John Baker, Jeremy Brown, coal mines and class


NOTE: John Baker responded to this article on Twitter. His comments are reproduced below.

Larry Stone of the Seattle Times has an interesting article about journeyman catcher John Baker, who is trying to make the Mariners this spring. Interesting in multiple ways, really.

Baker, a self-described liberal from the Bay Area, comes from an educated background. His parents both have graduate degrees from Stanford and his brother is a highly skilled musician who plays in a symphony orchestra. Baker, for his part, is well-read — especially for a baseball player, not a lot of whom seek to debate Christopher Hitchens with teammates — and has an intellectual bearing which makes him something of an exotic in baseball circles. There aren’t a ton of players in the game at any given time like Baker. And when there is, they tend to get hung with the nickname “Professor” or something.

But there’s a second level of interesting here, and that comes when Baker — part of the famous 2002 Oakland Athletics “Moneyball” draft class — talks about fellow “Moneyball draftee” Jeremy Brown. Brown, a fellow catcher, may have been the most famous of anyone in that draft class for he was the non-traditionally physiqued fellow who prompted Billy Beane to famously tell his assembled scouts that “we’re not selling jeans here.” In the movie, film is played of him falling down while circling the bases, making him both a focus of some humor and a symbol for Beane’s non-traditional approach.

As Jerry Crasnick reported a few years ago, Brown quit baseball after a brief career which saw him make the majors for a cup of coffee but not much more. Crasnick’s story suggests that Brown had an issue of some sort adjusting to baseball life and that he went home to Alabama. Brown now works in a coal mine. Baker elaborates on that:

“That’s a sad one for me, ‘’ Baker said. “We were catchers drafted at the same time, we played together for a long time and became really close. We had contrasting personalities. You have the kind of liberal, educated guy from Berkeley, and then the Southern coal-miner’s son from Hueytown, Alabama. Me and him hit it off really well and became very, very, very good friends while we were playing, even though the A’s kind of tried to pit us against each other and make us compete.

 “We took that as, let’s figure out how we can win baseball games and be good teammates to each other. We became close, so it’s been sad for me since he quit in 2008. It’s sad to see that path and him in a coal mine because he’s one of the more talented guys I’ve ever seen in baseball.”
It’s the kind of comment that may not make a lot of people bat an eye. But contrast it with Brown’s own recent comments about his lot in life and job in that coal mine. This comes from a photo essay by photographer Tabitha Soren, who has followed the 2002 Athletics draft class around for over 12 years, chronicling their progress through life:
In 2008, the Alabama native announced his retirement, walked away from the game and returned home to Hueytown to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a coal miner. In his life after baseball, Brown and Dad descend into the mines at night, emerging the next morning covered in coal dust. “Playing baseball is something that I loved to do, but I’m happier now because of my family and not because of my job,” Brown says. “I’m married with a little boy and a little girl. I’m able to coach youth baseball.” Most important? “I’m home and not traveling all the time.”

Coming from West Virginia, I grew up with a lot of kids whose fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins worked in coal mines. Indeed, I grew up with a lot of kids who themselves ended up working in the mines. My children have several uncles and cousins who do as well. It’s hard work most of us couldn’t begin to imagine and the danger it presents and the toll it takes on miners’ bodies is extraordinary. The companies which run these mines exploit their workers and the land they mine in ways are just as shocking as they are criminally underreported and under-regulated. Most people in coal country would prefer it if their children didn’t have to follow them into the mines. Most people realize, however, that there isn’t always that kind of choice available given all manner of circumstances.

But that notwithstanding, Brown doesn’t sound particularly “sad” to me. Does he sound sad to you? Yes, all of us try to put the best face on our life to strangers, but it’s quite a presumption, however well-meaning, for Baker to assume that Brown’s lot in life is a “sad” one. It’s certainly a life that a son of two Stanford educated parents who grew up in the Bay Area in relative comfort and who has made a few million dollars playing baseball can’t particularly relate to, but I wonder if Brown truly thinks his situation is “sad,” even if coal mines are bad places to work. Even if he’s not living the life he dreamed of when he was a teenager.

