. "I was shocked that Ellsbury was able to get around on me."
That's just who he was. He didn't give but a second of thought to who was in the box. That much was clear.
Didn't matter who you were. Hall-of-Famer on a farewell tour? Still getting that yakker right at your back foot when the situation calls for it.
Of course, the high-point of Elias' tenure was the three-hit complete game shutout against Detroit in June. Still then among the best teams in baseball, Elias toyed with the Tigers on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June.
That alone would be remarkable enough, but there's this anecdote at the end I'll always remember, which I wrote about at the time.
Facing what may have been the best 2-3-4 in the game—Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez—and doing so for the fourth time, Elias decided to pull out a bit of a trick. He'd been watching Hisashi Iwakuma's delivery, actually trying some of it in bullpens and, with the CGSO on the line, decided to emulate Kuma's signature hitch.
That's a fastball right down the pipe to one of the two best hitters in the game—and you can see Cabrera pause right there with Elias. He'd actually work it in on all three pitches to Cabrera, leading to a fly out. This was after not deploying it until he was 1-2 on Kinsler, working it in on a curve he barely fouled way, throwing another pitch with the hitch and then taking it away for the last pitch of the AB.
That was Roenis Elias. The rest of 2014 was somewhat up-and-down for him, with 2015 being similar. In 2015, he spent a sizable chunk of the season in Tacoma which, judging by the ERA over 7, he didn't take kindly to. But, that's all part of the story, of Roenis Elias the competitor. When he was at his best, he rose to the level of the competition, and did so in spectacularly entertaining fashion.
Now, notice I didn't talk one bit in here about numbers or potential or even talent. Sometimes guys are just fun to watch, and Roenis Elias very much was when he had it working. Would a version of Elias who consistently goes out there and throw seven innings, striking out 7 or 8 while walking just 1 or 2 be nice? Sure. But who knows if it's in there.
What I do know is that this image looks so right it's sad:
Roenis Elias is going to groove some pitches to righties that get delivered directly into the windshield of some poor sap's car behind the Monster. That's going to happen.
But there will be nights at Fenway when he dazzles, and dazzles in such a way that some of the Boston faithful will become hooked just as I did. He'll throw a clutch curveball to get out of an inning after walking a pair, do that funny clap and spin thing he does, and Fenway will roar and roar.
How often that will happen, I have no idea. That's probably the more important thing, but I don't really care.
Roenis Elias was fun, and that's really all that matters now. In Boston, they'll want more—but I hope they remember why we do this, for those fun stories. Because Roenis Elias certainly is one.