Thursday, September 23, 2021

About Last Night: Wade LeBlanc, journey no more

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Journeymen pitchers and being Good Enough

Despite the fact that Wade LeBlanc has pitched over a hundred innings as a Seattle Mariner, we’ve never written a 40 in 40 profile on him. The 40 in 40 player previews are written before Spring Training, culminating on the last day before the first spring game, like a tiny trail of breadcrumbs leading you out of winter and back to baseball. Wade LeBlanc has never been a Seattle Mariner during that time, though—he was a mid-season import from Toronto in 2016 and a late-spring signing this year after Erasmo Ramirez went down with a lat injury—and so he has never gotten a 40 in 40 of his own.

In selecting a cover image for this story, it’s surprising how quickly team colors flick past: blue and green, to a brief flash of pinstripes, to black and yellow, back to blue and green again, then red…and that’s as far back as this particular photo tool went. If I had gone into one of the archival photo sets, there would have been more pinstripes, more red, some orange and navy, and those awful camo uniforms the Padres wore in the early 2010s (he did manage to miss out on the Marlins vest-pinstripe combo, getting there the year of the rebrand). Wade LeBlanc is the ur-journeyman pitcher, the kind of player about whom young pitchers are gathered around the campfire and told ghost stories (and some say you can still hear him tossing the rosin bag against the mound and calling for the catcher to run the signs again…). He’s played for seven different teams, some of them twice, plus another one if you want to count his stint in Japan; he’s worked as a starter, reliever, and mop-up man; as a player who’s been DFA’d seven times in his career, he goes where people tell him to go, and does what people tell him to do. “I pitch until they tell me to stop pitching,” he told a reporter earlier this season who asked him about his “process.” You know how the Flintstones have a menagerie of put-upon animals that are submitted to various household chores, and when the camera zooms in they shrug and say, “it’s a living”? Those animals are all, every one of them, Wade LeBlanc.

So when Wade LeBlanc signed his contract extension yesterday, making him a Mariner through 2019 and beyond, if it pleases the baseball gods, it’s not a big surprise that the first thing he spoke at length about wasn’t the money—a significant raise for someone who’s never had a seven-figure salary—but the security of knowing where his family is going to be to start next season. He also doesn’t have to think about pitching well enough to keep his career afloat; a career he once thought was dead after he came back from Japan and realized he’d “fallen off the map.” All Wade has to do is show up and keep being himself. In the press conference after yesterday’s game, Shannon Drayer asked Wade who he is on the mound now compared to three or four years ago. “Each time I go out there, I’m much more comfortable with who I am as a pitcher,” he replied. “I’ve always known who I am as a person, but to understand the stuff I have, and it’s good enough to pitch at this level if I execute and use it correctly, to understand proper sequencing and what guys are trying to do off me…I understand that now, and I’m more comfortable and confident with who I am as a pitcher.”

It seems odd for a thirty-plus journeyman pitcher to speak about just starting to understand himself as a pitcher. Listening to the interview, I’m drawn to the way Wade emphasizes good enough in the quote above. Wanting to be good enough is one of the deepest human longings—good enough to be respected, good enough to be loved, good enough to be considered deserving of good things in life. It’s also a fear: you need to be good enough at your job in order to keep it, a margin that’s razor-thin for people who throw baseballs for a living. For years, Wade has heard about how his stuff isn’t good enough to get out major league hitters. Every article where Wade LeBlanc shuts down the opposition is written with a touch of incredulity. This guy is shutting us down?

But the 30s are also a time of making peace with your life and your body. You learn about what good enough actually is, as you collect and lose love, get hired and fired and hired again, and develop a taste for scotch. You learn that limits can be useful things, because they give you a defined space in which to see how far you can stretch, and force you to be creative and thoughtful in how you approach these limits. The wild experimentation and wandering in the wilderness of the 20s is over, and you can focus on winnowing your knowledge down to the truest and most necessary things. Like sharpening your cutter into a weapon that carves up batters, or adding some extra nasty sink to your changeup. Instead of trying to fit in with what other pitchers are doing, Wade is working on being his best Wade, and the Mariners rewarded him for it. Wade doesn’t have to worry about being good enough. He can simply know he is.

Lay down your pack, Wade. Your journey is over for a while. I’ll just be over here, getting a head start on your 40 in 40 for next year.

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