The Schumaker Conundrum

Patrick McDermott

Or, A Brief History of The Second Base Mediocrity Matrix

Skip Schumaker is a Los Angeles Dodger now, and his time in St. Louis has come to an end. Thus comes to a close one of the most important eras in St. Louis Cardinal history. When later we all look back, when the history books are written, this shall be known as The Skip Era. Or the Time of the 'Maker. (Pronounced like mock-er, 'cause otherwise that just sounds weird.)

Okay, so perhaps it isn't such a dramatic day after all. The Cardinals traded a middling, mediocre veteran 'tweener (that's the third word I've used so far that begins with an apostrophe, out of less than 100 words; isn't that strange?), who didn't have a real spot on the roster for some middling prospect in mid-December. Not exactly world-shaking stuff.

On the other hand, more ink has been spilled over Skip Schumaker specifically than virtually any other player in recent memory, with the possible exception of Anthony Reyes, which is kind of fascinating to me. Why in the world would we all care so very much about a utility infielder/outfielder who doesn't do anything particularly well, but also never embarrassed himself, or the organisation, in the course of his playing career? I'm not saying this as a disinterested observer, either; don't think I claim to be at all above the fray. I've typed more words than I care to count on the subject of Skip Schumaker over the years, and it's honestly kind of tough for me to figure out why.

So I was thinking about it. Trying to figure out why, on a team with 24 other players, Skip so consistently merited pagespace that could easily have gone to other things. And I think, maybe, I kind of understand. The Schumaker Debates (or 'bates, as I shall call them, and that's four -- actually, I'll say 'Maker 'Bates, and that's five and six), were only tangentially about him, really. The 'Maker 'Bates (feels good to say in your head, doesn't it?), were about Tony La Russa. And, well, us. What we want and what we value from our baseball team. And Tony La Russa.

I'll admit it: I thought Skip to Second was genius. I really did. I was all in favour of the move when it happened. The Skip Experiment was fine by me. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. You had a commodity, a guy whose bat was good enough you wanted him in the lineup more often than what it was, and you had an opportunity, in a second base position that had seen more guys come and go than (insert promiscuous female celebrity with large breasts joke). So you move the one into the other, and voila! instant fix.

Except, of course, it didn't work that way. Nothing was fixed, instantly or otherwise. And Skip Schumaker, the inoffensive fourth/fifth outfielder became The Skip Schumaker Experiment, a referendum on the soul of our baseball team.

For good and for ill, Skip to second base represented both the best and worst qualities of Tony La Russa. On the good side, you had Tony's restlessness, his commitment to always doing something to try and find an edge, no matter how unconventional. Sure, moving a player from one position to another may not seem all that radical, but remember, this was a player who had never played a single inning at the position he was being asked to fill at any level of professional ball. And yes, I remember the whole 'he played it in college' thing, but that doesn't count. Lots of us did lots of weird things in college. Some of us drank too much, some joined the Krishnas, some took mind-altering substances, some experimented with lipstick lesbianism for a little while, some of us played middle infield. That's just how college is.

Moving an outfielder to an infield position, on a semi-permanent and more or less full-time basis is a radical move. We just don't really realise it so much because it's exactly the sort of thing we got used to seeing in life with Tony. I remember in Three Nights in August, the Buzz Bissinger book about La Russa that came out in, what, 2006?, he was discussing at great length La Russa's philosophies and where they came from. It wasn't a book that got everything right, by any means, but there were some things it got really right, and I thought this was one of them. I don't recall now what coach it was who told La Russa early on (and I don't have the book with me at the moment), that it was his team, and he needed to do...something. That's not me failing to remember what the thing was Tony was supposed to do; that was the advice. It's your team, you have to do something to try and make it go. Essentially, the only truly wrong action was inaction. I think it's fair to say La Russa took the notion to heart.

That was the good side of the Skip Experiment, and of Tony La Russa in general. The man was never afraid to think outside that metaphorical box that gets tossed around far too often nowadays (seriously, can you remember a time when that phrase was still both novel and somewhat meaningful? I can), and when things were going less than optimally, you could always count on Tony to do...something.

Then there was the other side of the Skip to Second paradigm, in which we saw the not-so-admirable qualities of Tony La Russa. The stubbornness. The inability to recognise when an idea was failing (mostly a product of his later years, it seems to me), and move to correct it. The fierce loyalty to players who had won his respect -- but only those select players -- and the love for those who always have dirt somewhere on their uniform, even when said dirt is the result of continual, ill-advised diving into first base. There was a dogmatic, unbending side to La Russa as well, the side that kept him running Skip Schumaker out to second base night after night even after his play at second was booed by a group of school children on a field trip from St. Mary's School for the Blind. There was the hubris at work, too; the tendency of Tony to see players as interchangeable parts that he alone could maneuver into winning. Chess pieces on a green board, rather than the players who ultimately decided the outcomes themselves. In the world of always doing something, the plan is the importantest thing of all, and the man with the plan is the mastermind pulling the strings that make the whole cavalcade dance.

And, of course, the Schumaker angst was about us. You had an idea which, on the surface, was so elegant and in line with modern thinking, that you move a player to the most difficult position he can handle, rather than being trapped in the same old ruts of old school baseball thought. Then there was the actual experience of watching Skip Schumaker play second base, which I will now analogise by hanging a five pound dumbbell from my testicles and doing some jumping jacks.

The old schoolers hated the move; it proved everything they ever believed. The new schoolers liked it, then hated it, because it just didn't work. It was a proxy for Crazy Tony talk, with only the pitcher hitting eighth thing arousing more passive-aggresive banality in debate of. Throw in the offensive profile of empty batting average with weak on-base skills, a multi-year contract, and the ridiculous, ridiculous diving into first, and you have a recipe for endless debate over something that just...doesn't merit it.

In the end, Skip Schumaker was an extra outfielder. He could hit for average, but no power, and he liked to swing the bat a bunch. He couldn't run, even though he seemed like he should be able to. He was a decent enough outfielder, as long as you kept him out of center. Good arm. Probably the only thing that was never discussed much, honestly; the guy's arm mostly spoke for its owndamnself.

And somehow, Skip Schumaker became a symbol, a referendum, on a thousand different things about the manager who defined the Cardinals for the past decade and a half, and a point of debate contention that revealed as much about what those in the argument valued and wanted from their game and their team as it ever did the subject of the debate himself. Perhaps it's just an indication of how good we've had it that a mediocrity on the margins like this should have engendered such passion; only those with good lives get to argue about the trivial, after all. But I don't think that's all there is to it.

When the history books are written, the past nine years will not be known as the Skip Schumaker Era. I can almost guarantee that. Nor will the last few be known as the Skip to Second Years. But somehow, this middling utility outfielder became the symbol of The Cardinal Way, not the historic version journalists like to talk about, but some bizarro universe version of it where the name penciled in at 4 every night seemed to almost occasionally be the most telling thing about our collective situation.

And now, he's gone. We have to find something else to argue about.

I have to admit I'm a little sad.

Goodbye, Skip. And good luck.

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