Game of Chones

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You are Adam Kennedy. You had a fruitful career in professional baseball, earning more than $20 million and winning a World Series ring with the 2002 Angels. You hit only 80 regular season homers over 14 seasons, but belted three in one American League Championship Series game. You retired from the game at the age of 36 after a partial season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now you tweet, occasionally. It is March 29, and you see the Dodgers 25-man roster. You see a ghost.

The ghost is of your longtime rival, Chone Figgins, who you basically put out of baseball three years ago. You have never had much love for the man. In 2006, you nearly started a clubhouse brawl when Figgins failed to advance to third during one of your at-bats, and despite a public détente in which you backed down for the cameras, you never had much use for your Angels teammate. You’d leave him, and Anaheim, for the Cardinals at the end of the year, and he’d take your spot at second base, and that would be that.

Only it wasn’t. Figgins would sign a lucrative deal to become the Seattle Mariners’ starting second baseman in 2010, and it would go horribly wrong, to the point that the team would sign you to play second in 2011, with Figgins shifting to third. Eventually, Figgins’ problems would get so bad that he would be replaced as the third baseman too, and you’d replace him, again.

This was poetic justice, you thought—and then it got better. You’d leave Seattle for L.A. in 2012, but you knew Mariners manager Eric Wedge had publicly said Figgins wasn’t an option for the fourth-place team, and that Figgins barely played before getting DFA'd in November. Jobless at age 35, he showed up in Miami and failed to make a 2013 Marlins team that would lose 100 games. You thought, like anyone, that his career was over, and you had helped make it happen.

Now the world is literally upside down, and you are watching the Diamondbacks and Dodgers play in the Southern Hemisphere, and Figgins is on first base in Sydney, Australia. He has made a $235 million Dodgers squad, earned a pinch-hit opportunity and worked a walk to first. You feel like a dingo ate your dream. You decide to do the only thing you can do. You tweet:

You are aware, of course, that you played in the exact utility role on the same team earlier, one that boasted a $200 million payroll after its trade for Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. You were also 36. But you don’t care. You had watched the man die, and maybe you had a drink or a bad day, and here he was, and it was all too much, so you hit send.

***

Chone Figgins said he hadn’t heard of anybody by that name. He wanted to help them, this group of reporters sniffing out a beef, but he couldn’t talk about something he had never encountered. Adam Kennedy? A former teammate? It didn’t ring a bell. "I don't know who that is. Who?" he asked. "If I knew who it was, I would [comment]. But I don't."

He was smiling as he said it. It took a long time just to get where he was, which is back in the game, alive again even if for who-knows-how-long.

When Figgins shipped off to Seattle in 2010 he was the reigning major league steals leader and coming off a nearly 8 WAR season in Anaheim for which he finished tenth in the MVP voting. He signed a three year contract for $27 million—his career earnings double Kennedy's—and proceeded to lose the M's one win over the course of the deal. It was a total professional disaster, the kind that tests the faith-to-cause of those involved.

Figgins thought he was done, but here he was, earning a tenth of what he made when in 2012 and playing the most minor of roles, and it was his best act yet. “It’s almost more gratifying than getting called up to the big leagues,” he told the Los Angeles Times’ Dylan Hernandez when he made the team. As of this writing, Figgins is 1-5 with three walks in eight appearances in the Dodgers’ first 15 games, and he is an obvious candidate to be designated for assignment at some point during the year. There is an argument that he doesn’t belong at all.

That argument has been made by Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, in a notably more fleshed-out version of Adam Kennedy's take. Cameron said during a season preview podcast that the presence of both Figgins and Dee Gordon on a team worth $2 billion is troubling enough to their title chances to give him pause. Right now Gordon is hitting and Figgins is sitting, but this is what Figgins signed up to do. I’ll bet he’s loving every second of it.

We tend to think of contracts as being assigned by the team, that the Dodgers “gave” Figgins the contract, but from the point of view of the player, it can be as simple as taking the job in front of you. If that job is to pinch hit with a .400 OBP, so be it: You still have to take the job, and Figgins took this one. It’s the classic utilityman’s role, and one uniquely well-suited to a guy who was miscast in a star role in Seattle. It also dovetails with what we know about Figgins’ work ethic, and why Kennedy may have been aggravated by him. As writer Mike Salk said at the time of his conflict with Wedge:

Figgins is a difficult guy to describe. He has been called many things by many people. Some teammates love him. They appreciate how hard he worked to get to where he is and admire the dedication that allowed a player of his stature to flourish in the league. They understand a little attitude because they know he needed to develop it in order to outlast the doubters.

Other teammates could live without it. They see him as aloof. They don't think he makes an effort to be a part of the team concept. Certainly, battle lines were drawn when Figgins first sulked after being pinch-hit for, later complained when he was dropped to ninth in the order, and ultimately lashed out after being yanked from a game.

If you blanched at “team concept,” jinx. The “team concept” corresponds more or less directly with a team’s record, and when things go bad the finger-pointing is usually of its own foul quality. Look at Figgins now, doing the tiniest of things in L.A.—basically invisible, but still there. Insofar as the individual and team goals of baseball are almost always aligned, anyone who’s looking out only for himself and still attains any degree of success would be spectacularly lucky. It’s basically impossible to play well and not grasp the “team concept.”

It is funny to see that Figgins is one that has been accused of me-firsting, considering his hysteria-inducing environment. He’s just down the bench from Yasiel Puig, who has been accused of not grasping the “team concept” while playing well, and that it’s pretty much exactly what was said of Figgins shows exactly how incisive it is, which is to say: not at all. Figgins at his loudest couldn’t be heard on this team. He’s a grasshopper among elephants, storks, and boars.

But he is, unquestionably, part of the ecosystem. Whether it’s due to an as-yet-unquantified measurement of veteranism, rank stupidity on the part of a Dodgers executive or by legitimate, honest-to-shit magic, Figgins is right here, right now, and he fits. The minor characters in any story are the heart of their own stories. Figgins’ return to the majors is a real-life ghost story, in a way, and pretty damn cool one at that.

It certainly worked on Adam Kennedy.

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