Spring Training And The Principle Of Carpe Diem
In the film Dead Poet’s Society, the teacher played by Robin Williams inspired his students to achieve their dreams with a simple two word phrase that meant so much: carpe diem. It’s a Latin expression that, roughly translated, means “seize the day.” Throughout the course of the film, the students learned that they had only one chance in this life, and every day mattered in the pursuit of what they most desired.
It’s a simple yet profound lesson for everyone, of course, but it takes on even more urgency with athletes. Unlike other professions, athletes have a relatively-short shelf life even when they’re successful. Every play and every at-bat is another chance to prove one’s worth before the body finally stops performing. It’s up to the individual to make the most of those chances when they come.
The Cardinals’ spring training camp has provided an abject lesson in the principle of carpe diem. Two gifted athletes, faced with the same opportunity, are taking radically-different approaches. One has seized the day, while the other has, sadly, seized up.
The Ballad Of Tyler Greene
Based on pure athleticism, Tyler Greene might be the best prospect in the Cardinals’ system since Rick Ankiel. Greene has it all: strong arm, terrific speed, and a bat that rakes for line drives and extra-base power. He has dominated every level of minor league play. Greene has a .300 average in his last three years in the minors while averaging 13 homers a year (with an average of 300 at bats per year). He had an OPS of 1.001 last year, which is Pujolsian. Greene seemed to be a lock to become a star in the majors.
Unfortunately, every time the Cardinals offered Greene a shot at making the major league team, he would stumble. Over parts of three seasons, Greene has an anemic .218 batting average with a Theriot-like slugging percentage of .313. Baseballs have bounced off of his head for errors multiple times. Watching Greene play baseball in the majors was often like watching someone try to play catch with a dog that had lost a couple of legs in a car accident – SAD and DISTURBING.
The popular notion was that Tony La Russa had so terrified the nervous young man that he couldn’t play baseball properly in front of him. This is understandable. Many young players have been ruined while undergoing the TLR hazing ritual. La Russa’s impenetrable facial expressions and glassy, hateful gaze would make a redwood tree give up and die, so you can’t really blame Greene (or anyone) for being nervous around him. It would be like playing baseball in Hell with the Devil as your manager.
Many hoped that Greene might snap out of his funk now that TLR has moved on, replaced by the warm embrace of new manager Mike Matheny. John Mozeliak all but anointed Greene as the new second baseman. The chance is right there for the taking. Unfortunately, Greene has not responded. He’s batting just .235 after a couple of strong games (he’s been under .200 most of the spring). He has NINE STRIKEOUTS in 35 at-bats. He had an error in yesterday’s game that led to a run.
Greene has everything right in front of him – pure athleticism and the faith (and patience) of a world champion organization. Yet, he cannot or will not seize the opportunity. Frustrating!
Erik Komatsu has been bouncing around between organizations for several years. He refused to sign with the Yankees in 2007, which showed some intelligence. Then he was picked up by the Brewers in 2008, where he played in their minor league system until he was traded to the Nationals in 2011. The Cardinals picked him up in the Rule 5 draft.
Despite a four year minor league average of .302, Komatsu has never been considered to be star material. Part of the problem is a glut of outfielders in the minors with better numbers. Also, Komatsu doesn’t have as much power as most clubs would like see from a major league outfielder (just 24 homers in four years). Komatsu himself seems to indicate that he doesn’t think he is a major prospect, listing “music producer” as his other potential profession.
Yet, Komatsu finds himself confronted by a perfect opportunity: the World Champion Cardinals have taken him as a Rule 5 draftee and are playing him every day. This is Komatsu’s moment, and he’s making the most of it. Komatsu is batting .294 with four extra base hits (including two triples) in 34 at-bats (nearly leading the team). He also leads the team with five steals. He has blended in perfectly with Matheny’s new offensive strategy.
Two players. Similar opportunity. One is seizing this moment that may never come again, and the other is not. A variety of factors come into play here, but the number one lesson to be learned is that, to be successful, one must make the most of every chance that comes along. It would be a shame if Greene only understood that when he’s released and his playing days were over far too soon.