Saturday, May 20, 2006
By Tim McManus
A man whom we did not recognize smiled broadly, draped in a Venezuelan flag on that July night as he raised his hat toward a roaring crowd.
“This is something amazing,” said Bobby Abreu, his Phillies cap drowned out by a pungent orange All-Star jersey and the oversized Home Run Derby trophy cradled in his arms. “I don’t know if I can sleep tonight.”
The pure-swinging, base-ravaging outfielder was lauded by the national press as an incumbent superstar, destined to elevate above the hometown boos and into the elite class of Major League Baseball.
Back at the ranch, hope sprang through the weeds. Never before had Phillies fans seen No. 53 consume the spotlight with such authority. His passion for the game had always been hidden behind level lips, monotone mutterings and unchanging mannerisms. Finally his true persona shattered the statue, announcing the emergence of the player we’d always wished him to be.
This was the start of something big.
As is the fate of this city, things did not go as envisioned. The man who shattered the Home Run Derby record managed just six homers in the second half of the season, hitting just .260 over those games thanks to a prolonged slump. Once the pinstripes were placed back on the body the free-spirited, inspired demeanor devolved into the business-like personality of old.
Though the fans waited and waited, Abreu never expressed feelings similar to the ones he exuded during All-Star weekend. He didn't forecast any more sleepless nights.
As defenders of Abreu and outsiders alike will quickly point out, his numbers in 2005 still read: .286 BA, 24 HR, 102 RBI, 31 SB. He has put up similar if not superior figures for seven years and counting, and will likely continue to for another fistful of seasons.
He is a model of consistency. And while that is reason for applause on some level, it is also the reason why he gets showered with negative criticism in this town.
For an example, look no further than Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox. Following Chase Utley’s two-run double in the bottom of the seventh, Abreu came to the plate representing the tying run. In a spot that demands aggressiveness, Abreu approached his at-bat like any other and ultimately struck out looking to end the rally.
While it is true that he was the most productive Phillie over the evening as a whole, finishing 2-for-3 with a double, it is undeniable that his backwards K cemented that game’s outcome.
And that is not to pin the blame on Abreu. Other batters could have come through when he was on the base paths earlier in the contest, Lieber could have pitched better, etc. And the knock on Abreu, on a larger scale, is not even that he is un-clutch (He is, after all, leading the team in hitting with runners in scoring position).
The point is that baseball is a situational game, and when defining moments arise, there are certain players in the league that zone in accordingly. This is what has made Derek Jeter, for instance, a sure-fire hall of Famer, while players with similar or better numbers overall will not even be considered.
For a more direct reference, players like Utley and Ryan Howard have demonstrated an ability to produce in big spots during their short time in the majors, leading to an overwhelming amount of fanfare while Abreu remains the focus of criticism.
Some say it’s a lack of effort on Abreu’s part; others contend that he is simply a choker.
Ultimately, neither of those arguments are valid.
In the end, the only thing that’s truly missing from Abreu’s arsenal is a killer instinct, an ability to realize when the game lies in his hands alone, and the desire to crush that moment into the right-field seats.
As evidenced during that All-Star weekend in ’05, there is superstardom in this man, a character that oozes passion and charisma and a hunger for center stage.
The boos are nothing more than a plea for him to assume that lead role for a town desperate to embrace him.
You can contact Tim McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org