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40 in 40: Kendall Graveman

The story of Kendall Graveman is full of twists and turns. He’s developed new pitches and moved to the bullpen, but his success in 2021 may just be found in his stars.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

In literature, names have meaning. Charles Dickens spun the name Ebenezer Scrooge to conjure a miser and Vladimir Nabokov imbued Lolita’s given name and nicknames with substantial meaning. A town named Starkfield is the setting in Ethan Frome, and indeed a name that perfectly describes western Massachusetts during the winter.

We may logically know that baseball is not a tightly spun literary tale. The pages of baseball’s story are populated by random characters, some who don’t seem to fit any prescribed plot and some who fit perfectly into the symbolic meaning baseball fans (and writers) want to find. The romance of baseball and the stories we reach for are just part of our desire to make sense out of chaos. That is certainly true of the story that follows. However, with symbolism this heavy, I dare you not to find literary meaning in a player named Kendall Graveman.

Last spring, before we were worried about lockdowns and novel viruses, a pitcher began his comeback to the major leagues. He hadn’t pitched in a major league game in nearly two years, but he was ready. He had rehabbed after Tommy John surgery. He worked on the mental side of his game. He leaned on his support system. He came into spring with a renewed passion for baseball and pitched through a handful of innings, expecting to take his spot third in the Seattle Mariners’ starting rotation. All doubts that he wasn’t healthy and ready to pitch were quelled and expectations began to build.

Then, all of 2020’s expectations were thrown into a maelstrom in the middle of March. He headed back home to wait, baseball’s approaching season suddenly in doubt. Suddenly his last name began to feel like an ominous symbol.

Baseball isn’t literature. It’s made up of stories about real people. One of those real people just happens to be named Kendall Graveman in a year of pandemic.

His last name immediately brings to mind an image of a gravedigger (and likewise, his nickname is Digger) along with tombstones, mourners dressed in back, and a severe seriousness. It’s probably a good guess that somewhere down the line he has an ancestor who was, in fact, a grave man (either as grave digger or as someone who was just really into graves, like a Cadillac man or a Budweiser man).

The potential for literary symbolism only grows when you see that he was born on the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. His birthday falls during the Sagittarius-Capricorn Cusp, known as the Cusp of Prophecy. It combines the expansive fire of Jupiter and the earth-bound intellect of Saturn, a push and pull between easy joy and hard lessons.

Graveman was born and raised in Alexander City, AL. While he matriculated at Mississippi State University, he starred as a starting pitcher. After his junior season he was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 36th round. The serious side of him opted to return to school for his senior season. The academic side of college wasn’t just something he saw as a necessary part of gaining collegiate baseball experience. He chose an academically rigorous course of study, mechanical engineering, and threw himself into it. He told Jays Journal in a 2014 interview about choosing to return for his senior year, “One of the reasons I went back was to work on my degree…(it) was something I wanted to go into 100%.” His dedication to school was apparent; all four years he was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

Returning to school paid off for him in draft round cachet; the Toronto Blue Jays took him in the 9th round in 2014. He didn’t have to wait long to get a cup of major league coffee. After just 37 minor league appearances he found himself pitching for the Blue Jays that September. The Blue Jays showed their appreciation for his quick ascent a couple months later when he was traded to Oakland as part of the package for Josh Donaldson.

Jupiter initially ruled as the planet of expansion, giving him the quick start in the major leagues. Then Saturn came in, full of lessons to take seriously. After bouncing between AAA and Oakland, he was the Opening Day starter for Oakland in both 2017 and 2018. He struggled early in 2018 and went back to AAA. Soon after, he had Tommy John surgery and Oakland non-tendered him. The Chicago Cubs signed him to a one-year contract with an option for 2020. The plan was to give him the first year to rehab, and assuming that went well, get a cheap arm in 2020.

For whatever reason, the Cubs decided not to pick up his option and the Mariners, who just cannot resist a reclamation project, scooped him up and almost immediately slotted him into the 2020 starting rotation. After his first start last February, he moved from the winter of despair to the spring of hope, just to have the hope dashed and locked down. He went back to Alabama and did not let up on working for his rotation spot. He showed up to summer camp in July with a four-seam fastball and an excited determination to stick in the big leagues. He told reporters after one of his camp starts, “I can’t hide it. I love this game. I have a passion for this game.” Most importantly, he knew he was healthy. Jupiter had brought him healing and he was ready for its influence to bring him major league success.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Whether what happened next can be blamed on Saturn or solely on 2020, which ferociously upended us all, is hard to say. Regardless, after making two starts he was placed on the injured list. He revealed in a video press conference a couple weeks later that he was struggling with pain caused by a benign tumor in his cervical spine. The tumor is located in a spot that is incredibly difficult and risky to operate on. He learned about the tumor in July of 2019 following his Tommy John surgery and he had suffered from neck problems since 2018.

The emotion of hitting another tough roadblock was apparent as he described it on the video call. “It’s just something that I don’t know why I’m going through this. But it’s something I’m going through. I believe good will come from it but right now it’s tough.”

The grave man, the serious man, born on the winter solstice. It conjures up all sorts of visions of darkness and bleakness, of the depths of winter. Of death. The human spirit has always fought against that darkness. Throughout history, the people on earth have sought to fill that day with light and frivolity and hope. It is no coincidence that even now, we celebrate holidays that embrace light and joy in the darkest time of the year.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

On the winter solstice, the sun is born. One of the ancient Egyptian solar deities, Horus, was born during the solstice as was an ancient Roman god of the sun named Mithras. Most symbolic for our purposes was the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian god Mithra, who ruled the rising sun, contracts, friendship, and protected the waters. Maybe it is Mithra who will raise the sun and protect the waters for our intrepid Mariner, who’s first name is derived from a town in England and literally means “the valley of the river Kent.”

When Graveman returned from the injured list last September, the Mariners moved him to the bullpen. The hope is that the bullpen will ease the stress on his neck and allow him to stay relatively pain-free. He made 9 relief appearances last season for 10 total innings, an extremely small sample size. It’s tough to say for sure how he’ll perform in relief, but, as Mikey Ajeto wrote in October, the bullpen may end up being the perfect spot for Graveman after all. As mentioned in the link, Graveman has been working on developing a slider to compliment his excellent sinker.

Importantly, he has been just as committed to mastering the mental side of pitching as the physical side. In 2016, he had the opportunity to talk to Greg Maddux and he came prepared with a list full of questions about the mental side of pitching. His father, Gary Graveman, coached him in youth baseball and taught him that hard work can beat talent that doesn’t work hard. He has the mental strength and tenacity to pitch well out of the bullpen. He still speaks to his dad after every appearance. He has the support and the mental approach to succeed. His success in the bullpen and in the major leagues will ultimately depend on his ability to execute what he wants to do.

Just over a month ago, on December 21st, Jupiter and Saturn met at 0 degrees Aquarius. Each planet has moved into the air sign, where they will stay for much of 2021. The conjunction of the planets was described as a Christmas star, with the planets so close together they appeared to form a bright and robust new star. This shift of the planets is also called the Age of Aquarius, which brings to mind the 1969 song by the 5th Dimension (although the song is referencing another type of Age of Aquarius, but nonetheless). The song encourages everyone to “Let the sunshine in.” From the darkness, comes the light.

Maybe Kendall Graveman’s 2021 season is written in his stars. Maybe it’ll be dictated by random chance.

Maybe the grave he is digging is one in which he will bury the late inning hopes of the Mariner’s opponents in 2021.