Mariner centerfielders, 2004-2008:
This was the bounty harvested by Bill Bavasi's decision to non-tender Mike Cameron after the 2003 season. 5 seasons, 17 players, none a shadow of Cameron defensively or offensively. There are a few players on that list that later blossomed to stardom, but Bill did his part to make sure it never happened in a Mariner uniform. For 15 years over three decades Mariner fans were spoiled by some of the finest center field play in baseball. Nothing spawns appreciation of genius like genius lost. We? We were lost.
I mean, who the hell was Franklin Gutierrez anyway? This ok hitting, supposedly slick fielding outfielder from Cleveland had cost the Mariner J.J. Putz, "J.J. Putz Wooooooooo", Thunderstruck, all of it. I gave Gutierrez a chance, admittedly, primarily because Dave Cameron told me to. Then, April 9th at the Metrodome. In the bottom of the 1st, with the Mariners up 1-0 on a, oh hey, Franklin Gutierrez double, Alexi Casilla hit a line drive in the gap off Jarrod Washburn.
The ball has a fair amount of loft but is struck soundly. It's right between the outfielders. There's no Stat Cast at this point. But just, look at this:
This moment, right here:
I do not remember the last time a player went from completely outside my consciousness to so embedded within my heart in such a short period of time.
There is a tragic, poetic tone to what happened to Franklin Gutierrez between 2009 and 2011. His talent eroded along with his body's health. No one knew what was wrong. There were rumors of IBS and a number of other gastrointestinal maladies. Whereas in 2009 Guttierez resembled a lithe, perfectly evolved predator of baseballs by 2011 he was a gaunt, ghostly version of his former glory. In Spring of 2012 he admitted as much:
"It affected everything," he said of his IBS. "I didn’t have the energy to play you normally have, the energy to play in the outfield and hitting. It was obvious, how skinny I was. I was battling. I missed spring training, the first two or three months of the season. I tried to get back, tried to help the team, but I couldn’t do it."
In 2011 Franklin Gutierrez slugged .273. Everything he hit seemed a popup or weak ground ball. Even on the rare occasion he squared up a pitch the ball seemed leaden, carrying a small fraction of its usual distance before settling into an outfielder's glove. The spray chart says much:
(H/T Baseball Savant)
"Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!"
He could have quit. He should have quit. After supposedly discovering how to manage his (mis-diagnosed) IBS in the Winter of 2011-12 Gutierrez showed up to Spring Training ready for a return to form. Over the next two seasons baseball and life dealt injury, family tragedy, and further illness upon him. The LL archives spit it out with far too little effort:
A quick glance at Rotoworld is a view into 3 years of hell (WARNING -- This is long):
02/23/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (leg) didn't participate in conditioning drills during Mariners' camp Thursday."
02/28/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez left Mariners camp with a trainer Tuesday after injuring his shoulder on a throw."
03/03/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez will not require surgery on his pectoral injury, but is expected to open the regular season on the 15-day disabled list."
04/27/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (pectoral) is currently dealing with plantar fasciitis in his heel."
05/15/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez is currently undergoing treatment for the plantar fasciitis in his heel and will not run for nearly two weeks."
06/02/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (heel) will begin his minor league rehab assignment Saturday with Triple-A Tacoma."
06/14/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez is in the starting lineup for Thursday's game against the Padres."
06/28/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez has been diagnosed with a mild concussion after he was hit in the side of the face by an errant pickoff throw at first base Thursday."
07/06/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (concussion) will not be ready to return from the 7-day disabled list when the second half of the season begins next Friday."
06/25/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (concussion) has been cleared to resume physical activities."
08/12/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (concussion) is experiencing more headaches and will not begin a rehab assignment soon as originally hoped."
08/27/2012: "Mariners activated OF Franklin Gutierrez from the 15-day disabled list."
09/05/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez left Tuesday's game against the Red Sox in the fourth inning after feeling tightness in his groin muscle."
09/07/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (groin) is back in Friday's lineup."
09/27/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez left Thursday's game against the Angels in the sixth inning with an apparent injury."
09/30/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez left Sunday's game with an undisclosed injury."
10/02/2012: "Franklin Gutierrez (groin) will not return this season."
03/15/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez hasn't played since March 9 due to what he calls "a little tightness in my legs."
04/22/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez said that he is dealing with a recurring issue in his pelvis which impacts other areas in his legs."
04/22/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez left Monday's game with an injury."
04/25/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez has been diagnosed with a Grade 1 hamstring strain and is expected to miss 2-3 weeks."
05/15/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez (hamstring) is expected to begin a rehab assignment on Thursday or Friday."
06/03/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez (hamstring) has been pulled off his rehab assignment, as he's still having problems with his "lower half."
06/05/2013: "Mariners transferred OF Franklin Gutierrez from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day disabled list"
06/22/2013: "Mariners activated OF Franklin Gutierrez from the 60-day disabled list."
06/24/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez was removed from Sunday's game in the sixth inning due to tightness in his legs."
06/25/2013: "Mariners placed OF Franklin Gutierrez on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to June 24, with a right hamstring strain."
08/06/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez (hamstring) has returned from his rehab assignment, but remains on the 15-day disabled list."
12/02/2013: "Franklin Gutierrez has been sidelined in the Venezuelan Winter League by a viral infection."
This time also saw Gutierrez's father-in-law, a coach with the Braves at the time, almost die when he was hit in the face by a line drive.
He should have quit. He should have cursed the game, his own body, and left to spend time with his family and his fortune. He almost did. On February 2nd of last year Gutierrez announced he was taking 2014 off to get healthy. "His health was not cooperating with him," Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. "It's very disappointing."
As Guti rounds the corner, you can see his eyes close, and then his head bobs up and down a few times and he is flying, flying, the clouds are the ground. Something died right there, after touching first base. Something died, and something was born again.
"Effortless" is a term I feel is often misused. To imply that something appears effortless has a subtle, unsavory connotation that nothing is required to achieve whatever it is we have so labeled. It is a word that nonetheless springs easily to mind when watching Franklin Gutierrez play baseball. Nothing jerks, no inefficiency, everything appears to glide, perfectly oiled, lubricated and tuned, exactly as though he were a master craftsman's ideal creation, doing exactly what he is designed to do.
But it's not effortless. Hopefully the rest of this article makes that clear. I think a better term to use is that Franklin Gutierrez playing baseball often feels like watching "perfect effort":
It all got right. Finally. Through careful diagnosis and treatment; through all of his stubbornness, patience, pain, and god knows how many days that seemed dark without the hope of dawn, through it all Franklin Gutierrez, at least for a few months made it back. He's packed years worth of memorable moments into 140 plate appearances. Although he will never again quite be Death To Flying Things in the outfield his beautiful combination of strength and athleticism have found new heights at the plate. Franklin Gutierrez leads baseball in slugging.
It's possible, if unlikely, that Gutierrez will win the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. He had an amazing August. But his future is and always will be uncertain. He is a free agent after the season. Jack Zduriencik, the man who acquired him in 2009 and, to his eternal credit, remained loyal to Gutierrez during all his injuries, is no longer here. We fans and Gutierrez share a future that extends no further than tomorrow's lineup, and the next elegant swing of his bat. It is enough, for me, and I hope for him.
Shannon Drayer has the best quote, and it is from the man himself:
"To be back with Seattle again," he answered when asked what his favorite part of being able to play after his long road back. "I really love this team. To be back with my friends, and all the fans in Seattle, I really appreciate all of this."
Tomorrow is unknowable, for Franklin Gutierrez more so than most. But he has won today, and that victory will be remembered for many tomorrows.
He has won today. Guti forever.