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40 in 40: Shawn O'Malley

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A story you know, about a man you don't.

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What is easy, and what is hard?

The easy part is framing Shawn O'Malley's story. Sit down and hear the tale of an undersized, scrappy ballplayer from small town America, now proudly adorned with the Compass Rose  insignia of the team he loved as a boy. A story of dives and tumbles, an all out style of play, and a ceaseless motor. Like all in this archetype, O'Malley is not great at any one thing. He's a classic utility man, good enough anywhere for a dozen games but not good enough in one for a hundred.

To a writer he's a sampling of many dishes from the David Eckstein/Willie Bloomquist cliche buffet. Hell, he even references mom and apple pie.

Shawn O'Malley's big league debut perfectly encapsulates this narrative. On September 7th, 2014 with the Angels well on their way to winning the AL West and coasting towards a 14-4 win over the Minnesota Twins, Mike Scioscia decides that it's best to preserve Albert Pujols' fragile body for the stretch run and second decade of his contract. Up steps Shawn O'Malley, as physically dissimilar to Albert Pujols as almost any player in the game.

The very first pitch he ever sees in the big leagues, a somehow woefully ill-fitting jersey further diminishing his already slight  frame, he swings. After nine years, 12 teams, 741 games, and 3,076 plate appearances I bet you wouldn't wait around either. The ball is a slider, down and in, and you can tell O'Malley is sitting fastball. In what few milliseconds he has, O'Malley angles the bat head just low enough to poke a soft squib up the middle. After all those years of waiting, Shawn O'Malley is gone. He scrambles towards first like a streak of lightning, and he is safe.

See how easy that is? The story of Shawn O'Malley is one ingrained in us from decades of sportswriting, centuries of storytelling, and millenia of genetics.

Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Ken Griffey Jr: they are not men. They are the gods come down from Olympus to sport with mortals, and Shawn O'Malley is the champion of humans everywhere. His size, his abilities, and, yes, his skin color all make him eminently relatable to the majority of baseball's fans. We are mostly small, not very strong, and yes, white. The timeless story of Shawn O'Malley: Grit Lord and Hustle Baron. Paint him in sepia, bathe him in #FaceOfMLB votes, and call it a write-up.

But then, that's the story we want. The Shawn O'Malley of Norman Rockwell, Rick Rizzs, and Ken Burns. That's the easy part. The hard part? Well, that's the part where you have to be Shawn O'Malley.

Being Shawn O'Malley means leaving high school in Kennewick and spending the next three years in succession in the wrong Princeton, the wrong Columbus, the wrong Charlotte, and the only (yet still wrong) Phoenix. It is four years in the bush leagues, and four more in the high minors. It is endless fast food and months spent sleeping under unfamiliar ceilings with complete strangers, where even the basic idea of "home" is stretched and twisted. It is knowing that the game is so ready to spit you out the second you let the thought of quitting enter your mind. It is a family, somewhere, anywhere, except here.

The hard part isn't making the majors, or making this play. Or that play. Or the other one. The hard part is after finally getting a shot, playing the game all out every day, you dive back into 2nd, and your world becomes stars and pain.

If you, like me, remember something similar happening to Franklin Gutierrez a few years back, you know what a play like that can do to a career. O'Malley never left the game.

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Telling the story of Shawn O'Malley is easy, and the reason why is that he has had a hard career. But whether or not my words here inspire you, move you, speak to you, know that while I wrote them, Shawn O'Malley was working, swinging, lifting, running. No matter what you think of his story, Shawn O'Malley has earned his place on any field he steps on, and for that, I'm happy to see him in a Mariners uniform for as long as he wears one.