04 December 2010

Attending Augie

Derrick Hall's latest 'championship-style' juggernaut just waived adios to endearing utility imp, Octavio Augie Ojeda.

There was that "I think I can" fence scraping homer our favorite halfling barely hit in Baltimore once. The time a foe's sharp bouncer somehow found refuge inside Augie's size "S" jersey. And Ojeda's clean inning of comic relief towards the end of an otherwise forgettable rout.

But the versatile scrub once lampooned on b-ref.com as Honus Wagner's "Mini-Me" was also one of the more stately performers in a short franchise history.

He was, by most accounts, a well prepared role player, polite ambassador and low maintenance teammate. Across the infield, he flashed the assured hands of a mohel and tiny legs that churned for every bloop and well placed grounder as if his life depended on it - perhaps because his professional life largely did. Despite an obp better than most (.344 prior to 2010), Arizona's diminutive 'everyman' was routinely dismissed as an inadequate batsman.

The on base percentage didnt come easily. He rarely hit the ball hard, or far, and while he showcased quick bursts in the field, he wasnt especially fast on the longer straight to first base.

But the LA native used the full ninety degrees of fair territory in which to slap the ball. He also got plunked ten times in 2008, more than anyone on the team - and led in HBP again the following year. Which is notable for several reasons:

-- Ojeda had no existing penchant for this. ( In his first six big league seasons, he got hit by pitches a mere four times.)

-- The career fill-in never earned more than 264 at bats in a season.

-- He was a switch hitter, always batting against pitchers coming from "the opposite side", from where it is inherently more difficult to "freeze" a reluctant victim with a thrown ball.

This point deserves attention. Legendary scrapper Pete Rose switch hit for twenty four years and only got hit ten times (eleven, actually) in a season once - a campaign spanning 764 PAs. Mickey Mantle got drilled thirteen times in his entire career! Eddie Murray, just eighteen. So for a 34-35 year old, part-time switch hitter to get nailed sixteen times in what constitutes less than a full season equivalent, requires explanation.

Let's be clear. He was trying to get hit. Taking one for the team. Or, in this case, as many as sixteen. Like celebrated practitioners of the art, Don Baylor and Craig Biggio, but without the benefit of Baylor's physique or Biggio's blousy, oversized jersey fluttering over the black of the plate.

Augie Ojeda was more than a punchline or fungible mascot. Amidst peers fueled by comic book levels of testosterone, he exhibited uncommon physical courage. He embodied why many fans gravitate to and stick with baseball; because athletes lacking coveted 'combine tools' can still be relevant thanks to little more than doggedly refined skills and a professionally sacrificial ethic.

He was more than relevant in 2007, when Orlando Hudson, the Dbacks' second most valuable position player, went down in September with the team nursing a one game division lead. Ojeda, the inadequate batsman, hit .333 (.424 obp/.820 ops) the rest of the way, playing full time. With Hudson out and first half sensation Eric Byrnes slumping (.238 BA, .575 ops), the Diamondbacks held on to win the division by that one game.

Days later, Ojeda's 7th inning double against Carlos Marmol in a taut NLCS opener, positioned Arizona for it's first postseason win since Tony Womack did likewise in 2001, roping a more storied double to the same spot in right. After surviving the most vital at bat in team history, an emotional and religious Womack stood at second base and pointed to heaven.

When Ojeda stood there, the appreciative home throng broke into a rousing chant:

"Aw- Ghee! Aw-Ghee!"
He pointed inside the Diamondbacks' dugout, as if to say, "You're next" or "If I can do this, anybody can." The next batter, pinch hitter Conor Jackson, lofted a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Snyder from third, establishing Game 1's final 3-1 margin. With Ojeda still on the bag, a second, softer chant emanated from the bleachers:

That was probably Augie Ojeda's defining moment. When a hard working scrub, an anybody, not only tangibly helped his team with bat and glove, but rubbed off on it in spirit and in deed.

We follow this game for our own myriad reasons. Some of us grew up wanting to be Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, and vestiges of such vicarious pursuits still haunt old men. But there is more to glean from baseball than clinging to bits of superlative athlete's distant greatness. More worth remembering - and applying - in our modern lives.

Like striving to be just be relevant in a competitive world.  Too often dismissed as a novelty, Ojeda sloughed off a lifetime of doubters - and bruises - to make a difference.  To such a fellow, attention should be paid.

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