The Travis news rated barely a blip on the radar scale locally, and not even that in the great beyond. And why should it?
Perhaps you noticed that last week a locally based player's career reached a crossroads. Is it all over for him? Will he end up playing in another town? Beats me. No one knows how it will end for Tom Brady of the Patriots, but he's not the guy we're talking about. Nobody knows how it will end for Sam Travis, formerly of the Red Sox, either.
Travis was designated for assignment by the Sox in the same week that sports pages all across the country were filled with speculation about what will -- or won't -- happen in the Tom Brady soap opera. He (Travis) has since cleared waivers, which means that every other big league team has passed on the chance to pick him up; and he's accepted outright assignment to Pawtucket. His future prospects look to be, at best, cloudy.
The Travis news rated barely a blip on the radar scale locally, and not even that in the great beyond. And why should it? Teams are constantly tweaking their rosters, especially when new players are brought aboard -- as was the case with reserve catcher Kevin Plawecki, who was signed on January 2. Someone had to go to make room for the new guy. That someone was Sam Travis.
That doesn't make the situation any less traumatic for him. In parts of three seasons with the Red Sox, he never managed to rise above the level of fringe player. Like everyone who makes to the major leagues, for most of his life, he'd been the best player on his team, but now he's off the roster. At Indiana University in 2013, he was named the Big Ten Outstanding Player of the Year, and he was drafted in the second round by the Red Sox the following year. He'd been an all star in the Cape Cod League and got off to a fast start in the lower minor leagues. After a red hot spring training with the Red Sox in 2016, he was touted as the team's first baseman of the future. His potential seemed limitless. Then it stalled.
That May, while playing for Pawtucket, he tore the ACL in his left knee and was out for the rest of the year. When healthy again, something was missing. He struggled at bat ever since. Bouncing back and forth between McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket and Fenway Park in Boston, he compiled a big league average of just .230 over three seasons and has shown little of the power that was expected of him, hitting only seven home runs.
Is it over for him? Not so long ago, he seemed to be right on the cusp of a big time career, but he's 26 years old now and no longer considered a prospect. Imagine how frustrating it must be for him; he's given his life over to baseball but the gods, at least at this point, seem to have been unkind. Will he be a career minor leaguer, or just a fringe major leaguer? Or will the unthinkable happen, that he ends up studying for his real estate license? On the other hand, he might be able to unlock the door behind which lies the secret to major league stardom.
It's happened before. In fact, it happened for one of his teammates on the Red Sox. Like Travis, he'd spent three years in the majors as a part-time player with only sporadic success. He had a batting average of .251 with a total of only 24 home runs before his team, the Houston Astros, gave up on him and cut him loose at the end of the 2013 season. Like Travis, he was 26 years old when it happened. But J. D. Martinez was a serious student of the game, especially of hitting. He studied video of some of the game's best hitters and completely rebuilt his swing and his approach to hitting. The Detroit Tigers, without much to lose, signed him and his career took off. He has since become one of the most feared sluggers in all baseball, racking up more than 200 homers in the six seasons since the Astros let him go, and driving in almost 600 runs; and he's become a consistent .300 hitter as well.
There is another example which gives hope to Travis. Close to two decades ago the Minnesota Twins gave up on a first baseman/DH after six seasons and cut him adrift. David Ortiz was already 27 when the Red Sox took a chance on him based on the recommendation of his pal and fellow Dominican, Pedro Martinez. That worked out pretty well for all concerned. Well, not so much for the Twins.
But for every J. D. and Big Papi there seem to be 10 Willy Mo Penas. You remember Willy Mo, 6' 3" and more than 250 pounds of solid muscle. He was one of the most prodigious power hitters in baseball history -- in batting practice. Once the games started, it was a different story. Pitchers used nefarious tactics against him, such as changing speeds. Sometimes the ball would even curve as it approached the plate, at times breaking down, or away. There were even times when it did both. The end result was that Willy Mo, who only an hour beforehand had been launching drives of superhuman length off of belt-high batting practice semi-fastballs, spent a lot of time in actual games trudging back to the dugout after having made no contact at all. To get him, the Red Sox traded away Bronson Arroyo, a durable and dependable pitcher for the next decade with the Cincinnati Reds. The Sox were happy to cut their losses and traded Pena away the very next year.
The Willy Mo Penas of the world are doomed to live with the curse of unlimited potential and the reality of unrealized expectations.
Even at its most sophisticated level baseball is a guessing game when it comes to judging the futures of players. In 2003, the Red Sox guessed right on Big Papi, and in 2006 they guessed wrong on Willy Mo. How will their guess on Sam Travis work out? Who knows?
At the very least, Sam can say that he made it to the big leagues, that he played for the Red Sox, with and against the best players in the world. That's a lot more than most of us, especially your faithful correspondent, can say.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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