The place: Cooperstown, New York.
The time: A sunny Sunday afternoon, date to be determined.
The occasion: Juan Lagares accepting his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Let’s listen in…
It would be easy to look back on my career, filled as it is with Gold Gloves, MVP awards and world championship rings, and say it was predestined. I always played with faith in my heart, but I know it took not just what was Up There to help me succeed, but it took what was down here.
I think back to the early days when I had the good fortune of being able to take a good long look at what surrounded me. It was my second year in the big leagues. My first year had gone pretty well. I came up without much fanfare and showed I could field and throw. The next year I was hitting pretty well, though maybe I had fallen into a little slump around the middle of May.
I’d always thought the best way to get going as a hitter was to work hard, stay in there and, most importantly, keep swinging. You can’t break out of a slump if you don’t get a chance.
Yet on our team, there was a different philosophy mandated by those in charge. The people who ran the team didn’t much want you to swing. They instituted a system that I’m sure was well-meaning but it fouled up just about everybody on the team. Before you knew it, everybody, even our beloved captain, was in a slump.
But it was me who found myself on the bench, night after night. We’d score no runs, but they wouldn’t play me. I grew frustrated but kept quiet. I was only in my second year, so I couldn’t complain. Still, I did wonder what was going on.
It all came to a head one Friday night in Washington. We were playing the Nationals, who always seemed to beat us. This was right after a couple of shutout losses. Surely I’ll be in the lineup tonight, I figured. I looked for my name on the card and no go. No Juan Lagares listed anywhere.
I thought I was through as a ballplayer. I mean if I couldn’t start for a team where almost nobody was hitting, maybe I wasn’t very good.
But a Higher Power had other plans for me. I sat, yes, but also I stopped feeling sorry for myself. Instead I looked around. I looked at who was playing instead of me. I looked at some players even you dedicated fans probably don’t remember. They were good guys, but as players they may not have been what we needed. Players who were one-dimensional. Players who played because they were paid lots of money. Really old players who hadn’t been in the big leagues for a couple of years until that year.
Did I see them do great things that I learned from? No, not really. They didn’t hit any more that night in Washington than they did the several nights before. But as I watched them, I thought, hey, they’re in the big leagues and I’m in the big leagues. They’re not much good but they get to start. If they get to start and have not helped turn us around, I’m bound to get a chance sooner or later. I told myself to have the confidence to show what I could do so that even the most obstinate manager or general manager couldn’t reject me.
Eventually I got my chance. And here I am today, humbled to be joining Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza in representing the New York Mets in the Hall of Fame. They might not have believed in me that night in Washington, but the fans did and I did, too.
Thank you all for your support through those confusing early days. And thank you for giving me that nickname. Maybe you’ve never heard the story of why they started calling me “The Lion King” that very same weekend in Washington. It’s actually pretty funny…