“Bless you Henry Blake, your work here will never be forgotten.”
That line, delivered sans jocularity by Father Mulcahy in “Abyssinia, Henry,” the March 1975 episode of M*A*S*H that bade goodbye to the 4077th’s departing commanding officer — and actor McLean Stevenson — echoed through my mind Sunday after learning Rod Barajas was suddenly an ex-Met. Colonel Blake’s farewell was an emotional scene, but come the following September, M*A*S*H was starting another season, with a new CO (Harry Morgan as Sherman T. Potter) and the Korean War endured another eight seasons on CBS. Henry Blake was mentioned a few times for dramatic effect between 1975 and 1983, but otherwise, one suspects, his work was largely forgotten.
That’s TV for ya.
Rod Barajas? His immediate fate appears happier than that of Colonel Blake (shot down over the sea of Japan) or McLean Stevenson’s sitcom career (NBC’s The McLean Stevenson Show, a quickly cancelled precursor to the more memorable for being forgettable Hello, Larry). Rod Barajas gets to go play for his favorite team from when he was a kid. The Dodgers aren’t any closer to legitimately contending than the Mets at the moment, but they don’t have a rookie backstop they’re attempting to break in. They have Russell Martin, but he’s hurt. If Rod Barajas has to, à la Crash Davis, finish out the season, L.A. is an ideal landing spot for him.
His work here, however, will soon be forgotten. That’s not an indictment of Rod Barajas, New York Met. It’s just a fact of baseball fan life. We tune in for the new season, we meet the new cast of characters and we become engrossed in their storylines. For Rod Barajas, there were several choice scenes:
• Late signee of last resort in Spring Training
• Mentor to the kid who’s destined to take his job
• Starting catcher on Opening Day
• Team’s leading home run hitter for most of two months
• Hero of a couple of fantastic finishes
• Essential element of the improved clubhouse chemistry
• Dependable postgame quote/human interest fount
• Nurturer of a maturing pitching staff
• Conceivable All-Star candidate
Then Rod Barajas begins to be written out of the cast. An endless slump decreases his role. He disappears onto the Disabled List. You forget he’s even on the show anymore. Penultimately, he returns for a brief cameo that unleashes wails of anguish over why we’re even wasting a roster spot on Rod Barajas when we’ve got Josh Thole, who needs to start as much as he can, what’s wrong with the Mets, anyway?
Then the final scene: waiver claim…Los Angeles…hugs and handshakes…Abyssinia, Rod.
Gosh, that was fast, but not utterly unpredictable. Seems to me there are a few Rod Barajases (Barajii?) on the Mets every year, guys who are here for longer than a cup of Andy Green coffee but not nearly long enough to merit a Very Special Episode of goodbye, farewell and amen. Rod Barajas’s Met trajectory was that of, say, Gary Sheffield’s. Or Ryan Church’s. Or Moises Alou’s. Or Damion Easley’s. Or Shawn Green’s. Or Paul Lo Duca’s. Or Jose Valentin’s. Or Xavier Nady’s. Or Doug Mientkiewicz’s. Or Mike Cameron’s. Or Richard Hidalgo’s. Or John Valentin’s. Or Darryl Hamilton’s. Or Brian McRae’s. Or Carlos Baerga’s. Or, soon enough, Jeff Francoeur’s.
You get the idea. An established big leaguer. Not a star, at least not anymore. Not the focal point of the team, but is granted substantial playing time. Usually starts, but sometimes sits for extended periods. Gets a big hit or a string of them. The cry goes up that we need more of him. How can Bobby or Art or Willie or Jerry be so stupid to not play this guy? Then he stops hitting or makes a poor play. His numbers go in the tank. The cry goes up that we need less of him. How can Bobby or Art or Willie or Jerry be so stupid to keep playing this guy?
Maybe it’s less than a year. Maybe it’s a year or parts of two or three seasons. The guy is inserted into our vocabulary on a going basis. We think about the guy. The guy is our concern. The guy is a Met, a part of the family, so to speak. We have debates about the guy. We speak of the guy in terms real and hypothetical. We move him up in the batting order. We move him to the bench. We place our trust and our prospects for short-term happiness in the guy. We grow disappointed in the guy. We want the guy out of here.
Then the guy is gone. Good riddance, generally, or at best, oh, that’s fine, we had to make that move. Life goes on. The Mets go on, just like M*A*S*H did. Colonel Potter replaces Colonel Blake. B.J. replaces Trapper John. Francoeur replaces Church who replaced Green who replaced Nady who replaced Cameron who replaced Hidalgo, none of whom effectively replaced any of those who could never replace Darryl Strawberry, which is another story.
Yes, another story. The Mets always have another story. For a few months, one of their ongoing stories was Rod Barajas. He homered to beat the Reds. He homered to beat the Giants. He had a large and adorable family, according to Newsday. He didn’t care for Arizona’s immigration law, according to the Times. He caught Jon Niese’s one-hitter but had a tough time handling R.A. Dickey’s knuckler. He wasn’t the best Met, but he was a good one. He was part of the conversation, at first in quite the favorable light, then less so.
It happens every year. It’s baseball. It’s funny that we almost never notice how common it is. We go from barely aware of Rod Barajas to relatively obsessed with Rod Barajas to not batting an eye when Rod Barajas is dispatched from our midst. We care about Rod Barajas until we don’t, or until he gives us little we consider worth caring about. When Rod Barajas was outhomering every catcher in the National League, we were smitten. When he stopped homering and then stopped hitting altogether, we lost interest. When he went on the DL for nearly a month after straining his oblique, we weren’t all that heartbroken, bastards that we are. We wanted to see Thole. We wanted to see hope. We had seen enough of Rod Barajas.
So Rod has taken his final Met flight and moved on. We got our wish with Thole. We got not quite five months of Barajas. Will we remember him for April and May and the home runs and the broad smile and the solidity and stability he gave the Mets behind the plate? Or will we remember June and July and the depressingly dwindling OPS and the rallies whose life support apparatus he unfailingly unplugged? Will he be the guy we recall for providing an unexpected boost to our good fortune when it was tangibly good, or a symptom of bad roster management when it all went sour?
Will we remember Rod Barajas was here in 2010, or mindlessly move him to 2009/2011? Will he morph into the guy who didn’t do much after taking Papelbon deep? (No, that was Omir Santos.) The journeyman backup Santana liked throwing to? (No, that was Henry Blanco.) The guy whose passed ball cost us that big game down the stretch? (No, but when Mets fans sputter over how everything always happens to us, nonexistent crimes are inevitably assigned to unwitting perpetrators.) Will his name be invoked the next time the Mets are short a catcher and somebody suggests it would sure be nice if we could bring in a Rod Barajas type to get us through the rough patch? Or is he destined for cautionary tale, as in “the Mets are making the same clueless mistake they made when they relied too heavily on Rod Barajas”?
Or will Rod Barajas be remembered much at all? Seventy-four Mets games. Sixty-seven Mets starts. Eleven home runs in April and May. One home run from June to August. Not a bad catcher. Not a great catcher. Here and gone. How long before a diehard Mets fan who brings up as an example or an aside the name “Rod Barajas” has to explain to a less committed neighbor at Citi Field who that was? Or how long before somebody can’t quite spit out from the tip of his tongue, “you know, that catcher who was here for a while, the one who hit the home runs until he didn’t?” Probably not that long, I’m guessing.
That’s baseball for ya.