Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Guy Who Used To Be Good Who Is Now Good Again Award

At least, that's what they should call Major League Baseball's Comeback Player of the Year Award. For those who missed it, this year's winners were Jim Thome and Nomar Garciaparra. While those choices are certainly acceptable, since both Nomar and JIM missed significant time in 2005 due to injury and had outstanding seasons this year, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about their "comebacks," especially in Nomar's case, because Nomar actually hit well when he was healthy a year ago. Not as well as he did this season, but he hardly dropped to a level where a serious "comeback" would be deemed necessary.

What's appalling, however, is the list of nominees for the award. The nominees, six in each league, are determined by a panel of staff with the winners decided by fan voting. The presence of players such as Carlos Beltran, who was actually healthier last season than he was this season, and Edgar Renteria, who really had to rebound from a .276 batting average in 623 at-bats with the Boston Red Sox in 2005, is sickening. Is pure ineptitude now a severe ailment from which one can "come back?"

In my eyes, the most deserving player on the list would have been Seattle's Rafael Soriano. Soriano looked like he was on the fast track to becoming a dominant reliever as a 23-year-old in 2003, but tore a ligament in his elbow and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. The operation caused him to miss nearly the entire 2004 and 2005 seasons, and it wasn't until this year that Soriano finally got back on track, posting a 2.25 ERA for the Mariners. That's much more impressive to me than Nomar finally having an injury-free season and about a million times more impressive to me than Edgar Renteria playing like his head isn't in his ass.

I suppose the reason this issue irks me so much is because, as a Pirates fan, I got to witness the best comeback story of the last 15 years, and probably one of the best comeback stories in the history of baseball, and it has, for the most part, been completely ignored by the media.

Salomon Torres was the pride of the San Francisco Giants farm system, hailed by some as the next Juan Marichal. He made his Major League debut as a 21-year-old in 1993 and started strong but then lost four of five decisions after Labor Day, all while the Giants were in the midst of a heated pennant race with Atlanta in the N.L. West. Still, Sal got the ball on the very last game of the season. If the Giants won, they would be tied with the Braves at the top of the West. Lose, and they would be watching the playoffs on television. Torres melted down, allowing five hits and five walks in 3 1/3 innings against the Dodgers. Torres only yielded three runs, but the Giants would never recover, going on to lose the game, 12-1, and missing out on an NLCS appearance.

Some Torres' subsequent baseball odyssey to that game, but for whatever reason, he was simply unable to get it together after that. The Giants gave up on him within two years, and he floated from Seattle to Montreal, without any success whatsoever, and on August 1, 1997, he called it quits and returned to his native Dominican Republic. He was just 25.

He spent the next four years dicking around in the D.R. and teaching 8-year-old kids how to pitch. In 2001, he got the itch to throw a baseball again, and went and trained with Samsung of the Korean League. A Pirates scout saw Torres throw in the Dominican Winter League after the 2001 season, and convinced the team to offer him a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. In Florida, it was obvious Torres was still rusty, but he was given the opportunity to start every fifth game in Nashville, at the time the home Pirates' AAA affiliate.

Torres, now 30, looked stronger as the season wore on, and was rewarded with a September audition with the big-league club. On September 3, 2002, Salomon Torres pitched 8 1/3 shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves, in his first appearance in a Major League uniform in over five years.

After an effective five-start cameo that fall, Torres spent the 2003 season bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, never finding a niche and looking like perhaps his feel-good story would come to an end. However, in 2004, the Pirates decided to move Torres to the bullpen full-time, and he flourished, on the strength of a rubber arm, a nasty slider, and a diving splitter. Since then, he has become one of the most reliable and consistent relievers in all of baseball.

That's what I call a comeback.

If I ran the world, Sal would get a five-year cushion in which to win the Comeback Player of the Year award since five years is the amount of time he spent sitting on his ass coaching Little Leaguers in the Dominican.

Unfortunately, Salomon Torres is a middle reliever on a team that has been shitty since, well, before Sal made his Major League debut. He doesn't hit home runs, steal bases, make highlight reel catches, or strike out ten batters a game, and even though his comeback is far more impressive than anything Carlos Beltran has had to "come back" from, he probably won't ever get recognized for it.

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