Late June is a great part of the baseball season as it is — springtime has turned into summer, the pennant races are taking shape, the draftees are reporting to their first professional clubs, and short-season ball returns. (I just made my first trip back to MCU Park. More on that in a future post.)
It’s also a great time for The Holy Books  — Topps Series 2, Topps Pro Debut and the minor-league team sets all arrive around now, meaning established players get a chance at new and improved cards to represent them, guys who previously had minor-league cards get enshrined as big leaguers, and fill-ins and phenoms alike show up in the Triple-A set, waiting for promotions real and cardstock. Ruben Tejada is sporting a handsome new Mets card, John Buck has been Photoshopped into orange and blue by Topps worker bees, recently departed Collin McHugh has his first true big-league card, and Greg Burke, Andrew Brown, Carlos Torres and Zack Wheeler are all Las Vegas 51s. Other cards are being put away for the future: Noah Syndergaard, Wilmer Flores and Travis d’Arnaud all have Pro Debut cards, while the likes of Brian Bixler, Jamie Hoffman and Brandon Hicks are ready for duty with aliens on their caps.
The 51s are an oddity in that last year they were Toronto’s Triple-A team, meaning d’Arnaud got traded between franchises that play 300 miles apart but was able to keep his locker and apartment. (I’m sure he did neither, but you know what I mean.) When I saw the 2013 51s set was available, I idly looked at the 2012 checklist — and an unexpected name caught my eye.
It was Ryota Igarashi, the Rocket Boy who went from the Yakult Swallows to the Mets and fizzled. I’d lost track of Igarashi once he was no longer a Met, as one tends to do with middle relievers who post 5.74 ERAs. I looked him up and saw he’d gone from the Pirates to the Blue Jays and then to the Yankees, with no more success than he’d had a Citi Field. But he’d gotten a 2012 51s card — and it suddenly occurred to me that in the Holy Books, Igarashi was represented by an oddball Japanese card  I’d unearthed from the depths of eBay.
The 51s had reduced the 2012 set to $8, but that still seemed like a lot for a Ryota Igarashi card. (Or anything connected with him, come to think of it.)
But I looked idly at the rest of the checklist, and began to smile.
Here are some other 2012 Las Vegas 51s from that set:
Travis d’Arnaud: As discussed above
Ruben Gotay: He hasn’t played in the big leagues since doing not much for Atlanta in 2008, but Gotay is still plugging away, having been granted free agency no less than six times without returning to the land of room service in hotels, white balls for batting practice, and women with long legs and brains. (Not to mention the ungodly breaking shit.) Since the end of 2008 Ruben’s been a Pirate (on paper), a Cardinal, a Marlin, a Diamondback, a Brave again, a Blue Jay, a Brave for a third time, and then a recidivist Cardinal. He’s currently hitting .305 in Double-A, which might make Ike Davis feel better about being PCL player of the week .
Aaron Laffey: Yep, there he was, a premonition of the wait for Shaun Marcum, which hasn’t really ended.
Tim Redding: Wha? Redding hasn’t played for a big-league club since his quietly resilient 2009 campaign with the Mets. But he’s been around, signing minor-league deals with the Rockies, Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies and Jay. He’s 35 and has seen service with two Mexican League teams this season.
Bob Stanley: No, he’s not still active — he’s 58 years old, for Pete’s sake. But he was the 51s’ pitching coach last year — a task he also performed in our organization for six years in the late 90s and early Aughts, with stops at Pittsfield, St. Lucie and Binghamton.
Chris Woodward: Since leaving the Mets after 2006, Woodward’s played a full season with the Braves, then turned up for cups of coffee with the Mariners, Red Sox, and Blue Jays (52 games in all), with minor-league duty for the Brewers and Phillies on his CV as well. He’s 37 and has no 2013 stats listed, meaning his 2012 season and card were apparently his last.
What makes Tim Redding ride the bus in the Mexican League at 35? What makes a 32-year-old Chris Woodward trade his Nashville Sounds duffel for one with the logo of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs? Why does Bob Stanley keep preaching pitching to kids as he approaches 60? (And to reach further back in Mets history, what kept Blaine Beatty and Rich Sauveur  following a nomadic existence?)
Because it’s a job, of course — a job that offers a chance at a very big paycheck if everything goes right. But that can’t be the entirety of it. To stick with the game that long, and that far from the bright lights, all of those veterans must really love baseball. As fans we don’t have much in common with the athletes we watch and write about, but we do have that.
$8 was a lot for a Ryota Igarashi card. But $8 for a trip through Mets history and a reminder of a valuable old lesson? I’d call that a bargain.