I don’t mean to be too critical of Baker here. I doubt there was a ton of thought or meaning behind his comments to Stone. But there is a tendency among people of a certain type — educated, usually liberal and of a certain financial and social class — to assume people of a different type — rural, blue collar — are unhappy with their lot in life. Or, more to the point, can’t be happy with their lot in life by virtue of where they live or what they do for a living. There’s a paternalism and a classism to that sort of sentiment that grates on me. It’s a phenomenon that lends itself to a lot of hand-wringing about the “poor souls” of less unfortunate circumstances but not a whole hell of a lot of action or change which could actually make those “poor souls'” lives better.

You know what makes the lives of people with hard, blue collar jobs enjoyable and endurable? Family and religion and, sometimes, country music and stuff like that. Next time you find yourself in a conversation with a well-off person who grew up in a liberal background in the Bay Area who likes to read Christopher Hitchens and whose brother plays in a symphony orchestra, turn the conversation to evangelical Christianity, country music and family. Oh, also bring up the idea of building a nuclear power plant someplace in the Bay Area (nothing would close coal mines faster than a few more nuclear power plants). I’m guessing that conversation will be kind of fun.

And yes, here I am now stereotyping. We all do it to some degree. We should probably do it way less. And we should probably avoid trying to determine how happy and content someone is based on where they live and what they do. For the simple reason that we’re not, in fact, in their shoes.

UPDATE: After some extended conversation between someone on Twitter and me, Baker responded:

Cole Hamels done for year after just 1 start for Braves

Cole Hamels triceps injury
Getty Images

ATLANTA — After making just one start for the Atlanta Braves, Cole Hamels is done for the season.

Hamels reported shortly before the start of a four-game series against the Miami Marlins that he didn’t feel like he could get anything on the ball. The left-hander was scheduled to make his second start Tuesday after struggling throughout the year to overcome shoulder and triceps issues.

The Braves placed Hamels on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to Sept. 18,, but that was a mere formality. General manager Alex Anthopoulos already contacted Major League Baseball about replacing Hamels in the team’s postseason player pool.

“Cole knows himself and his body,” Anthopoulos said. “You trust the player at that point when he says he can’t go.”

The Braves began Monday with a three-game lead in the NL East .and primed for their third straight division title.

Even with that success, Atlanta has struggled throughout the shortened 60-game series to put together a consistent rotation beyond Cy Young contender Max Fried and rookie Ian Anderson.

Expected ace Mike Soroka went down with a season-ending injury, former All-Star Mike Foltynewicz was demoted after just one start, and Sean Newcomb also was sent to the alternate training site after getting hammered in his four starts.

The Braves have used 12 starters this season.

Anthopoulos had hoped to land another top starter at the trade deadline but the only deal he was able to make was acquiring journeyman Tommy Milone from the Orioles. He’s on the injured list after getting hammered in three starts for the Braves, giving up 22 hits and 16 runs in just 9 2/3 innings.

“There’s no doubt that our starting pitching has not performed to the level we wanted it to or expected it to,” Anthopoulos said. “I know that each year you never have all parts of your club firing. That’s why depth is so important.”

Hamels, who signed an $18 million, one-year contract last December, reported for spring training with a sore shoulder stemming from an offseason workout.

When camps were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hamels was able to take a more cautious approach to his rehabilitation. But a triceps issue sidelined again before the delayed start of the season in July.

The Braves hoped Hamels would return in time to provide a boost for the playoffs. He also was scheduled to start the final game of the regular season Sunday, putting him in position to join the postseason rotation behind Fried and Anderson.

Now, Hamels is done for the year, his Braves’ career possibly ending after he made that one appearance last week in Baltimore. He went 3 1/3 innings, giving up three runs on three hits, with two strikeouts and one walk in a loss to the Orioles.

Hamels reported no problems immediately after his start, but he didn’t feel right after a bullpen session a couple of days ago.

“You’re not going to try to talk the player into it,” Anthopoulos said. “When he says he isn’t right, that’s all we need to hear.”

Atlanta recalled right-hander Bryse Wilson to replace Hamels on the 28-man roster. The Braves did not immediately name a starter for Tuesday’s game.

With Hamels out, the Braves will apparently go with Fried (7-0, 1.96), Anderson (3-1, 2.36) and Kyle Wright (2-4, 5.74) as their top three postseason starters.

Hamels is a four-time All-Star with a career record of 163-122. He starred on Philadelphia’s World Series-winning team in 2008 and also pitched for Texas and the Chicago Cubs.

Last season, Hamels went 7-7 with a 3.81 ERA in 27 starts for the Cubs.