The 40 in 40 Jarred Kelenic should have gotten
You’re Jarred Kelenic. Your whole life you have wanted one thing: to be great at baseball. Not good, great. Rookie of the Year, MVP, All-Star Games, one-way ticket to Cooperstown kind of great. You live in Wisconsin, so there’s plenty of time spent indoors, dreaming up the player you’ll become.
But you don’t just dream. You were raised, there in the Midwest, by people who value the importance of hard work. They instill that drive in you, and your own natural competitiveness—your desire to be not good, but great—takes over. Your life revolves around the gym, the field, the cages, repeat. School, friends, dating, everything else takes a backseat. The gym. The field. The cages. Repeat.
You join an elite travel ball team, appear on the showcase circuit. As the players you’re playing with improve, you push yourself to not just match them, but better them. Any day you’re not the best player on the field is a failure. Scouts come to see you play, more and more at every subsequent game. They like how you hit, they like how you play (the gym, the field, the cages, repeat). They also note you aren’t as big as some other players. They wonder about your power potential. They note you’re from Wisconsin, not a warm-weather baseball hotbed. They note you’re one of the older players in the high school class.
You can’t control your height, or where or when you were born. But you can control the amount of time you work, the heaviness of the weights you lift, the intensity with which you do everything. You take up yoga to increase your flexibility. You learn to see food as fuel for the machine that is your body, and only admit things in your diet that deserve a place in the temple you’re building. Other guys can gulp from sweating cups of watery beer in someone’s parents’ basement the night before an event and still go out and hit BP bombs; that’s not how you’re built. It’s not part of the routine, not part of the plan. The gym, the field, the cages; the gym, the gym, the gym.
Opportunities arrive, and you make the most of them, because it doesn’t ever occur to you not to try to be the best player on the field. You are selected to Team USA’s youth team. You win not just a gold medal, but team MVP. You continue to perform well on the showcase circuit. You win another gold medal with Team USA. Gradually, your name rises on draft boards. You graduate high school early to focus entirely on preparing for the draft. You take every moment you can to showcase your abilities. Every party you missed, every date you canceled, every high school milestone you sat out, the memories fade further every time you do something extraordinary on the field.
You make sure to always be doing something extraordinary.
On draft day you get a call from the New York Mets. They tell you if Jonathan India is off the board, they’ll take you, which sounds a little like being someone’s second choice, but you shake that off. Jonathan India lasts through the first two picks, and then the third, and then the fourth. You become, suddenly, deeply invested in Jonathan India’s career. Finally, blissfully, the commissioner announces him fifth overall to the Reds. You get the call sitting in a party tent in the backyard with your friends and family, people you don’t see enough but who support you unconditionally anyway. It’s a call you were expecting, but hearing the words, confirmation of everything you’ve been working for, washes over you all at once, and you drop your face into your hands and start to cry. Everyone hugs you and tells you they’re proud of you. You cry harder. Everyone cries. The hat looks good on you, they say.
Two days later, your high school graduation happens, and the school posts the ceremony on YouTube. The old gym with its scuffed floors and acoustic tiles already looks small and faraway, a place you were and also weren’t. The opening address is all about meeting the challenge of what needs to be done. It’s not something that you need to hear. You’ve always known what needed to be done. You’re doing it right now. You pack a bag for New York.
Being drafted by the Mets, maybe it’s not the Yankees but still—it’s the New York media market, it’s Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard, it’s a team that was recently in the World Series. The Mets have you in to Citi Field and introduce you to the press, who ask you questions about what it’s like being a wide-eyed kid from the Midwest here in the big city. You lean into it, talk up the great Italian food, the price of your eggs at breakfast. The press eats it up. You take batting practice on the field, pose for pictures, shake hands. This is a team that’s had two down years, but you know you can help them get back to the playoffs, the World Series. You visualize yourself playing next to Michael Conforto in the outfield. You know how quickly you’ll be able to make it up to the bigs, because you’ll do what you’ve always done: refuse to be beat by anyone, refuse to be anything other than the best player on the field. You go to rookie ball and rake, earn a callup to the Appy League. You start drafting a set of benchmarks you need to hit in order to get called up, a timeline to the bigs. You make sure it’s a little bit faster than Jonathan India’s.
And then one day in early December you get a call. You have to look up Seattle’s ballpark on a map: 2,844 miles away from where you thought you’d be playing as a pro. You think back on all the things that were said to you back in July, when you were standing in the sunshine on Citi Field and imagining yourself in the outfield. The news stuns you for a bit; and then you pivot, and then you plan. Now you have a new goal, and a new enemy: drag the Seattle Mariners, a franchise mired in mediocrity and failure for the past two decades, to the playoffs; and do it before the Mets get there.
This is even better, you decide. The Mariners fans are hungry for a championship. They embrace you. Glowing things are written about you in the press before you’ve even played a game. The season starts, and the trade starts to look very bad for the Mets, but that doesn’t concern you. You always knew the Mariners would be the winners of that trade, because you would make it so they were the winners of that trade; because if they weren’t, that would mean you are a loser, and you don’t lose. You light up the lower minors and earn your promotion to Double-A, an assignment to the prestigious Arizona Fall League, where you will be where you belong, among other top prospects. You circle July 12, 2020 on your calendar, the day of the Futures Game. You don’t want to play in it. Your plan is to be long gone from the minors by then.
