On September 22, 2002, in front of a typical sellout crowd of 45,693, the Mariners battled the impending World Champion Anaheim Angels. In the lineup for Seattle that night was an apple-faced, 25-year-old rookie. A local boy, small in stature and blessed with only modest physical gifts, his hustle and drive were nonetheless sufficient to earn a September call up and a place near the top of Lou Piniella's lineup.
His name was William Paul Bloomquist. On that night he collected his first career hit, a double to right that scored Ichiro in the first. In the third, Bloomquist led off with a clean line drive single up the middle. The sixth started with still another Willie hit, this time a double to left-center field. In the 8th he had yet another hit, an RBI single in a 2-1 game that appropriately came on a weak groundball to short.
That game birthed the legend of Bloomquist, such as it is around these parts. Though he never developed into much more than the 25th man on a roster, the combination of Bloomquist's scorching debut, an isolated region that zealously hugs its kin, and Willie's all-out style of play cemented his name as one that Mariners fans will remember for years to come.
So, why am I talking about Willie Bloomquist when the title says I'm supposed to be covering Steve Clevenger? The answer dates back a few years, but for brevity's sake let's pick up the story on August 17th of last year.
On that night, in his 10th year of professional baseball, Steve Clevenger had spent approximately half of a season in the major leagues. He is a bench player, an also ran, an afterthought. A shortstop who didn't hit enough or move well enough to stick at the position, Clevenger shifted to catcher in his second minor league season. So far this year for the Orioles he's thrown out 15% of attempted base stealers. His arm isn't much, his defense is mediocre. But the Orioles are devastated by injuries and trying desperately to hang on in the American League Wild Card race, so it's Steve Clevenger, of all people, batting 6th and serving as the DH.
Oh, I forgot to tell you that Steve Clevenger is from Baltimore didn't I? Well, he is. Pigtown born and raised. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Babe Ruth grew up in Pigtown at his dad's bar. Kids from Pigtown learn the game in the widest shadow any American athlete has ever cast.
Now, here is Clevenger facing Sonny Gray in a 1-0 game in the 4th. With the count 0-2, Gray tries to set up Clevenger with a fastball in, but misses by about 4 inches, out over the plate. Clevenger swings, ash meets cowhide, and a folk hero is born:
In the clubhouse after the game a smiling Clevenger bears a shirt with the words canonical to every longtime minor league baseball player, the Tao of Crash Davis:
"Just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub."
It was the kind of story that launches careers, gets a guy a broadcasting job once he's done playing, free beers for life in his home town, etc. But for Steve Clevenger, it was just a brief moment of glory, and then it was gone.
Six months later, Steve Clevenger is no longer part of the Orioles, a victim of roster depth built to account for the uncertainty surrounding Matt Wieters' health. The Willie Bloomquist Hometown Narrative is a fickle brew, and the east coast has less tolerance for geographical proximity and a less affection for "happy to be here".
Now, Steve Clevenger is ours, a Mariner. He's 3,000 miles from home. No one expects anything, and the odds of him contributing significantly are low. He's just there, a name, a generic face, and a bat. He's the "backup catcher" in the sense that if Mike Zunino shows even a hint of his potential, Clevenger will be back in the minors, his home away from home.
Not all local kids who come home find a place that loves them; Bloomquist's legacy is as strange as it is lovable. Steve Clevenger found a moment in time where his life became a fable. Like most of us who have lived a dream, he woke up the next day, and went back to work. That's Steve Clevenger, at work, ready for tomorrow's challenge.
It's a living.