But then, things start to wobble. Your wisdom teeth come in, despite you trying to will them away, and require surgery, and you get a late start to the AFL. Then your back stiffens up a little, and the cautious Mariners pull you from the league entirely. You reluctantly accept the end of your season and start thinking about 2020. The Mariners offer you a contract, which you decline, because of course you do. That’s never been the plan, and the money they’re offering isn’t enough to make you create a new one. It’s not enough to offset the lifetime of the work you’ve done, the things you’ve given up, in order to be here. Not yet.
Then, you’re just getting your feet under you in Spring Training when a new, scary virus shuts everything down. It’s out of your control. You hate things that are out of your control. They don’t fit the plan.
So you go home and start up the familiar routine: the gym, the field, the cages. Now, though, there aren’t games. You have to be careful who you let get too close in case you get called back; you’re not letting a positive test keep you off the field, not when so much time has already been lost. The days tick on and you adjust the plan. You lift weights. Here, at least, you can compete, even if it’s only with yourself, to get in more and heavier reps. It’s fun to watch your body change, at least, even as nothing else does.
Spring comes slowly to Wisconsin. The days pass, the numbers get worse, then a little better. Spring begins to turn to summer. MLB and the union start arguing. More days pass. More arguing. You’re so bored. You hate being bored. Gym, field, cages. Repeat.
Finally, you’re summoned back to camp—this time, straight to Seattle. The plan is to start making yourself at home. The plan is to never leave. You know you could make this outfield better, right now, if you can prove you belong, so you set out to prove that. You vow to do something extraordinary every day.
The date of the Futures Game passes. You remind yourself to be careful what you wish for.
When camp ends, you feel like you’ve done enough to be on this roster. You know that, even just defensively, you’re one of the team’s four best outfield options. You also know that Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais have been saying to the media not to expect you to break camp with the club. The roster comes out. You are not on it. You go to Tacoma and talk to some baseballs about it.
Closing in on the end of the season, the Mariners are, improbably, closer to a playoff berth than they are a top-five pick in the draft. By this point, other prospects in your draft class—Nick Madrigal, Joey Bart, Alec Bohm, Casey Mize—have been called up. (Not Jonathan India, though. At least not him.) A couple of them are your teammates: Joey Gerber and Aaron Fletcher. Like you did on that June day two years ago, you wait for a call. This time, it doesn’t come. You weren’t expecting it to—you’d already been told not to expect it—but you can’t help but wonder.
What the Mariners are doing is something that does not make sense to you: they are actively choosing not to get better, something you have spent your entire life doing. They aren’t just entertaining failure as an option—something you would never do—they are welcoming it. After all the work you’ve done to try to be the best player on the field every day, the team is opting to put waiver claims and out-of-position players in the spot where you’ve been envisioning yourself since last December. In September, the Rangers call up catcher Sam Huff, who was drafted the year before you but has never played above High-A. You talk to some more baseballs about it.
Too soon, it’s the off-season again, and more quarantine, and more boredom. You pick up the familiar routine once again. You keep lifting weights, even though some scouts have said you’re getting bulky, you’re starting to look like a 1B/DH type. You don’t care. You’re 21 and can change your body at will. You know more about your body and how it works than anyone on the planet. Somebody is always going to have something negative to say. That doesn’t mean you’ll forget them saying it.
Then, right before Spring Training games start, a video comes out of the president of the Mariners, smugly chugging coffee at a virtual rotary club meeting, gleefully admitting to manipulating your service time, saying there was “no chance” you or any of the other young players would have debuted. He talks about the deal you were offered, without giving a dollar figure, and says you chose to “bet on yourself” and that you’re “quite confident”, and then again, says that you do not lack confidence, and if it felt slightly insulting the first time he said it, it’s clear by the second that “confidence” is code for “arrogance.” You wonder if this man, Kevin Mather, who either does not know or does not care how to pronounce your last name, has ever put as much time into anything as you have put into your craft. You wonder if he’s ever made the kinds of sacrifices you have. He has never struck you as the kind of man who’s had to make many sacrifices.
You remember going to Seattle to accept the Mariners Minor League Hitter of the Year Award in 2019, how nice everyone was to you, all the positive things they said. You remember looking out and envisioning yourself in the outfield at T-Mobile Park. You start to wonder if this is Citi Field all over again, three thousand miles away.
It’s a business, say the veterans, don’t let it get you down. Fans send you supportive messages and make it clear who’s side they’re on. Your teammates—even the ones who you know think you’re kind of an asshole—clap you on the back. At the end of the day, game recognize game, and you know they’d rather have you on their team than not. The team comes together, united by a common enemy.
But you don’t need a common enemy. It’s always been you against everything else. You against the circumstances of your birth, you against the best players in the country, you against the rest of your draft class, you against the pitcher, you against the scouts; this is just another set of names to add to your list. It’s nothing personal, it’s just how competition works. Two men enter, and you’re going to make damn well sure you’re always the one leaving.
Except this, this is a little personal. It might be just business to them, but to you it’s your life, the life you have been building carefully, moment by moment and choice by choice. You have denied yourself so much to get to where you are. You will not be denied this.
It’s not a business, it’s your business, and you’re planning to make a whole lot of people pay.